Dates (And Their Defence)

A lot of non-fiction books have dates in their titles. Most of the time they do this to confine the study. Because all things are connected; all events in history are causative and effective. Afghanistan is no different. Its history (depending on how you track it) goes back to 1880, 1747, the 15th century, or even further back. Louis Dupree says 3rd century Sasanians were talking about “Abgans.”

This history is fascinating, and I enjoyed writing about it. It’s vital for context. It’s vital for context. I am aware that I wrote that twice. Here it is again: History is vital for context. And context is king.

So I wrote a history of Afghanistan in 8,000 (ish) words so that the ten years or so I’ve chosen to talk about make more sense.

The dates I’ve picked are October 2001 – July 2011.

I don’t think I could get more current than that. To any Afghan scholar, those dates should be pretty well known. To an Outsider, however, they might be a little less so.

October, 2001

Seeing the date isolated like that, it should be easy to see. I’ve chosen this date because it marks the start of the American (and international) efforts in Afghanistan. The Americans invaded to oust the Taliban and destabilize al-Qaeda. It was in retaliation for 9/11.

July, 2011

This date might be less well-known to Outsiders. It’s the date that’s been earmarked for the start of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It’s in the future, but I’ll have most of the work done by the time it comes around. And there should be time for me to assess the differences (if there are any) in the situation before and after.

This is a bit of a nothing post, but I figured I’d put something up here, just so you know what’s going on.

At The Moment

… I’m working on models of international illicit markets, and how they operate. Why certain people choose to get involved and others don’t. How opium (and heroin—internationally) are traded, and the ways in which groups benefit is very important.

I also want to stress the importance of non-human factors. Two in particular: the markets and Mother Nature. These are two things that we like to think we can control, but really we can’t. I want to address the impact that natural causes have on the markets.

For instance, a drought in Southeast Asia in the late 1970s meant that a lot of opium production moved to the Golden Cresent. Opium produced in Afghanistan until then had been low scale, and consumed locally. At the same time, in Iran, the Ayatollah banned of the production but not consumption of opium. Suddenly Afghanistan’s opium had an international market, and demand that meant opium production massively increased.

That’s all for now. Reading to do.

Stephen Walt on Afghanistan

Stephen Walt has a fantastic piece at Foreign Policy, discussing the current American ‘strategy’ in Afghanistan.

His argument is that there seems to be little connection between the strategy, as laid out in FM 3-24, and what is happening on the ground. I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with pretty much everything he has to say.

My biggest issue with the current strategy, as I see it, in Afghanistan, is that there is too much emphasis on the protection of NATO forces, not enough on the protection of the locals. The indigenous population is the central focus of counterinsurgency. (It’s also the central focus of fourth generation warfare. See Thomas Hammes’ The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century) However, as recent operations have shown (see Joshua Foust’s indictment of the destruction of the village at Tarok Kolache—and, crucially, the American reaction to it), there seems to be little, if any, respect from the American soldiers for the livelihoods of ordinary Afghans—the very people they are there to protect, reassure and nuture.

As Josh points out in his piece, “war is hell. … But what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is inexcusable.” Personally, I was concerned when I learned that the US were taking over operations in Southern Afghanistan last January. Their penchant for “high tempo, kinetic operations” (read: shoot now, ask questions later) smacks of an inability to comprehend the fundamentals of counterinsurgency.

However, a recent piece from the British army’s PR machine “Helmand Blog” (which I briefly mentioned here) tells the story of a village painstakingly de-mined. The result, a much happier populace, returning to their homes. Josh Foust’s response suggests that this is a model of “how you demonstrate good faith, good intentions, and a desire to delegitimize the Taliban (as opposed to merely destroying whomever you can identify).”

Granted, the American army, at the end of the Cold War, developed into a terrifically unwieldy beast, by the nature of its vast size, and training for Cold War-style, World War Two-style, set piece battles. It’s having trouble ‘training down’ to fight counterinsurgency effectively.

