Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A World of Turmoil and Zeroes

I don't like round numbers very much, especially when a politician pulls one out of the hat that's followed by seven or eight zeroes. Once you get into that many zeroes it's pretty obvious that the number you're being given is a political number not a factual number.

Take the number 200,000,000 or two hundred million. That's the amount Stephen Harper has come up with to fund six or seven priorities for Afghanistan. Now, what do you think the chances are of costing out six or seven things, adding up those costs and coming out with a 2 and 8 zeroes?

No, $200,000,000 is a number picked out of the air, plain and simple, and that's a political number. Once you start rounding off figures in the tens of millions of dollars, you're talking political numbers. This isn't even rounded off to the nearest million. Let's hope it's rounded off to the nearest ten million. If not, it's even a bigger political number than I'd feared.

Spending that's not defined by actual cost projections is one thing but priorities that are shaped by political numbers awash in zeroes make me wonder whose purposes are actually being served. Anything with eight zeroes in it is a grandstanding number, a photo-op number, and there's nothing that Harpo likes more than a good photo-op where he can grandstand.

I think Harpo may be getting the Kabul Virus. It's an infection that swells the organs north of the eyebrows. The symptoms are inconsistency of purpose, incoherent policy, myopia and a thorough state of confusion. It's not just Harpo who's been stricken. This is contagious.

In the past year the NATO forces have had - what - four commanders? A Canadian, then a Dutch General, then a Brit and now an American. Each has arrived with his own playbook. Some want to fight. Some want to emphasize reconstruction. Some want to negotiate local ceasefires. Each comes in with a "fresh" approach.

Four conflicting approaches and the worst - or best part of it is that they're all right, every one of them. We have to fight. We have to rebuild. We have to negotiate. Each of those guys is correct and because they're all right we come to the hidden truth - we can't do all these things because we only have a small fraction of the troops necessary for the challenge we've taken on.

You can't have coherent policy without the resources required for coherence. Absent those resources, commanders have to pick and choose what their priority will be and that leads to inconsistency which, in turn, leads to incoherence, myopia and confusion.

Confusion? You bet. We're still getting all the nonsense about how we're liberating Afghan women when, in reality, the guys we're propping up want the country to return to medieval feudalism - when just down the road from the Canadian base, girls as young as 12 are in prison because they refused to let their fathers sell them to other old men, when women legislators are threatened with rape inside parliament and can only visit their constituencies concealed in burqas lest they be killed.

We're still getting the crap about how we're protecting the people when it's the government's security services that are their main predator and when the people distrust their government so much that they take their complaints and disputes to the Taliban insurgents for judgment and justice.

We're still getting the garbage about democracy when the Karzai government has been infested with warlords and thugs who grant themselves amnesty for their atrocities, take all the plum posts and rake enormous profit from the land they impoverish.

We're barely able to keep the insurgents from toppling the rotten government in Kabul. We went over there to take the fight to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Wouldn't it be terrific if that's all we really had to do to save Afghanistan? But we can't save the women and girls of Afghanistan from their menfolk. We can't save the peasants and farmers from their police and the warlords and drug lords. We can't save Hamid Karzai from the thugs and butchers who have insinuated themselves into his government and have spread their control and influence like a rampant malignancy.

What, then, is there left to save? Is it any wonder that all we can come up with are political numbers?

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