February 12, 2008

Unintended Consequences of Threatening to Withdrawal

Kip became a skeptic of continued involvement in Iraq during his tour in the country. And in the past several years, he quietly applauded those politicians who threatened to withhold our blood and treasure unless the Iraqi government reformed.

Kip would simplify the argument thus: Providing a blank check and an open-ended commitment to Iraq gives far less incentive to reach political accommodation than do time lines and an understanding that failure to act will result in the severing of the umbilical cord and the descent into chaos.

A year in Afghanistan has changed Kip's view on this argument.

The basic view of any developing or least developed country where the US has chosen to intervene has to be that the intervention is ephemeral--threats of withdrawal simply aren't necessary. In Afghanistan, memory of US abandonment in the 1990s is strong and a spirit of optimism that overlooked that abandonment quickly faded as the US shifted focus and resources to Iraq beginning in 2002.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the constitutions reinforce regional, sectarian, tribal, clan, and family identity over national identify or responsibility. In both countries, politicians are empowered by their ability to gain benefits and security for their group rather than their ability to solve national problems.

This in-and-of-itself is a difficult problem but it is compounded by any urgent sense that the aid and security bonanza will end. While a long-term commitment is in place and while we engage in some acts of due diligence (which we do to a limited extent and should do much more of), there is some incentive to be seen as a team player so that you can continue to draw (steal, whatever) benefits for your group. This has the ability over time to create national interest out of competing other interests as a repeat multiple iteration game.

As US threats for a rapid withdrawal grow louder or seem more likely, the incentive is not for individual members of parliament or regional leaders to cooperate before we leave but rather to steal as much as they can so they are best positioned for the next round of fighting. The corruption and posturing then exacerbates political-military insecurity that drives violence and insurgency.

This is not to argue for a blank check for any ongoing stability operation--just to acknowledge the consequences of threatening to pull out. We may yet decide that strategic arithmetic means that the security interests of the US are best served by exacerbating the internal security crises of one or several of our interventions.