H.D.S. Greenway

The arithmetic of the frontier

By H.D.S. Greenway
November 3, 2009

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PRESIDENT OBAMA is doing the arithmetic of fighting in Afghanistan and figuring the odds of Pakistan pulling through. He must not only add up the numbers of soldiers he wants to hand over to his generals, but must also measure what is achievable against what his country has to spend in money and blood. General Stanley McChrystal’s requests echo those of Marshal Akhromeyev, who begged the Soviet Politburo for more soldiers for his war 20 years ago.

There is also the arithmetic of declining public support, which democracies cannot ignore. Americans are growing weary and want to know how this all adds up. Europeans spend less than a third of what Americans spend on defense, and that number is expected to fall. Polls show that more than 60 percent of the British public wants their troops out of Afghanistan, and in France and Germany the sums of the disenchanted and disaffected creep even higher.

Then there is the arithmetic of time. Next year we will pass the number of years the Soviet Union spent trying to pacify the tribesmen of Afghanistan, who were so ably helped by the United States and Arabian resources.

Democracies grow weary of very long engagements. All the lost colonial wars of the last half of the 20th century, Algeria, Palestine, and - for both the United States and the French - Vietnam, were lost not so much because armies were defeated but because the wars dragged on too long for the home front to bear. For our adversaries, who have nowhere else to go, time is less of a debilitating factor.

Matthew Hoh, a former Marine Corps captain and the first Foreign Service officer to resign in protest over the war, frames the context of Afghanistan in “what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war,’’ and says that success would take, not years, but “decades and generations.’’ He believes our involvement is making things worse, not better.

The simple sums of national treasure are more easily quantified. “We are spending ourselves into oblivion,’’ Hoh quotes an American commander as telling visitors to Afghanistan. “We are mortgaging our nation’s economy in a war, which even with increased commitments, will remain a draw for years to come.’’

There is also the arithmetic of space. How much territory can we actually defend, and does it matter if Al Qaeda is already comfortably ensconced in Pakistan?

Mehar Omar Khan, a Pakistan Army major who is studying at Fort Leavenworth, writes that the goal of protecting the population is “unachievable in its entirety.’’ Instead, we should identify districts that can become models of stability and prosperity while letting the Taliban die on the vine elsewhere. “Don’t try to arrest the sea,’’ he advises. “Create islands.’’

Hoh says that, “if honest,’’ securing Afghanistan to prevent Al Qaeda from regrouping would “require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc.,’’ an arithmetic that not even neo-conservatives would contemplate.

Since eight years of US and NATO involvement have seen an insurgency only growing worse, not better, Max Hastings of the Financial Times wonders if it is mathematically sensible to “continue pushing chips on to the table if each spin of the roulette wheel obstinately delivers a zero.’’

It has always struck me how cheap asymmetrical warfare is for the indigenes while the invading powers spend fortunes; how a few often illiterate tribesmen can hold their own against the best educated, trained, and equipped army America has ever fielded.

Politics change. The invader is one day Britain, then Russia, and the next day America. The homemade musket of the frontier, the jezail, gives way to the Kalashnikov, but the “Arithmetic of the Frontier’’ remains as Rudyard Kipling described it in his poem, in which an expensively schooled British officer meets his fate far from home more than 100 years ago.

“A scrimmage in a Border Station, A canter down some dark defile. Two thousand pounds of education

Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.’’

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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