Kevin Drum

More on Afghanistan

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 12:16 PM EDT

Last night I mentioned in passing the conventional wisdom that it will take five years or more to train the Afghan army up to a point where it can successfully take over counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban.  Why so long?  BruceR, who recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, provides an answer:

1. Building anew is harder than renovating.
2. Multinational coalitions are inherently less efficient at army building.
3. Force protection measures in a warzone limit mentoring.
4. We still have limited experience with the culture at our command levels.
5. Giving someone independence before you give them an army limits what you can do later.
6. Growing in size and in quality at the same time is hard.
7. Risk aversion: in some ways, we've taught them too well.

Details are at the link.  He also says this: "At some point in this game, saying something takes a long time is going to be the equivalent of saying it's impossible. [Italics mine.] And raising an army in a country where security is this uncertain may well be impossible for us....If any army with a piece of the Afghan puzzle has cracked the nut with their unique approach, I haven't heard it. If we ever do, the force of effort now being applied could rapidly gain traction, I have no doubt. But we're certainly not at a point that we have a solution and we're unable to implement it: I would suggest we simply don't have the whole solution yet."

Well, our top commanders in Afghanistan say they figure they have 12-18 months to figure this out.  If Bruce is right, that's pretty close to impossible.  Which means that in 12-18 months they'll be back asking for another 12-18 months.  (And more troops.)  And then another 12-18 months.  (And more troops.)  We might want to think about getting off this train now instead.

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A Second Stimulus?

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 11:27 AM EDT

Should we pass a second stimulus?  A growing chorus of economists say yes.  They're afraid that the mini-recovery we're seeing right now is going to stall soon, leading to a second recession.  Consumer and business demand just isn't up to the task of keeping the economy growing, so government demand will have to step in.

But that risks blowing up the deficit and causing long-term problems.  Reuters columnist James Pethokoukis has a solution:

Olivier Blanchard, chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, may have cracked the code on to boost the economy and not spook bond investors and budget hawks. Blanchard’s grand bargain, one I have been suggesting for months, is for government to spend more money in the short term to boost growth while simultaneously taking strong action to reduce the long-term budget deficit. “The trade-off is fairly attractive,” Blanchard said in a report this week. “IMF estimates suggest that the fiscal cost of future increases in entitlements is 10 times the fiscal cost of the crisis. Thus, even a modest cut in the growth rate of entitlement programs can buy substantial fiscal space for continuing stimulus.”

....As an analysis I commissioned from the American Enterprise Institute revealed, extending the Social Security retirement age while at the same time indexing benefits to inflation rather than wages would turn a $5 trillion present value deficit into a $5 trillion surplus.

In principle, this isn't crazy.  By credibly phasing in entitlement reductions, we could spend more money now without setting off debt alarm bells down the road.  And you wouldn't have to go as far as Pethokoukis either.  You could finance a trillion dollar stimulus package with only a tiny change in Social Security or Medicare growth.

The problem, of course, comes from Pethokoukis's specialty: "the nexus of Washington and Wall Street."  It's true that Republicans would normally be in favor of entitlement cuts, even if they were fairly small.  But they aren't in favor of stimulus packages and they really, really aren't in favor of doing anything to support the Obama administration.  So in real life, if Democrats proposed some kind of bargain like this, they'd instantly do exactly what they're doing right now with health care: begin screaming about rationing (if the cuts were to Medicare) or selling out the elderly (if the cuts were to Social Security).  They're the Party of No, it seems to be working pretty well for them, and there's no reason to think they're willing to give that up in order to help the president rescue the economy.

So this seems like a political nonstarter, even if technically it might have potential.  Until someone explains how to get Republicans to grow up and get on board with this, it's not going anywhere.

Squaring the Afghan Circle

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 12:13 AM EDT

The New York Times yesterday:

In a region the Taliban have lorded over for six years, and where they remain a menacing presence, American officers say their troops alone are not enough to reassure Afghans. Something is missing that has left even the recently appointed district governor feeling dismayed. “I don’t get any support from the government,” said the governor, Massoud Ahmad Rassouli Balouch.

....Even with the new operation in Helmand Province, which involves the Marines here and more than 3,000 others as part of President Obama’s troop deployments, the military lacks the troop strength even to try to secure some significant population centers and guerrilla strongholds in central and southern Helmand.

The New York Times today:

American military commanders with the NATO mission in Afghanistan told President Obama’s chief envoy to the region this weekend that they did not have enough troops to do their job, pushed past their limit by Taliban rebels who operate across borders.

....The possibility that more troops will be needed in Afghanistan presents the Obama administration with another problem in dealing with a nearly eight-year war that has lost popularity at home, compounded by new questions over the credibility of the Afghan government, which has just held an as-yet inconclusive presidential election beset by complaints of fraud.

OK then.  More troops aren't getting the job done because we're not getting any support from the Afghan government.  So we're going to ask for more troops.

OK, OK: I know that's just a smart ass comment.  In fact, here's some good news from McClatchy: "Pakistan's extremist Taliban movement is badly divided over who should be its new leader, and analysts and local tribesmen say the al Qaida-linked group may be in danger of crumbling."  Though even that's a mixed blessing.  The second NYT story suggests that the death of Baitullah Mehsud, which set off the problems in the Pakistani Taliban, may also cause the Pakistani army to lose interest in the tribal areas and move on to other, shinier toys.

Overall, the evidence suggests that steadily increasing U.S. troop strength has had virtually no effect in the past; that the Taliban is getting continually stronger; that the central government is corrupt and incompetent; and that even under the best circumstances the Afghan army can't be brought up to speed in less than five years.  At the same time, U.S. commanders say they understand that they have only 12-18 months to turn things around.

