The Forever Surge


My magazine column on my visit to Afghanistan is now online. I think this is probably the crux of the issue:

Back-of-the-napkin calculations suggest that Afghanistan stands in immediate need of something like a million and a half educated and dedicated people, just to get the state back on its feet. Where are they going to come from? There’s the educated Afghan diaspora, but it has been almost completely tapped. The only remaining source of human capital is the school system, and this is one area that has seen some obvious progress. When the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 there were only 700,000 children in school; now there are seven million. Educating people takes a long time, though, and when they are at their most open, Canadian officials concede that we are at least a decade away from being able to turn Afghanistan over to the Afghans.

Also, be sure to read Brian Stewart’s take on the same trip, at his cbc.ca column. I miss Brian’s reporting on the CBC news, but it was a delight to find that he’s a dynamite writer.

Filed under:

The Forever Surge

  1. I read (and generally appreciated) your column in the magazine, but this particular figure confused me. At first I thought it was suggesting Afghanistan (pop. ~29 000 000, slightly less than Canada) needed an educated army of 1 500 000 or 24 times larger than ours. On second reading here, it sounds like it refers to the whole public sector. But that's still over 5% of the total population and still seems high.
    Is that really what's being recommended? That 1 out of 20 (and specifically, the 5% most-skilled) Afghans be employed in governing the country?
    I'd appreciate if you could unpack this statement some more (doesn't have to be here; could be a piece for the magazine)

    • Yeah — good question. I'll try to expand on this in a blog post soon.

      • Thanks. It's nice to get readable, credible, useful information about what's happening there. (I have to admit, I don't go out of my way to find Afghanistan stories, but a long piece in Macleans is pretty close to spoon-feeding me…)

  2. Seems like the Canadian media who actually visit Afghanistan come to the same conclusions. Unfortunately the media that never leaves their offices continue to contribute to the fallacy of mission defeat.

    • How would you define mission victory? Or are you saying that victory-defeat either-or is the wrong way to think about it?

      • I'd say the best that can be reasonably expected from mission success would be a semblance of democracy, order, and government. We'll have to compromise on all those things. As Potter writes, corruption is endemic to their society. Democracy will also have a slow go at it. But the key points would be an autonomous ANA, a weakened insurgency and routed terror network, and a government that is at least as immune to corruption as regional states. By that measure, with India and Pakistan nearby, they don't have very far to go.

        • I agree, that would be victory and to spare. The since qua non being the ANA, which would have to be large enough to fight the Taliban, effective enough to win pitched battles (with Western air support), and loyal enough to obey the Afghan government. It seems to be large enough and loyal enough at present, though not very effective; and there's the question of whether its loyalty will keep pace with its increased effectiveness, if that ever arrives. Potter describes it here as almost the only coherent homegrown organisation in Afghanistan: speaking of Pakistan, why would such an organisation not seize power from as pitiable a figure as Karzai?

          • And ….. who pays for it, and how, and how long ? And what would be the consequences
            arising from the answers to those questions ?

        • And who is going to pay for all this? Latest figures for the proposed ANA indicate that they would need more than 300000 members this in a country with a gdp of less than 10billion (not counting opium). Once we do get an effective army established who wants to bet that they will then become the new dictatorship? I for one would much prefer not pouring money into a bottomless pit with no likelyhood of success.

          • That isn't accurate. The 2011 Afghan compact calls for a professional and ethnically balanced Afghan National Army with up to 70.000 soldiers.

          • Which will fail. The figure I gave is what has been mentionned as what would be needed to do the job. It is not enough nor is it likely to be ethnically balanced. An army overwhelmingly non pashtun will be viewed as an occupation army in the pashtun lands in the south. Failure in afghanistan is not only likely (the Europeans are looking for the exit) but desireable. We can no longer afford such foolish military adventures. Next year when governments in the west start trying to balance the books the first things to go will be the cost of the military expedition. I absolutely refuse to pay for such folly when we cant afford to maintain education and healthcare spending at home but can afford to support corrupt warlords in Afghanistan. I expect most will agree.

          • It's not just money, it's coffins (or for the Afghans, sometimes not even).

        • But if "The terrorists will have to live in the mountains not the cities, we will vigorously protest the rape laws of our puppet regimes, and we'll keep the army there for a decade while teh amount of democracy increases slightly and the corruption goes down a bit" was the big idea, it should have been made clear from day one.

  3. Maybe they'll agree now. We'll see what happens if the region destabilizes again and becomes a spawning ground for Islamic terrorism again. At the very least, you're putting a tiny fraction of our economic power ahead of the moral obligation we have to women and children and families for our intervention there.

    • If you want to keep paying do so. There are many fine charities around. Just keep your hands out of my pockets. Military occupations are not only an innefective way to fight terrorism they may actually encourage it.

    • I thought you said we'd be compromising on the women and children.

    • Unless the difference is "one justifies a decade + long occupation", I'm not sure about the strenght of the argument here.

      • In any case the West no longer has the power to maintain such an occupation; the USA in particular and NATO in general are declining powers, if not in absolute at least in relative terms. A realistic assessment of the situation would dictate that we not waste our limited and declining resources on a lost cause or one which requires massive and sustained commitment. Next year or the year after the USA will hit the debt wall and will no longer be able to maintain their effort. the taliban know this. Time is on their side. Those who unwisely threw in their lot with the west will innevitably have to face the taliban on their own. They know this. If i were them I would be discussing terms of surrender now.

  4. Way OT, but someone should write a musical about the RCMP (maybe with giant inflatable beavers and floating moose?) and call it "Forever Serge"…
    I'll be looking for it on the fringe circuit…

Sign in to comment.