December 2, 2009

Predicting the future is hard

Now that Obama has given his big speech on Afghanistan we get the predictable debate between people who think that the June 2011 deadline is arbitrary and signals to the enemy how long they need to wait for America to leave, and those who think that's too long.

Really I sympathize with the idea that withdrawing from Afghanistan should be "conditions based" but there are few areas of human activity where open-ended commitments are a good idea (marriage is somewhat of an exception, but that's for another discussion).

People respond to deadlines. Although, as a professor, I get a regular stream of amusing excuses for why students haven't met deadlines, the striking thing is that most students meet most of their deadlines. Obviously there's a huge gap between a student assignment and the "world peace" scale problem we have in Afghanistan. The time it should take student assignments to be done is predictable; they've been done before and they are quite small. Afghanistan is a large problem we haven't met before.

Quite obviously the July 2011 deadline for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is arbitrary. There is no previous Afghan war the deadline can be based on.

Deadlines, however arbitrary, concentrate the minds of the people affected by them. An open-ended commitment to war is good for defense contractors, but bad for everyone else, including the Afghans. If the U.S. said it was staying for some unspecified time, and withdrawing based on some concept of progress there would be fewer incentives for Afghans to take over their own security situation. The trick is that in situations like this—complex and unique—there has to be some flexibility in the deadline. Who knows if 18 months is long enough? The future is unpredictable. So it's no surprise that the morning after the speech the White House appears to be saying two things, there is a timeline for withdrawal, and that the timeline is flexible.

Sticking rigidly to a timeline or having no timeline at all are not strategies that work in any other area of 'complex' human activity. The timeline that can be altered is the only realistic way forward.

Posted by eroberts at December 2, 2009 4:38 PM
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