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On a side note, has anyone else noticed a similarity between the fighting in Afghanistan (as represented by the documentaries Battle for Marjah and Restrepo) and the Spanish Civil War (as represented by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia)?

On Reading

Obama presses for Middle East peace at UN. Our reading list notes the best books on this topic. What do you suggest? http://fam.ag/adOCxe

This tweet from Foreign Affairs reminded me of something that I have been thinking for a long time, and it’s something that I believe offers comfort to the Outsider.

The constant stream of books, blogs, news articles, magazines, journals, op-eds, interviews, videos, that comes your way is overwhelming. My question in this is: What is the role of the Outsider when there seems to be no way of parsing all of this data and making sense of it?

Another, bigger question would be: Does reading more necessarily make you more intelligent and knowledgeable on a topic? Nicholas Nassim Taleb would probably answer in the negative. His argument being that sociology is largely a self-serving discipline.

In the reading that I have undertaken so far for the MPhil, I feel that I have learned a lot. Certainly I have learned more than I had discerned from passive consumption of news and other media before beginning my university career.

Reading and Passive Consumption

Since finishing my undergraduate degree, I have come to realize the power of reading.

Since starting this blog, which, although it is only a couple of weeks old has been fermenting in my head for several months, I have come to realize the power of passive consumption.

Every day, I get back from my wage slave job, and I check on my Twitter feed. There have been around 200 tweets each day for the last few days.

I only follow 60 or so people. Most of these people are in Afghanistan or heavily involved there or in other realms of foreign policy. Every night I come home and parse maybe 10-20 pieces from that feed, of which I read maybe 4 or 5.

If something exciting happens, like last night’s pre-release of Bob Woodward’s book, which has caused a firestorm, I might read a bit more, grab some more of the information, be better informed as to the argument, or just, in that case, to be better informed on the situation in general. But on the whole, I’ll read very little. I’ve read three books (almost) since starting as a wage slave, three weeks ago (eleven weeks left!) and my understanding of Afghanistan has increased greatly. (I was going to say ten-fold, but realized that this was an entirely arbitrary number, as it implies that there is some kind of a cap or limit or goal to knowledge acquisition.)

Reading books is a great way to get an overview of a topic, but I think that there is no substitute for getting out and living what you are studying. I hope that I will be able to visit Afghanistan in the course of the MPhil research, if not, I will make the trip for PHd study. It has to be done, for this is the only way to truly understand the situation.

I am not criticizing Foreign Affairs for this endeavour. Indeed, I personally downloaded this bibliography from Christian Bleuer’s Afghan Analyst project. I haven’t even looked at it yet, but I know that it will prove an invaluable resource, come January.

A trip to Afghanistan would preclude me from the group I am trying to foster here. I would no longer be an Outsider. And yet, in a sense, I think that I would remain in that position, just better informed. For instance, I will likely remain naive to the realities of battle, the fear of combat, the adrenaline rush of the fire fight. (A book that I own, but have yet to read is Anthony Loyd’s Another Bloody Love Letter, in which he describes how his heroin dependency vanished the moment he was in the face of battle.)

The role of the Outsider, with regards to books then, is, in my mind, to allow them to inform you and allow them to challenge you and your beliefs. But it is important to bear in mind Black Swan cynicism and criticism. There is no way that you can know everything.

How do you find reading benefits your understanding? Do you prefer books, articles, journals, magazines?

(Afghan Outsider is an Amazon affiliate. If you click on the book links and go on to buy the book, we receive a small commission. Thanks for your support.)

Obama’s Wars

A bit of bandwagon jumping here (via SWJ), but Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, published (the day before my birthday!) by Simon and Schuster, is attracting a large amount of interest throughout the internet.

I’ll refrain from a quote dump like the others have done, as, needless to say, I don’t yet own a copy. But I can’t wait to get my teeth into it. Sounds like a great in for my dissertation. A great way to understand the inner workings of the American machine. Things like this don’t usually get published until years after the fact. It will be very helpful in shaping policy.

(Afghan Outsider is an Amazon affiliate. If you click on the book links and go on to buy the book, we receive a small commission. Thanks for your support.)