Magical Thinking in South Asia

by , May 11, 2009

If it had not been apparent before, last week’s meetings among President Barack Obama, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari demonstrate that those who advocate interventionism and militarism as the primary way for the United States to interact with the rest of the world are indulging in what might be called magical thinking. No matter what problems present themselves in other countries, interventionists believe that applying more money, more arms, more training, and more force can solve them, despite abundant evidence (see Iraq) that the formula hasn’t worked before.

The classic forms of magical thinking have to do with confusing correlation with causation or finding simple connections between cause and effect that are not scientifically valid or even testable. Perhaps it doesn’t precisely explain why U.S. policymakers never apply even a mildly skeptical attitude to the proposition that if the U.S. would only do more, then seemingly intractable problems could be vanquished, but it may have some explanatory value.

The fact that the tripartite meeting was not characterized by the kind of warmth and (mostly insincere) mutual flattery that was typical of such meetings during the all-too-long Bush era can be explained in part by Obama’s different temperament. Obama seems to be seeking to base his policies less on personal first impressions than the overeager and often self-deluded Bushlet, who placed so much confidence in his own intuition, did. But Obama may also have a dawning awareness that simply repeating the formulas about the U.S. doing more just might not work this time around.

It is fascinating that while Obama seems to have a clearer picture of the deep-seated problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan than Bush did, he hasn’t developed policy options other than more of the same or lots more of the same. I’m stipulating here, of course, that emphasizing "civilian development" in South Asia is simply another side of the same coin as military interventionism. Both approaches assume that the United States will be the primary actor and that the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan are essentially childlike but can be brought to maturity by treating them forever as children, essentially incapable of making their own decisions or developing their own resources.

It is tempting, of course, to look down on both regimes. Hamid Karzai, for all the elegance of his personal appearance and presentation (I still want a cool cape like that!), and even if he wins an election this summer, is essentially a creature and creation of Western powers. Few dispute that his effective authority does not extend beyond Kabul, and it’s fairly shaky there. His regime and even his family are tainted by corruption. National security forces, however numbers are tossed about by presumed authorities, are more joke than reality. He faces an insurgency run by a Taliban that has been successful enough to have assumed governmental power in the recent past (with help from Pakistani intelligence services, to be sure). It has the traditional guerrilla advantages of indigenous insurgencies and is unlikely to go away unless dealt the kind of blow neither the Afghan government nor the U.S. seem likely to be able to provide.

Zardari in Pakistan is president by accident of an arranged marriage (I know there’s a contradiction there, but life, and especially life in Pakistan, seems to thrive on contradictions). His previous political incarnation, when his martyred wife was prime minister, earned him the informal title of "Mr. 10 Percent" for his tireless solicitation and acceptance of bribes. It was Benazir Bhutto’s family, not his, that had been the traditional political power in Pakistan. His assumption of power after her assassination never commanded much popular support. Whether he actually controls much of the sprawling and secretive Pakistani government is open to question. The Pakistani army is still focused on preparing for possible confrontation with its traditional enemy, India, and still resists counterinsurgency training and preparation.

Yet, despite the shakiness of both governments and the magnitude of the challenges from within that they face, there is little inclination in the U.S. to step back, think strategically and cold-bloodedly about the real threats to the U.S. posed by the two countries, and consider something other than simply pouring in more resources and manpower. Perhaps typical is Harlan Ullman of the Atlantic Council, who in this piece argues for sending "money – and lots of it." The proposed aid package of $7.5 billion over the next five years, already facing trouble in Congress, is too little by orders of magnitude. Instead, Pakistan "needs" "$25 billion over the next several years with a longer-term commitment." And equipment: helicopters, "mobility systems," and the like. Just pour the stuff in.

But the Bush administration poured money into Pakistan with results that look more like destabilization than stabilization. And all this talk of committing more U.S. resources to Afghanistan and Pakistan ignores the fact that, as the financial crisis made clear to all but the willfully blind, the U.S. government is broke and getting broker, pretending that proposed spending cuts of $17 billion that won’t get past Congress will start to make a significant dent in a federal deficit projected to be $1.2 trillion to $1.8 trillion this year. Talk about magical thinking!

I have several times suggested that insofar as the U.S. has real interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan, they are limited and do not include assuring that either country has a European-style parliamentary democracy or even a functioning central government. In Pakistan, the U.S. has an interest in preventing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from being captured by militant forces with an internationalist orientation and in disrupting al-Qaeda sufficiently that it cannot launch more international attacks. In Afghanistan, the core interest is in assuring that al-Qaeda does not reestablish the kind of bases that existed before 9/11 and can be used to launch attacks against the U.S. or other Western (and perhaps Eastern) countries.

That sounds like magical thinking to me.

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