Someone needs to explain to me how that's going to happen.  Anything even remotely plausible will do for a start.  Because I sure don't see it.

Death Books

| Sun Aug. 23, 2009 1:38 PM EDT

Sweet Jesus.  We've gone from death panels to death books?  Crikey.

BTW, I just did a Nexis search, and as near as I can tell the pamphlet in question wasn't mentioned a single time between 2006 and last month.  In other words, until it became a political football this week, not one single person thought this issue was important to enough to mention even in passing in any news outlet whatsoever.  The reason, of course, is that before now no one actually thought this was outrageous.  Because it isn't.

Regulating the Regulators

| Sun Aug. 23, 2009 12:28 PM EDT

MattY points us to a Gillian Tett column in the Financial Times, which ends with this:

If regulators and politicians are to have any hope of building a more effective financial system in future, it is crucial that they start thinking more about power structures, vested interests and social silence. That might sound like an irritatingly abstract or pious plea. However, it has some very practical implications about how policy is formulated. I will seek to flesh out some of those in next week’s column....

This is a surprisingly underdiscussed point, but it's something that's critical to how we think about financial regulation.  If we want regulation to work, the regulatory structures need to be set up so that their institutional power bases push them in the direction we want them pushed.  That's why, for example, I don't like the idea of the Fed gaining more power over consumer regulation: it's institutionally and culturally oriented toward the financial community and macroeconomic management.  Consumer regulation will never be taken seriously there no matter how many laws we write.

I'm not sure if this means that an entirely separate agency needs to be set up or not, but whatever we do has to take account of how power actually works.  Not only does consumer financial regulation need to be in the hands of someone who considers it their prime responsibility, but it needs to have committee support in Congress and some kind of natural constituency with serious political juice and a financial interest in making sure consumer regulation works.  Otherwise it will sink into bureaucratic oblivion.  Suggestions welcome.

Happy Blogoversary!

| Sat Aug. 22, 2009 7:00 PM EDT

Today is my seventh blogoversary.  Hooray!  We celebrated by having a system crash this morning, which is kind of appropriate in a way.  After seven years, I have yet to work on a truly reliable blogging platform.

But an even more appropriate way to celebrate is by putting up some bonus catblogging.  So here it is: a picture of Inkblot snapped three minutes ago.  If I had a cat-cam set up in my living room, this is what you'd see in real time.  In fact, it's what you'd see most of the time in real time.  And if I had a people-cam set up in my study, you'd see me staring at a glowing screen and typing some words into a box.  Which is also what you'd see most of the time.  In other words, if you substitute "blogging" for "snoozing," I'm an awful lot like a housecat.  Funny how that works.

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Crash and Burn

| Sat Aug. 22, 2009 6:41 PM EDT

From the Washington Post today:

"Anything with Z seems like there's some slight irreverence about it. So it was as simple as putting Z in front of politics!" explains Republican media consultant John Brabender....With a four-program lineup, Zolitics bills itself as a bipartisan potpourri of "original scripted content, current events with a twist, and reality based shows unlike you have ever seen before."

....It's the place to see, for example, Rick Santorum squire Donna Brazile to a NASCAR race....The NASCAR sojourn is what Santorum has expressed interest in doing for the debut episode of "My America," a show that will pair ideologically divergent bedfellows and allow each to show the other "their America." The show, Zolitics crowed in a press release this week, "just may also become America's favorite buddy story."

....Santorum calls himself "a great fan of Donna's" and looks forward to milling around with the "red-blooded Americans out there" while watching cars go Zoom.

This sounds like possibly the worst idea in the history of western civilization.

Friday Cat Blogging - 21 August 2009

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 3:06 PM EDT

You can't really see it through the shadows, but Domino is viciously attacking some errant blanket trolls on the left.  You can't perceive them, of course, limited as you are to a measly three spacial dimensions, but they were there just moments before this picture was taken.  Honest.  Inkblot, meanwhile, is enjoying a nice summer day in the garden.  And by "enjoying," of course, I mean "napping."

Pharmaceutical Innovation

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 2:41 PM EDT

Right now, it's arguable that government ground rules give pharmaceutical companies too little incentive to innovate.  If FDA regs forced them to demonstrate more than just superiority to a sugar pill, drug company incentives might be aligned a little more strongly toward finding genuinely effective new therapies instead of yet another statin or ED pill or a slightly different heartburn formulation.

Or maybe not.  It's an argument worth having.  But the current system is by no means the free market juggernaut conservatives like to pretend it is.  Changing the ground rules might very well increase innovation, not stifle it.

Quote of the Day

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 2:11 PM EDT

From James Fallows, after watching Jon Stewart's show last night:

I have been far too soft on Betsy McCaughey.

Yep.  Here's the conversation I had with Marian last night at about 11:10 pm:

M: Do you want to watch the interview?

K: Who is he having on?

M: Um, some former lieutenant governor of New York or something.

K: Oh shit.

I was appalled that Stewart chose to have McCaughey on, and I agree with Fallows that he was unable to handle her.  Partly this was because McCaughey affects a winsome, faux innocent style that makes it hard for Stewart to bully her.  Partly it's because she's ruthlessly devoid of scruples.  Partly it's because she knows she doesn't have to "win" the debate.  She merely has to sew a tiny seed of doubt.

McCaughey is pure poison.  She cares about nothing except making sure that no healthcare reform of any kind is ever adopted in the United States, and in that cause she's willing to say or do anything.  It was a mistake giving her yet another forum to spread her lies.