A halfway intelligent lance corporal knows that the Afghans are sick of our presence, are united by xenophobic nationalism, and that a great many are skeptical of the kleptocratic Afghan government and military. So the following exchange with General Petraeus suggests a man whose demand for precision ebbs and flows with his desire for a particualr conclusion:
When asked whether nationalism is putting down roots in Afghanistan‘s tribalized society, Gen. David Petraeus is judicious: “I don’t know that I could say that.” He adds, however, that “we do polling” on that subject. When his questioner expresses skepticism about the feasibility of psephology — measuring opinion — concerning an abstraction such as nationalism in a chaotic, secretive and suspicious semi-nation, Petraeus, his pride aroused, protests: “I took research methodology” at Princeton.
Some things can’t be put into a powerpoint slide. They just are known intuitively, based on long experience with the people involved. We lack this experience in Afghanistan. We lack this experience in Iraq. We are trying to do some good things, and we are doing them honorably on the whole, but the payoff in terms of national security is hard to see. The alternative–the occasional punitive raid–seems more easily accomplished and more consistent with the primitive conditions of these nations, as well as the limitations of the American government and American military.
I certainly respect Petraeus’ intelligence and his broader view than many of his peers. That said, his apparent penchant for statistics in the inchoate realm of counterinsurgency suggests a certain hubris. He is understandably unlikely to announce when the strategy and overall mission are destined to fail. He is an impressive “can do” person. That said, the mediocre results in Iraq have been redefined as a great victory, even though Iraq is securely in Iran’s orbit and is still a violent, unfriendly place. His remarks on “methodology” in particular reminded me of something John Lukacs wrote critical of certain tendencies in academia in his book Historical Consciousness:
For the image of the people-obscured as it is by rhetoric and obfuscated by statistics–is an elusive phenomenon. We live in an age of democracy, of popular sovereignty, of popular rule: but who are the people? Intelligent opponents as well as some of the proponent of modern democracy recgnized that of Aristotle’s ‘s three principal types of government–monarchy, aristocracy, democracy–the last one, government by the people, by the many, is the most difficult. But there more to this. Rule by “the people” is not only difficult; it is also the most complex; and the most abstract. It is abstract, because while it is possible to find out, and later relatively easy to reconstruct, what a certain ruler wanted, or even what a ruling group wanted, who can say what “the people” wanted–with any reasonable degree of certainty.
General Petraeus needs to consider this. We don’t know Afghanistan. Polling of the smallish number of accessible Afghans in the city won’t change that. We don’t know Afghanistan, in part, because of the failure to train up specialists in the relevant languages that could help us know what the hell these people are saying, thinking, writing to one another, and the like. We are, in spite of ourselves, the arrogant, ugly American, giving people what they don’t want and surprised when they turn around and want to kill us and our proxies.