Monday, February 28, 2011

In War We Can Be Out of Date Overnight

An issue of great importance is shaping up. Bing West has written an impressive book on how and why things have been going wrong in Afghanistan [The Wrong War, Random House). He believes we should get out of there soon because we are losing. His report appears at just the time when recent news reports tell us that the Taliban are weakening. Some are giving up; some are discouraged because of the losses; internal disputes have been taking place between the top echelons and the midlevel commanders in the field [,]

The problem with getting a book out like West's is that it takes time to write the book and time to publish it, so that it cannot be current: it necessarily lags behind developments in the field.

But in war developments in the field are fluid. Also, the situation in Afghanistan is, or ought to be, substantially different from any time in the past since only in the last few weeks has the full complement of the American fighting force been put into place. So the difference between what is going on now and what others have experienced in times past can be substantial.

Yes, wise observers like West have a great deal to contribute, but there needs to be a sensitivity to the fluidity of affairs in a world in which conflict is pervasive. And in Afghanistan a whole generation has known nothing but war, so you would expect them to have figured out ways of hedging bets, to be sure they have connections among the winners.

This is of course what frustrated West. The Swiss anthropologist Alessandro Monsutti has explained how the Hazaras tried to make sure they had relatives on both sides of a battle so they would have anchorage with whoever won the battle.

None of this means, though, that the participants don't have a preference. What we know is that the Afghanistan peoples, even among the Pushtun population that is generally more receptive to the Taliban [who are, except for the foreign fighters, generally Pushtun].

Note also how hard it is indeed to anticipate major public movements. Chrystia Freeland in Reuters has pointed out how hard it is to predict such movements [Predicting the next uprising, Feb 24]. I once made list of all the un-anticipated major shifts in paradigm that have taken place in recent decades [Introduction to Ethnicity, Authority, and Power in Central Asia]. And of course it did not include the dramatic events in the last few weeks in many parts of the Arab world, and even beyond.

But that produces a problem. When conditions are fluid, as they are in a war, there is going to be a sharp difference between reports -- or at least in the assessments of situations in war. And that can create great discrepancies in perception among the public. We need to watch out for assessments that are out of date -- and some times, as in the case of Leon Panetta's recent report to congress, they can be out of date in a few days.


1 comment:

Sami said...

A recent AlJazeera report on Pashtun 'fence-sitting' in Taliban-infested southern Afghanistan:

Living in fear of the Taliban