Q&A with Stephen Biddle on Afghanistan

Click here to download the audio.

GIDEON ROSE: We're delighted to have back with us today Steve Biddle, one of the country's sanest and most knowledgeable defense analysts, to tell us about what's going on in Afghanistan. Steve was just over there and is now back here. He says it's even hotter there than here and he was not referring just to the weather. So, Steve, tell us first what you saw and then we will get into a discussion of what it means.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, with respect to observations, let me start with what I think is the biggest question about the war at the moment, which is whether we can win and whether we're winning. You know, that's behind a lot of the trends in public opinion. And my sense of the debate here has been that there's been a strongly pessimistic zeitgeist over the last couple of months, which I think is substantially overstated. I think we've been on a rollercoaster ride where the command in-theater, for a variety of reasons back in the spring, got substantially over optimistic and led people to expect unrealistically rapid progress.

Then they ran into reality and the result is that now everyone's excessively pessimistic. And I think what would be appropriate is if we all got back on the happy road in between.

Let me flesh that out a little by saying a bit on the security side of things and a bit on the governance side of things, because I think this rollercoaster ride is a response to stimuli on both of those scores.

On the security side of things, we tend to want counterinsurgency to be like painting a house. You start at the lower left-hand corner and make steady, continuous progress. Eventually, the whole house is painted and you've got success. The problem is that is a poor mental model for what's going on. COIN is a lot closer to surgery. It's a long, painful process where indicators of trauma go up before they go down. So the fact that trauma indicators are going up doesn't tell you very much.

It may be that they eventually go back down, the patient is cured, and you win. But patients die on the operating table, too. The fact that trauma indicators are going up doesn't mean that they're going to stay up or come back down. What it really tells you is that the violence statistics aren't worth much.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis