Inspector Clousteau, the Experts, and Afghanistan

At the considerable danger of defaming one of movies’ greatest characters (the legendary Inspector Clousteau of the Pink Panthers series) and its incomparable star (the late Peter Sellers), U.S (and allied) policy is beginning to look like one of the bumbling French gendarmie’s most memorable adventures. The latest example of this remark, of course, is the revelation last week that talks between the Taliban and the Karzai government sponsored and facilitated by the United States were actually between the Afghan government and a clever Pashtun shopkeeper from Pakistan who presumably walked away from the process sniggering into the sleeve of his robe while holding tightly to a sizable wad of U.S. cash (no one seems to want to talk about that part–wonder why). Could it be that this enterprising native is the real Pink Panther?

Everyone, of course, is denying everything as they lift up the corner of the rug and sweep the whole thing into a lumpy pile under a corner. The Taliban have maintained all along they were not in negotiations with anybody, which everyone has assumed was a subterfuge to cover their participation in talks. Turns about they might have been telling the truth. The Karzai government is showing predictable 20/20 hindsight and saying they never did believe this guy and weren’t really talking to him. Instead, they maintain the British foisted him off as the real deal. The American explanation: well, we don’t really have one.

How in the world did this–or could this–happen. The answer, I suspect, lies in our legendary lack of expertise in, and understanding of–Afghanistan. The experts on whom we seem to be relying, it turns out, appear not to be so expert. One evidence was an “explanation” last week of how the phony baloney managed to trick everybody into believing he was the Taliban’s second in command: since we have nobody who has ever met any of these characters face-to-face, we don’t really know who they are or what the look like. Since, presumably, all Afghans (or at least Pashtuns) look alike, it was a natural mistake.

This gets at the heart of the matter. I have argued repeatedly that the fatal flaw in U.S. policy in Afghanistan is that it is an absolute no-win situation, which even the casual observer can figure out. But we decided to go in anyway. Where were the experts, who almost certainly would have said, “Wait a minute here!”?

One of two things, in seems to me, offers an explanation. One is that we really have no experts, apart from members of the small Afghan expatriate community. Expatriates, however, tend to have axes to grind or personal agendas and are not the best possible sources of objective analysis. The number of academic experts is also pretty small, due to a lack of market historically for Afghan experts. The second is that the experts that do exist have been ignored or shunned. Real experts almost certainly counselled non-involvement in the civil war, and once it was engaged, argued for getting out as quickly and cheaply as possible. Here the principle of “shooting the messenger” comes in: if these people were consulted and told the truth, they were undoubtedly exorcised because they provided the wrong answers to blissfully ignorant advocates of the American presence. Off with their heads (or at least banishment to policy purgatory)! This well established practice has roots in Vietnam and Iraq and seems so ingrained that it is hard to imagine why anybody with actual expertise would offer advice tha contradicts what policy makers wsant to believe.

So here we are, blisfully, in Thomas Friedman’s word, dropping “dropping $190 million a day to bring corrupt warlords from the 15th to the 19th century,” with big smiles on our faces and a dogged determination we are “doing good” (or at least avoiding “bad”). That number, which adds up to about $70 billion a year and is almost certainly a low-ball estimate, keeps hemorrhaging along as the federal deficit soars. But, we may be getting our money’s worth: this is clearly the stuff of another revival of the Inspector Clousteau series. The only questions will be if Steve Martin or someone else plays the good detective and who the next Pink Panther may be.

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