Consuming Garbage

Many decades ago, I was an undergrad in Northwestern University’s School of Business. Statistics and marketing were mandatory courses. Donald Trump, some years later, was an undergrad at Wharton. The curriculum was much the same. We both were aware of the dangers of using tainted data—surveys asking the wrong or improper questions or focus groups skewed one way, or the other can lead to disastrous results. New coke and the Ford Edsel resulted from avoiding the tough but right questions. Instead, they went with those likely to confirm what you already thought. Everyone in business school has heard the cautionary, “dogs don’t like it story.” The last thing you want to do is fool yourself.

Possibly an awful polling question asked in slightly different versions by several organizations led to the worst foreign policy disaster in memory. In my last post, I referred to the Dispatch article showing how you asked the “should we remain in Afghanistan question,” yield widely differing results. 

 The “Do you approve or disapprove of Biden’s plan to remove the troops from Afghanistan?” is a version of the eternally high polling “Are you in favor of world peace.” “Everyone is for world peace. However, if we add you lose all your freedom to attain it, the results reverse. “Do you think the U.S. should remove all military troops from Afghanistan, or should some U.S. troops remain for counter-terrorism operations?” elicits a some troops’ stay majority.  

We’ve all heard the quality of the data concept, “Garbage in Garbage out.” There’s a variation “Garbage in Gospel out.” The latter applies here. The Bernie Saunders peacenik group has long dominated the left. Add the Trump “America First” bunch, and the Rand Paul “never get involved overseas” libertarians. You have many people emotionally ready to accept and repeat the 70+ percent favor pulling out foolishness.

The question is why “reputable polling operations” would ask the Afghan question in this manner. They have to be aware this is sure to mislead. If a student taking Statistics and marketing is taught this is rotten practice, why would pros make the error? We know polling in the 2020 election was the worst ever. Why leaders would make such an important decision based on a faulty polling question must’ve been because it gave them the desired answer.

Donald Trump especially had to know his claimed pullout support was bogus. If he wanted to know how Americans thought about Afghanistan, he would’ve demanded the right questions. Maybe he wasn’t the great student he claims to have been.

Still, it is unfair to place significant blame on Trump. In December 2018, Trump announced his intention to leave both Syria and Afghanistan. The blow back was immediate. Embodying the resistance, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis took the principled step of resignation. In my post at that time, “Wrong Turns on Major Problems at Year-end,” I echoed his objections. Trump derided him in ugly tantrums. However, Mattis and others may have affected Trump’s actual actions. To this day, we still have troops in Syria.  

This presence shows we have no idea what Trump would’ve done in Afghanistan. His deal with the terrorist Taliban to leave undermined our Afghan allies, but we’ll never know the follow-through. In any case, Biden, who reversed almost every other thing Trump did, was under no obligation to follow his plan.

What is shocking is no one in the Biden Administration in the seven months they’ve been in office stood up in public and opposed what proved to be a disastrous plan. There have been leaks claiming opposition by the military and others, but no Mattis with the courage to speak up. The present Defense Secretary or even the Joint Chiefs of Staff made no effort to publicly clarify the military’s standpoint. These people need to go. They either didn’t comprehend how flawed Biden’s plan was, or they were well aware but kept their mouths shut. Either way, the failure to do their duty left them all with blood on their hands.

We hear from the President and so many others that the withdrawal is messy but long overdue. We accomplished our goals long ago, and now we need to transfer our resources to more important places. In any case, all our efforts to foster a modern free state were a costly failure. We had no choice but to end this expensive “forever war.” Widely promoted by the government and across media, this narrative is dominant. 

Like many of today’s media-driven narratives, this one doesn’t hold up. Our goal in going into Afghanistan in the first place was to get the people that enabled the 9/11 attack and to prevent that country from being a launching pad for future episodes. We got terrible guys. For 20 yrs., we suffered zero horrors coming out of that state. Now, the terrorists have accompanied the return of the Taliban. The situation now poses the same or a worse threat to our friends and us as before 9/11. The idea terrorists in Yemen or Africa constitute the same menace as those in a nation they have free rein is ludicrous.

In light of this danger, Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta flatly states we will have to return to combat in Afghanistan. If Biden didn’t realize it before, the Airport bombing should bring it home; the terrorists there aren’t done with us.

We’ve seen this movie before. Against general advice, the Obama-Biden administration pulled our troops out of Iraq. This action resulted in the horrors of ISIS. We had to send in the troops again to fight another war. If it’s likely we will have to go back in, why leave in the first place?

 It’s not the expense. According to the New York Times, our Afghan operations run about $20 Billion a year. That’s .05% of our budget. A few thousand troops there just wasn’t that expensive, especially against the possible cost of other 9/11s. How costly and difficult will the return be without friends and any near bases?

Our NATO allies, who had more soldiers in the country (7,000 vs. 2,500) than the U.S., didn’t push us to cut and run. Realizing the threats to their countries of the withdrawal, they wanted to stay. Some even offered to up their commitment. If they could see the dangers, why couldn’t we?

Our mistake was not in staying but in always wanting to leave. We need a presence in Afghanistan for our protection. With the recent low troop total and little expense, a “forever” stationing of troops likely would be a bargain against a series of 9/11s across the world. 

We had fought to a draw with the Taliban in the countryside, and we had the urban areas. If they massed to try to add a city, air-power and special forces inflicted heavy losses. We assume they’ll fight forever, just like the “forever cold war,” but suddenly it ended. Urban Afghanistan’s population is growing much faster. The country is very young and gaining more educated people. Half the country is female, and increasingly they deplore the Taliban. 

I remember when South Korea and Taiwan were corrupt one-party states, but under our protective shield, they evolved. According to Freedom House, South Korea is on par with the U.S., and Taiwan is even higher in freedom scores. Democracy takes time. I agree we can’t nation build, but we can allow people to develop their nation. In any case, we’re involved in those countries and others to keep the bad guys at bay. It’s for our protection. 

A primary job of the government is to promote the safety of the people. Does anybody feel safer now that we’re pulling out of Afghanistan? So how did we make such an error? We’ve made mistakes on our Covid response, the border, and massive spending for the same reason. We fail to make the proper Risk-Reward assessments. Ignoring or, worse, suppressing what doesn’t fit the favored narrative is the path to faulty decisions.

Too often today, we conclude, often emotionally, and then assemble the information supporting our judgment rather than gathering the information to reach a reasoned determination. Many are just now realizing how much more there was to consider about the Afghan situation. Why is that? Until we properly approach our problems, we will make ever more consequential mistakes. The media could support this endeavor by not taking sides before they present all the necessary information.

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