Cherry-Picking Experts

Freddie at Ordinary Gentleman argues:

Andrew Exum complains that Glenn Greenwald cherry picks which experts on the ground to listen to about the conditions in Afghanistan. Fair enough. But this is actually an argument against foreign occupation by democratic countries. As I have argued for some time, it is impossible for the members of a democratic polity to have even a rudimentary understanding of the realities on the ground in foreign countries.

That's partly why I don't think that my own sad attempts at long-distance understanding would be much enhanced by going there. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the impressions one might get from, say, traveling with US forces in Iraq or Afghanistan could be highly misleading.

But Freddie's point is deeper, I suspect. Think of what Obama now has to figure out as president of the United States: what are the local politics of particular insurgencies in various parts of Afghanistan? Who among these local leaders can we trust or turn around? How many troops doing what exactly would facilitate this? And how does the Byzantine politics of Pakistan interact with this?

There's a reason this review has taken so long.

It's mind-bogglingly complicated and deeply difficult to grasp if you have not been marinated in the region - and even then, the odds are that your marination is now dated, since events have shifted so swiftly. For a president who also has to rescue the world's largest economy, fix health insurance and encourage non-carbon energy, this is a huge amount to ask.

I guess what I suspect is that much of what the US is trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan is basically undoable. Success comes when the locals shift - like the Anbar Awakening. Perhaps there are things we can do to help such shifts. But we cannot force them or shape them very effectively. And right now, most of the underlying shifts are with our enemies.