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March 8, 2009

Still Winnable, Give or Take Five Years

Today I read the always-insightful Andrew Bacevich’s review of David Kilcullen’s “The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One” (h/t Andrew Sullivan). Kilcullen is certainly an expert on the subject and the book sounds well worth reading. But one thing disturbed me. Actually, two.

First, Kilcullen maintains that Afghanistan “remains winnable,” and when I read the phrase, I couldn’t help but wonder what percentage of conflicts described in their eighth year as still winnable or the like go on to actually be won. I would guess there aren’t many such instances, but I’m no expert and I could certainly be wrong. If anyone can offer examples one way or the other, I’d be grateful.

The other verbalism I noticed was Kilcullen’s insistence that winning in Afghanistan would require an effort lasting another “five or ten years at least.” I found myself thinking about that predicted timeline. Will the effort take at least five years, or will it take at least ten? It can’t take both. Why not just say the effort will take at least five years?

I can think of a few possibilities. First, because if the war goes on for much longer than five years, people might in retrospect regard the original estimate as clearly mistaken or even as misleading. But then why not just say the effort will take at least ten years? Because ten years — especially “at least” ten years — sounds too long. People might not buy it. But if you say something as vague and logically incoherent as “at least five to ten years,” optimistic buyers can focus on the five, and cynical sellers can point to the ten when the five fails to materialize.

Another possibility is that the person making the prediction in fact has no clear idea how long something is going to take and is trying to hide his uncertainty behind a facade of precision. Or it might be that his true timeline is so far out — say, fifty years or more — that from the distance of his actual perspective, a difference of five years one way or the other looks inconsequential.

I don’t know what accounts for Kilcullen’s odd construction. I do know that we’re so used to precise-sounding imprecision that often it glides right past us. I remember working at a Silicon Valley startup where executives talked comfortably about product launches in the “Q2 or Q3 timeframe.” Q2 and Q3 together already represent six months, but even six months was apparently too narrow for the team to be willing to commit, and they insisted on creating even more wiggle room by reference to that precise-sounding but substantively meaningless word, “timeframe.” I suppose the board might have shown its displeasure had management instead said, “We’re hoping to get the product out sometime this year, but we’re not really sure.” On the other hand, the board should have had the sense to know the “timeframe” estimate amounted to the same thing.

Probably not a coincidence that the company in question has long since died.

Of less likely significance, but still odd, is the message from Hawaiian governor Linda Lingle in the program booklet at Left Coast Crime, where I’m spending a few days before the Fault Line launch on Tuesday. Governor Lingle sends her “personal greetings” to the conference goers. But what could this mean? First, Ms. Lingle is identified as the governor, and the seal of the State of Hawaii appears next to her picture, so if anything, this was an official greeting. But even without the official references, how do you personally offer greetings from a pamphlet? Why can’t people just send their greetings, unsullied by silly sleight of hand? I wouldn’t put Governor Lingle’s puffery in quite the same category as something like “sincere condolences,” which at least is a logical construction despite its unfortunate implication that condolences unadorned by the adjective might be less than heartfelt. But still.

Obviously, some of the sort of bullshit noted above is innocuous and some of it is dangerous. It’s important to distinguish, but I think it’s also important to not let it slide. Fixing a problem, even an inconsequential one, without focus and realism takes an awful lot of luck. If we need to be in Afghanistan for half a century, or if experts are so unsure how long we’ll need to be there that they offer estimates as incoherent as Kilcullen’s, let’s get those facts on the table and decide accordingly.

— Barry Eisler

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