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Getting back to basics is the way out of Afghanistan

Think tanks being what they are -- large meat lockers in which future government bureaucrats are stored until needed -- the reports they produce tend to be little more than exercises in reputation management. They state the obvious, then slather it in a bland, nutrient-free sauce of quasi-academic qualifications that seek to explain why they are really not saying anything new or practical. The best of them offer course corrections that are minuscule at best, and new ideas are as hard to find as honest politicians in the Karzai administration.

Which brings us to the latest such report to be issued, one that proves to be the exception to the rule. That report is "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan" from the New America Foundation. It is one of the very few such documents that I have recently read and found myself nodding at almost every turn of the page. It is so good that it almost restores my youthful belief in the potential benefits of putting smart people around a table and letting them cogitate and argue and bullshit and grapple with tough problems. Produced by a glittering group of wonks, it contains real thoughtful insights into America's situation in Afghanistan and comes to sound, generally implementable conclusions about what the United States should do to avoid making a very bad situation even worse.

The report is well summarized in an article by Steve Clemons, one of its architects, that appears in Politico. In short, it makes the case that spending $100 billion a year to fight a war we can't win in Afghanistan is just one of several reasons that America's policies are misguided and demand immediate correction. He writes, "Though Obama is more likeable, and often more inspiring, than the fictional captain in the Melville novel, Afghanistan has now become the Moby Dick to Obama's Ahab."

The report begins by revisiting the forgotten territory of America's initial reasons to be involved in the region in the first place. It correctly notes there are only two: preventing Afghanistan from being a staging ground for further terrorist attacks against the United States, and doing what we can to reduce the threat that Pakistani weapons of mass destruction might fall into the wrong hands. It argues correctly that if we focus on these two goals, then our mission, military and diplomatic presence in the region would and should look very different.

It makes five key recommendations. The first is promoting power sharing and political inclusion in a more decentralized Afghanistan: In other words, trying to work with rather than against the historical and cultural tides in the country. Second is downsizing and ending military operations in southern Afghanistan and reducing the military presence there. Third is focusing the military's attention on Al Qaeda, which is no longer really present in Afghanistan but remains an issue in Pakistan. (Notably, the New America group suggests using the cost-savings the drawdown would produce to bolster U.S. domestic security and contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction worldwide.) Fourth is encouraging the promotion of economic development, while emphasizing that this should be an internationally rather than U.S. led effort. (Hallelujah to that.) Finally, it recommends collaborating with influential states in the region to ensure Afghanistan is not dominated by "any single power or being permanently a failed state that exports instability." The report notes that those states -- Pakistan, India, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- aren't the best of pals, but suggests correctly that there are ways to work with each or even small clusters of them to promote these outcomes that are, for the most part, in their interests.

Point five is a bit of a stretch. Point four is more or less boilerplate, though worthy of emphasizing. The reality is that Afghanistan will become a strongman dominated quasi-failed state, but that as long as our core goals in the region -- the two mentioned above -- are met, then we should be less concerned with whatever structure produces an outcome supportive of them.

Personally, I think the international community needs to be involved actively in ensuring that whatever successor state emerges, the rights of all Afghans -- and notably women and tribal minorities -- are respected and protected. It is also true that Pakistan is the real problem and appropriate subject of U.S. attention in this region, and that this requires forthrightly addressing what diplomatic and force structure is required to promote stability and contain threats within that country.

But this report is clear-eyed, direct, well-argued and in its tone even more than its substance sends a message that the only door we should head for in that country is the one with the exit sign over it. In Clemons article he notes that the United States spends seven times Afghanistan's own GDP on our involvement there -- an amount equal to the cost of the recent U.S. health care legislation, and one that if saved could pay down the U.S. deficit in 14 years. The recklessness and irresponsibility of such a costly involvement, given America's other urgent priorities and the true nature of the threats within Afghanistan, makes the blood boil.

