Not everything has ‘strategic importance’

If you read through the entire post below, eventually you’ll get to a cool analogy about Civilzation 4. It’s worth it.

I don’t know nearly enough about Afghanistan to say whether the war is going well or not. I don’t know much about the hodgepodge of tribes, languages, and political rivalries throughout the country, nor do I know much about the region’s history, economy, or government. I’m willing to go along with the president’s current plans because I think he’s got smart people working on it, and they seem deeply engaged in the issues. That’s a nice change from the previous administration, so I figure I should by and large go along with their strategy, so long as it seems reasonable. Which it does, for the most part:  Focus on defeating irredentist Taliban while co-opting the more moderate elements into the existing political system. Seek a growing area of control and population security to start providing government services to the populace and win hearts and minds. Diminish al Qaeda’s chances of gaining a safe haven in the region. Then leave. I guess that seems reasonable, which is about as clear a statement of my position on Afghanistan as I can give at the moment. I just wish other people who are equally ignorant of the facts would also take this kind of reserved position … but that’s a topic for another day.

Today I want to poke a little hole in the administration’s tactics. The ongoing operation in Marja, Afghanistan was meant as a roll-out of the new population-centric strategy of pushing the Taliban out of population centers they currently control. I’ve been following the story closely because I have a quirky interest in the Middle of Nowhere. The operation looked like a big success until I read this story today. Apparently the Taliban are back, cutting off heads and intimidating ‘collaborators’ during the nighttime, when they can move in and out of the district at will. Since Marja was supposed to be a warmup for larger operations in the future, this seems bad. We’ll see if the situation changes anytime soon.

But it does raise questions in my head. Why are we in Marja in the first place? It’s an unincorporated, rural district of about 80,000 residents. I find it hard to believe that, even if Marja were left as a Taleban/al-Qaeda stronghold, that it would provide much of a ‘safe haven’. Safe havens, in order to be useful, should provide their owners with resources they can use to acheive their goals. But to my knowledge, the terrorist attacks (successful and thwarted) in the last decade have been planned / executed mostly within larger population centers and primarily in the West —  Europe and the US. What exactly does the Taleban or al-Qaeda gain from using 80,000 poor farmers as a safe haven? I guess they get to eat some local produce. But you can’t hijack an airliner from Marja, you can’t plant bombs in subways from Marja, and you can’t even fundraise or recruit from Marja. All you can do in Marja is exist.

The real danger of the focus on denying al-Qeada and the Taleban ‘safe havens’ is that it’s too easy to call any unimportant scrap of land a ‘safe haven’ of vital interest to US national security. It takes a lot of broad, strategic focus to say, “No, it’s not worth attacking that scrap of land, let’s focus over here instead.”

For you Civilization players out there, the closest analogy is when you think you’re done conquering another civilization’s cities on their main continent, but the civ still exists on your diplomacy sidebar. They’ve got themselves one puny city on some lame island somewhere! Now, do you waste 20 turns building a flotilla to scour the oceans, find the holdout city, and conquer it once and for all? Of course not. You spend 20 turns teching up and upgrading your cities and troops. Huayna Capac or Asoka or Mansa Musa or whoever he is isn’t about to launch an invasion force from his unproductive little scrap of tundra by the poles. Keep your eye on the prize, fearless leader.

Just a reminder that not everything has ‘strategic importance’ to the US. Maybe Marja actually does, or maybe it doesn’t — I’m probably too ignorant to really know. I just hope somebody upstairs has a solid Civ background and/or knows when to say, “But, that’s the Middle of Nowhere. Only eccentrics spend time thinking about things that don’t matter.” That’s right. Leave the Middle of Nowhere stuff to those of us with a passion for it.


2 Responses to “Not everything has ‘strategic importance’”

  1. 1 JSC7 March 19, 2010 at 3:56 am

    Counter-argument: if you invade Marja, the Taliban spends its time organizing beheadings in Marja, which has no importance, instead of in Kabul or in Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. Civ example: if there’s some random pocket of enemies that won’t sign peace and who you don’t want to deal with at the moment, send an engineer to build a fortress near them and stick a few defensive units in it. Then they’ll keep attacking the fortress rather than sending units into your region and destroying your roads and irrigation when you’re not paying attention.

    • 2 JSC5 March 19, 2010 at 2:15 pm

      Civ: Building the fortress and the defensive units takes away from building useful stuff in your home cities, like a laboratory or hydropower plant. If the rogue civilization is trapped on an unproductive patch of tundra, all they can really churn out is the occasional archer, which is no match for your SAM infantry units. There’s basically no reason to worry about the dude invading your territory. So why opt for the fortress and defensive units instead of teching up your city? You’ve got a space race victory to pursue.

      Marja: I do think that the “let’s fight the terrorists there so we don’t fight them here” counterargument does carry some weight. But it has to come with some comparison of the ease/difficulty of fighting them “there” (middle of nowhere) and “here” (Kabul or even the West, take your pick). If we’re fighting them “here”, then we’re fighting them in a place where we already have a larger presence and an ability to project force at a much lower cost. There’s also a limited set of places that can be called “here”, which helps. If we’re fighting them “there”, then we have no power on the ground and need to import it … which turns out to be really difficult to do and expensive. And there’s also the problem of infinite regress. Once/if we win Marja, there’s a million other middle of nowhere places on earth we’ll have to start caring about, at the same or greater expense and difficulty.

      One crude choice to illustrate it: would we rather screen out potential suicide bombers as they try to board our international transportation network and thwart them there (which is pricey but doable, and pretty effective since 9/11), or would we rather screen them out by occupying every single Marja-like patch of inconsequentuality out there?

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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