Conventional wisdom in Afghanistan is changing. Just a few months ago, calling for a smaller footprint approach focused on counter-terrorism was labasted as “half-assed” and worse. And people calling for such an approach were accused of being ignorant and labeled as extreme peaceniks. But times change, I guess because it is becoming increasingly clear that we are moving in the direction of this position.
But I don’t actually want to talk about Afghanistan. I want to talk about pundits and analysts instead. What is most surprising about this collective change of heart is few unexpected development we’ve seen. I mean, the Afghan surge has, by any reasonable measure, worked as well as any reasonable person could expect. Not to be nasty about it, but anyone who expected that Karzai would either be willing or able to eliminate corruption in six months understands nothing about corruption. And similarly, anyone who thought the military campaign against the Taliban would go better obvious has no understanding of either counter-insurgency nor of the Taliban in particular.
The one thing that has actually changed is that due to McChrystal’s inept forays into trying to shape public opinion, the possibility of a second surge is now significantly less likely. Was that an implicit assumption for people who supported the massive escalation of the Afghan war? Maybe. I can’t get any of them to admit it to me. At most people will acknowledge that they had hoped to weaken or eliminated the 2011 timeline for reducing forces.
So, here is the deal. You have a group of pundits and analysts who recommended a course of action in August-December 2009. Then in Summer 2010, many of them have reverse course despite the fact that nothing unforeseeable has occurred in the meantime. On one hand, it is great that they are willing to reconsider their arguments, but I am surprised by how few of them seem at all chastened by the experience.
A personal aside. I was a supporter of the Iraq war. As it became clear that there was no active WMD program in Iraq and as the costs of the war escalated, I came to regret my support for the war. But unlike many prominent pundits today, this really shook me. I had a book manuscript on use of force issues about 80% done at the time, and I just shelved it because the Iraq war really made me go back and rethink a lot of assumptions. Indeed, I wrote very little for the next couple of YEARS because having been so wrong made me doubt my judgment. Probably, I went overboard. I’ve always been overly critical of my own work, and as a result I’ve published less than I probably should.
But there has to be some middle path because paralysing self-doubt from being wrong and a sort of glib unwillingness to either admit any errors or even pause in one’s punditry for even a moment. I dunno, but if I had recommended escalation in December, and was now in August calling for a reassessment of Afghan policy or even explictly recommending a small footprint approach, I was be engaging the debate with more caution and modesty than I see in many of the new converts. I find it vaguely sociopathic to be willing to argue positions 180 degrees at a remove from previous arguments when only six months have passed. But there you go.