In an interview last Sunday to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the issue of whether or not to leave Afghanistan as a “wicked problem.”
“There are consequences both foreseen and unintended of staying and of leaving [Afghanistan],” she said. For example, she noted there was a risk the Taliban could take over and that there could be a civil war in some parts of Afghanistan. She, therefore, thought President Joe Biden’s administration would have “to focus on two huge consequences” which she identified as the resumption of activities by extremist groups and refugee outflow from Afghanistan.
Hillary Clinton is a decade-and-half late in identifying the problem, but at least like other policymakers in the US, she has finally got it right.
The term, “wicked problem,” comes from a 1973 paper titled “Dilemmas In a General Theory of Planning,” by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, both urban planning and design theorists. “Wicked” in this sense refers to a problem’s resistance to resolution. As I described it elsewhere in a 2009 article:
“A wicked problem is generally one that is either difficult or almost impossible to solve because of contradictory and changing requirements and where information is incomplete. To add to the degree of difficulty, a wicked problem involves complex interdependencies, such that tackling one aspect of the problem can create other problems.”
“Essentially, this means that no course of action can be based on a definitive formulation because a wicked problem successfully eludes one; courses of action cannot be correct or incorrect or true or false but only relatively better or worse; every attempt is a one-shot experiment which may or may not work; stakeholders have different frames for understanding and solving the problem; there are multiple value conflicts and so on.”
In rural Punjab, we call it the sau chhittar, sau ganday problem — i.e., the choice between getting beaten 100 times or eating 100 onions. You start with onions to avoid the beating and realise after eating a few that perhaps you should opt for the beating; except, after getting the beating you want to go back to eating onions. In the end, you both eat 100 onions and suffer 100 beatings!
But back to ‘high strategy’! As it happened, I was writing then with reference to the so-called war on terror. Mrs Clinton was serving then as the 67th US Secretary of State and implementing the flawed policies of her president, Barack Obama. Before Obama came on the scene and inherited a war that had already gone bad, Mrs Clinton had also vociferously supported George W Bush’s war on terror and its physical manifestation: the US invasion of Afghanistan. On both occasions, she had got the war and US strategy wrong. It’s good to see her finally realise where the problem stands and how wicked it has become. Except, the intervening cost in human lives diminishes the value of her epiphany.
While Obama had realised that he wasn’t in Afghanistan to engineer Jeffersonian democracy, he did for a long time think the situation could be controlled and steadied
The US came to Afghanistan thirsting for revenge. The war was the easy part. The Taliban had no air force so pounding them from the sky was no problem. On the ground, US Special Forces could count on the Northern Alliance and other groups opposed to the Taliban both for getting intel and doing the fighting. There wasn’t much fighting anyway. The Taliban had realised that they stood no chance against the overwhelming technological and firepower advantage of the US and US-allied militaries. The US was confident that its dominant battlespace knowledge through incredible ISR capabilities had “shifted war from the realm of uncertainty to the realm of certainty”, to quote H R McMaster, former US Army Lt-Gen and US National Security Advisor.
At the time, the Taliban did not have the experience to create their own asymmetric advantage against the US military. Some wanted to surrender and go back to their villages. They were in contact with both Hamid Karzai, later to become the president of Afghanistan, and CIA intermediaries, especially Robert Grenier, the CIA Station Chief in Pakistan. But the US was in no mood to let the Taliban walk away. Despite repeated suggestions by Pakistan to involve the Taliban as a political stakeholder in the Bonn process and to not allow the Northern Alliance to dominate as a conquering force, the US kept the Taliban out of Afghanistan’s future power configuration and allowed the NA to enter Kabul and dictate terms at the Bonn Conference.
Francesc Vendrell, an eminent Spanish diplomat who was the UN Secretary General’s Personal Representative for Afghanistan suggested that the UN Security Council adopt a resolution stating that the conquest of territory by military force was not an acceptable basis for the future distribution of power in Afghanistan. Vendrell was later sidelined just before the Bonn Conference by the UN at the behest of the Americans, and later replaced by Lakhdar Brahmi. James Dobbins, the American diplomat who represented the US at the Bonn Conference was an astute negotiator but working on the basis of very general guidelines. There was no real strategy in place. Zahid Hussain’s latest book, “No-Win War: The Paradox of US-Pakistan’s Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow”, has interesting details about what Brahimi himself later described as the ‘original sin’.
If things had happened differently, we can’t say with certainty how the situation would have panned out. But one thing is clear: the US would not have had the kind of insurgency it later did if its policy had not been driven by a mix of revenge and hubris.
Equally clear should be the fact that when you leave the original problem untreated, subsequent developments see evolving interactive complexity. Two things should be obvious: one, understanding the structures of social (as opposed to scientific-technical) systems is not entirely possible and having information on outcomes which are the result of interactive complexity is even more difficult.
Let me refer again to rural Punjab. There was a time when villages would have wells. Occasionally, a stray dog or some other animal would fall in the well. The villagers’ rustic rationality required them to get the dead dog out of the well. Not so with US policymakers with fancy degrees from Ivy Leagues. They left the dog in the well and spent billions on creating an elaborate water filtration and purification system outside the well.
Afghanistan was in the process of becoming a wicked problem by 2004-05. By the time Barack Obama assumed office in Jan 2009 and declared Afghanistan the good war (as opposed to Iraq, the bad war), Afghanistan had almost become a wicked problem. But while Obama had realised by then that he wasn’t in Afghanistan to engineer Jeffersonian democracy, he did for a long time think the situation could be controlled and steadied and a combination of Special Ops and armed drones could help the US regain an upper hand. Mark Mazzetti’s “The Way of the Knife” details the US’ reliance on such operations.
Now we have reached a point where the US is withdrawing without any conditionalities. Statements aside, it’s not even about an intra-Afghan peace deal, notwithstanding efforts to fast-track the process before the final withdrawal deadline of Sept 11, 2021. The US now wants an orderly, casualty-free extrication. In another four months the Kabul government will be on its own.
This is not the space to go into possible scenarios, most of them violent and bad. But two decades, $978 billion (as per the 2019 Brown study) and thousands of destroyed lives later, Afghanistan is back to the uncertainty of 1988-89.
Mrs Clinton’s wicked-problem statement might well be an appropriate epitaph for the US war.
The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He tweets @ejazhaider