On the U.S. Commitment to the Afghan and Pakistani People

Political theory is more than just the theory of politics: unlike a purely empirical evaluation of probabilities and feasibility, this branch of political study involves the examination of normative claims that we all make on our institutions and on our brothers who live on the other side of the river.  The way we take in the world is not, then, a simple metric of all that can happen between two or more contracting parties– though this is a very important move– but all the things we should want to have happen, judged, preferably, from a fairly coherent normative standpoint.

I have tried to think about our commitments in Afghanistan and Pakistan from exactly this perspective.   The U.S. is involved in a war in a region of the world that looks more implacable than ever.  Part of the explanation of the public dissension that seems so palpably charged  in those countries is surely that the U.S has a formidably large footprint in that part of the world.  We have left behind a ruinous political legacy that has contributed to the vastly shrunken opportunities from which Afghans and Pakistani’s suffer.  But I’d argue that the people of those countries have a right to demand political and social correctives to the prospects they see of a short and miserable life.

A cold-state, rational evaluation of public opinion would show that just as there are those who choke at the thought of a creeping colonization by an uninvited guest, as, say, Pakistanis are wont to think, so there are those, like weary Northern Afghanis who think that the presence of U.S. soldiers is the only secured bond they have against being overrun by the influence and violence of the Taliban.  Yet we remain mired in this sand trap, because the American leadership and voters think, correctly, that Afghanistan and Pakistan are net exporters of radical ideologies and fearsome ideologues who could commit heinous act on our shores.

So say American leaders of both parties, and so we’ve condoned acts of political cowardice and the socially myopic views of tin eared dictators, like Musharraf and Karzai, who have steadfastly refused to act upon a strategy that pegs the probability of re-election of the provision the of public goods.  Of course, partly because of our hesitation to speak loudly, elections in that region of the world have been informal pledges from militias to support to some war lord’s raids against another, with or without public de jure public confidence.

And here we stand in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The recent news that the expensive infrastructure we have built up will not stand for long is distressing.  As is the obvious fact that our own investments in that country are coming back to us in the form of bombs and combat barricades.   These are questions of plausible political moves and feasible allocations that might make those moves practical.   They do not make our normative commitment any less pressing, nor do they make the demands we make on our partners any less urgent.

If ought implies can, then the fact that we seem unable to bring about the kinds of sustainable changes that are likely to be mutually advantageous to us and our partner government, might imply that we should no longer seek change.  This is too quick a move: we overdetermine our likelihood of failure when we say that X desired policy will not come about.  X might not come about under Y conditions, but that is no comment on its desirability as such, nor on the plausibility of X coming to be under Z conditions.  We should only forsake our duties when we establish that X, say, stability in Iraq or Afghanistan cannot come about under any circumstances.  A proposition that peace will not come under current conditions then requires that we urge our friends and partners to change the circumstances on the ground to those that might bring about peace.  I do not think we have reached that point yet in Iraq–much less in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

I mentioned duties in the passage above.  I mean this to be quite as strong a requirement on actions as might be consequent to any talk of duties.  Hence I think that Afghans and Pakistanis have a right to be served well by our politics and our aid.  I think that for far too long those peoples have suffered under rule by imbeciles and crooks, and through out much of that time, we’ve turned away so many times from their pleading gazes.  So now that we have proffered salvation through development and education, and we have accidentally killed too many sons of too many mothers, we owe those people a serious chance at a serious, forward marching life.

Is the McChrystal tactic the best way forward in achieving the kinds of amormous goals I have laid out above?  I’d think its probably the only set of directed policies that might bring out a change in circumstances, if and only if we have correctly assessed the incentives of our partners in goverment in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  On its own McChrystal’s assessment is not the kind of directive that envisions a quick turn around of conditions in that region.  Everything turns on what our allies are willing to do to establish a lasting, though surely unsteady peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  And here  we seek to relieve ourselves of our duties by insisting that though our partners do not wish to act for the public good, that nevertheless acting contrary to their narrow and immediate motivations, they bring about the public good.  The McChrystal tactic will work to the extent that the incentive compatibility it requires on our partners is feasible.

If our assessments of the feasibility of wholesale changes in motivations of our partners are correct, then the McChrystal tactic might work.  But if the assessment of the motivations of our partners were incorrect, that still would not relieve us of our duty to seek a lasting solution to the daily dilemmas that Afghans and Pakistanis face.

I make these claims knowing well that our obligations are legion and that, if we take value pluralism seriously then we are required to make difficult and irreparably damaging choices.  I just think that damaging or otherwise, our obligations and commitments to the Afghan and Pakistani people are serious and, on the whole, proper.

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~ by Faheem Haider on November 21, 2009.

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