Friday, January 12, 2007

War and the Social Sciences

Another interesting New Yorker thing here. It concerns a number of people, particularly an Australian officer and academic named Kilcullen, who have been pressing the Pentagon to make greater use of the social sciences in determining policy, specifically in dealing with counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

The project, speaking broadly, is to localise counterinsurgency efforts, making them more culturally sensitive, more efficient, and more geared to local politics and concerns. The idea is that Islamic militancy (and other problems like it) tends to be rooted and manifested locally, and that any good attempt to address them should be local as well.

The ethical concerns presented are simple enough, and are emblematic of the problems that generally face engaged intellectuals. On the one hand, trying to do change US policy in these sorts of places means signing on to the disastrous US grand strategy of the moment. On the other hand, signing on to big mistakes might make it easier to turn them into smaller ones. As one academic interviewed points out, the alternative is to “sit back and watch these mistakes happen over and over as people get killed, and do nothing.”

In any event, the effort doesn’t seem to be getting very far. Funding and staffing for an interdepartmental office dedicated to the project seems to have been limited, and American actions over the last week or so don’t seem much in tune with it. Air strikes in Somalia, air strikes and running battles in the streets of suburban Baghdad, and a five-digit troupe increase in Iraq do not suggest cultural sensitivity.

That said, ethical issues or no, these folks make a pretty good case, and are probably right in large part. If one is going to do what the Bush Administration insists upon, one might as well do it efficiently, carefully, effectively, right in short. That this opportunity will probably be missed represents one more tragedy in the current situation, the sort of footnote that makes it seem all the more unnecessary. In a few decades, the story of its failure may well be grimly fascinating.

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