It does no dishonor to our military to wish their lives and services were available for other missions. Reports like this raise the hope that opinion is shifting in ways that may lead us to just such a desirable outcome.

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David Rothkopf

Common sense trumps economic mumbojumbo

In today's Financial Times, Gideon Rachman has written a compelling piece called "Sweep economists off their throne." You can guess at the substance from the title, but the thrust is that Rachman was trained as a historian with a resulting bias toward basing conclusions on things that actually happened and that he has grown tired of the claims of economists that theirs is a field that "resembles hard science such as physics or chemistry" concluding, "maybe it is time for an alternative to the brash certainties, peddled by those pseudo-scientists, otherwise known as economists."

His use and reuse of the term "science" underscores just how abused it is by economists who claim rigor and scientific method but regularly produce work that is seldom more than guess-work clouded by politics. Evidence is everywhere to support this view, which is precisely why so many economists seem to have missed the point given that evidence-based analysis has never been their forte. If it was, perhaps there might be a consensus among them on even one of the great economic issues of our time. But there is not.

Take this weekend's suggestion by President Obama that the U.S. ought to spend more on infrastructure as a way of strengthening the U.S. economy. He was immediately assailed by Republican economists and their spokespeople for going back to stimulus approaches that have already proven to be failures (see the editorial in today's Wall Street Journal.) Yet over the weekend, we heard, for example, from CNBC reporter Erin Burnett on "Meet the Press," that in speaking to Wall Street economists she found widespread agreement that the stimulus program had actually helped avoid even more dire outcomes for the U.S. economy than we have already seen.

Such cognitive dissonance is not uncommon. With great regularity economists dazzle us with their unique blend of certitude and stupefying wrongness. No one illustrates this better than "greatest economic mind of our time" Alan Greenspan who just utterly and completely misread the consequences of under-regulating and over-heating global financial markets. Or, for fun, go explore the views of the very best of Democratic economists on the issue of your choosing. Take, say, the four most publicly prominent such economists: Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz and Jeff Sachs. The differences and debates will make your head spin like a bottle of cheap tequila.

tWhile the idea of treating economics like a science is an appealing one, the problem is that we simply lack the data to actually do the scientific method justice. There are too many variables for every equation, too many independent actors, too many unknowns, too many exogenous factors, too many psychological issues. So what we are left with is oversimplification, models that may or may not resemble markets, prescriptions that may or may not work.

What is worse, the people who apply some of these conclusions were trained in a pseudo-science that makes economics look as rigorous as molecular biology. That field is the one that shows up in the dictionary next to the word oxymoron: "political science." Honestly, if there were a government agency demanding academic truth in advertising from universities that sought federal financing, there wouldn't be a political science program left in America. 

So you have the policy process led by the march of the pseudo-scientists. Is it any wonder we are where we are? (In a ditch.) I'm with Rachman: It's time to recognize that our gurus range from the deeply flawed to the fraudulent and to reintroduce a little more humility and common sense into the process.

When it comes to the U.S. economy, such an approach will actually bring you precisely to where President Obama arrived this weekend. Our infrastructure has been gutted by neglect for decades. We need it to compete and to attract investment. We have a jobs crisis. Restoring our infrastructure is a way to create jobs that is not "stimulus" or "big-government spending" but is investing in our future. The biggest plus with the president's proposal is that a bank is the right mechanism and that it is multi-year in nature. The biggest flaws are that it is too small and that he has introduced the issue of "paying for the program." The gap in funding here may be two trillion dollars. Some of it can pay for itself. But it all does not have to. We should, like any company, treat real investments that produce pay-back for years differently from pure spending programs. 

It doesn't take a degree in economics to know that the above approach makes sense. It takes two eyes, two ears and a brain. In fact, a major infrastructure bank program is so urgently needed, so obvious, so overdue, so well within our power to make work, so beneficial to all of society, that perhaps even an economist or a political scientist could see its merits.

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