Friday, December 4, 2009

Monkey Business and the Problems with Comparisons

The title of this post is drawn from a line that one of my graduate school advisers used to say. Dr. John Grenier told us that any monkey can make a comparison. Its the differences that can really make or break a point. He also cautioned us to be very specific and narrow in making comparisons.

I used this advice when confronted with a post about evil Chinese invading Texas for oil. In the comments section I explained why that analogy fails on so many points. Basically, its the differences between Chinese and American foreign policy over the past 100 years, and differences in justification between the fictional Chinese invasion and the American attack on the Taliban. But you should also go there for my full explanation and context.

But there is a more widely used analogy that fails as well. This is the myth of Afghanistan as the "Graveyard of Empires". This analogy fails due to the same advice I learned in graduate school: shallow comparisons do not work when you begin to notice the differences in details. What follows is an article from the military historian Victor David Hanson that describes the important differences, and sometimes historical inaccuracies that make the grave yard of Empires comment a myth. Normally I prefer to offer a link and focus on my own analysis, synthesis and argument. However this article was so completely spot on and made me shout "exactly" or "that's what I said" into my computer screen so many times that I thought it was worth re posting large chunks of it here.

The topic of Afghanistan in itself is tangential to warfare in The Book of Mormon. But the monkey business I described here is directly related to it. As I described before, your chance in making faulty comparisons increases a great deal with an ancient (or plagiarized) book and both sides of The Book of Mormon historicity debate have faced this problem. On this site I've striven to avoid shallow comparisons and to offer the important differences when I do see a problem.

Without further ado, here is Victor David Hanson: Afghan Mythologies

As President Obama decides whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, we should remember that most of the conventional pessimism about Afghanistan is only half-truth.

Remember the mantra that the region is the “graveyard of empires,” where Alexander the Great, the British in the 19th century, and the Soviets only three decades ago inevitably met their doom?

In fact, Alexander conquered most of Bactria and its environs (which included present-day Afghanistan). After his death, the area that is now Afghanistan became part of the Seleucid Empire.

Centuries later, outnumbered British-led troops and civilians were initially ambushed, and suffered many casualties, in the first Afghan war. But the British were not defeated in their subsequent two Afghan wars between 1878 and 1919.

The Soviets did give up in 1989 their nine-year effort to create out of Afghanistan a Communist buffer state — but only because the Arab world, the United States, Pakistan, and China combined to provide the Afghan mujahideen resistance with billions of dollars in aid, not to mention state-of-the-art anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.

While Afghans have been traditionally fierce resistance fighters and made occupations difficult, they have rarely for long defeated invaders — and never without outside assistance.

Other myths about Afghanistan abound.

Is the country ungovernable? No more so than any of the region’s other rough countries. After the founding of the modern state in 1919, Afghanistan enjoyed a relatively stable succession of constitutional monarchs until 1973. The country was once considered generally secure, tolerant, and hospitable to foreigners.

Did we really take our eye off the “good” war in Afghanistan to fight the optional bad one in Iraq? Not quite. After our brilliant campaign to remove the Taliban in 2001, the relatively stable Karzai government saw little violence until 2007. Between 2001 and 2006, no more than 100 American soldiers were killed in any given year.

In fact, American casualties increased after Iraq became quiet — as Islamists, defeated in Iraq’s Anbar province, refocused their efforts on the dominant Afghan theater.

Is Afghanistan the new Vietnam? Hardly. In the three bloodiest years, 2007 through 2009 so far, the United States has suffered a total of 553 fatalities — tragic, but less than 1 percent of the 58,159 Americans killed in Vietnam. What is astounding is the ability of the U.S. military to inflict damage on the enemy, protect the constitutional government, and keep our losses to a minimum.

Our military is the most experienced in both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency warfare in the world. The maverick savior of Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, now oversees operations in the Mideast and Central Asia. His experienced lieutenant, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is a successful veteran of the worst fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unlike past foreign interventions, our U.N.-approved aim is not to create a puppet state, but a consensual government able to defend itself against the Taliban and al-Qaeda — while preventing more strikes against the United States.

With Iraq relatively stabilized, jihadists have no choice but to commit their resources to prevent a second defeat. Meanwhile, Pakistan at last is cracking down on terrorist enclaves...

Thanks for reading.


Doug said...
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Morgan Deane said...
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Morgan Deane said...
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Morgan Deane said...

I'm also not that interested in debating the war(s). This was a narrow post about methodology in comparisons and an example concerning the "grave yard" myth. One more long debate about the war is not on my agenda.