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Why On V Doesn't Make Predictions

(Based on the urgings of my father and co-blogger, the next few posts will deal with the most contentious foreign policy issue under debate today: should America escalate in Afghanistan or return to a smaller counter-terrorism strategy? I am hesitant to address this issue, the following story explains why.)

Like all young teenagers, I knew everything. At 18, I believed I knew enough history that I could predict the future.

My high school, the prestigious San Clemente High School, ran an International Baccalaureate program. For my senior thesis in the fall of 2001, I chose to analyze the recently begun Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. I boldly predicted its failure. I compared it loosely to the US experience in Vietnam and wrote that the US would be stuck in a quagmire for years to come. (To show my ignorance of history, I totally ignored the Russian example. I don't know why.)

The paper was amateurish. Comparing two wars--one historical and one ongoing--and trying to sum it all up in 4,000 words was probably a bit audacious. Especially bold because at the time I didn’t regularly read the Economist and I hadn’t yet read David Galula’s Counter-Insurgency Theory and Practice and The Accidental Guerilla, The Sling and the Stone and Eating Soup with Knife had all yet to be published.

Two years later, as Iraq was in full swing, I generally admitted defeat. Afghanistan had dropped out of the news and the casualties were not severe. At the time, 2004 to 2006, America generally referred to that as the successful war. Rumsfeld basked in the success of the Rumsfeld doctrine. My initial prediction had been wrong.

Except that by mid-2007, after the surge “worked” for in Iraq, Afghanistan emerged from the cocoon of peace. It turns out, we hadn’t created a successful government or quelled the Taliban or even formed an army. This meant that in very general terms I was right in my initial prediction.

I don’t remember if I predicted that we would be in Afghanistan for a long time, in which case I was right; or if I predicted we would simply not “win” in Afghanistan, which remains to be seen.

This is why On Violence avoids making predictions. Anyone making predictions about the future, including me, Eric or any of the hundreds of pundits and politicians out there, should do so humbly. You never know when you may be wrong, or right, or wrong and then right again.

six comments

Thats a perfectly reasonable point of view, the world is chaotic and unpredictable. I don´t pretend to know what the outcome of anything is going to be, but I am perfectly aware of a lot of the challenges and difficulties that lie ahead. History is a never ending story, and theoretically the surge worked, but this is analyzing the results on a short time scale. No one has any idea what Iraq will be like in 10 years (or even in 1), and the number of variables is uncountable. To me though the question of Afghanistan has never boiled down to “can we win?” (though that definitely has challenges), but rather “should we even be there?”

Its well documented that Al Qaeda already has other safe havens in north Africa, where they operate in a manner just as openly as they did in Afghanistan in early 2001 (including training camps in Algeria), and it seriously puts an end to the question of whether something as expensive and resource intensive as nation building is an effective tool to fight international terrorism. The US moves into one country, they get stuck into a regional conflict, and well funded terrorists just pack up and go to the next broken nation reamining as elusive as ever and using the regional conflict they left as the ultimate training field. Whether Al Qaeda has one nation as a safe haven, or whether they have 10 in my opinion we are addressing the problem through the wrong methods, and it cannot be an indefinitely repeated process to move into one nation after another.

I also know on the moral argument that US efforts are supporting a regime that has openly shown systematic corruption on many levels of government, and that the average Afghani has had to live with a war that was instigated by a group the vast majority of them never had anything to do with.

The question of “can the US achieve victory?” depending on what its specific definition of victory is, that only time can tell.

Chris you hit on a number of great points. As to Iraq, I expect violence to go up a little after we leave, but if it decreased or increased a lot, it wouldn’t surprise me. The bombing over the weekend should indicate that it is still slighly unstable.

As for you discussion of Al Qaeda floating from one broken country to the next, wait for wednesday’s post to see my thoughts on that.

I predict that pundits will never stop predicting the future and will rarely reflect back to their predictions when they turn out to be inaccuate.

Yeah, I wish they had an episode of PTI where they go over the past year’s oddmakers. They won’t but it would be great.

In all seriousness though, learning from our past does allow us to, not necessarily predict the effects of our action, but glimpse possible outcomes. The problem with predictions, much like a hypothesis in the scientific method, itt tends to inhibit objectivity. If you make a prediction or hypothesis, the vision of those making it tends to narrow because they are proving something rather than merely witnessing and evaluating.

Good point Matt. I totally believe in using history to improve our predictions about the future, we should just be cautious when doing so. Look at, The Uses of History by Decision Makers by Neustadt.