This is one great Matthew Yglesias post.
To move beyond merely rhetorical question-asking, who is the highest-ranking American official who speaks the languages they use in Afghanistan? Moving quickly down the list, it seems that neither the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, nor the Secretary of State makes the cut. Nothing in the background of Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake or Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl (oddly, State and DOD slice up the world differently) suggests that they do. Nor does Richard Holbrooke or Ambassador Karl Eikenberry or General McChrystal (or, for that matter, General Petraeus).
As it happens, I’m writing on some structural changes for Doing This Stuff Better, and I get all excited about that — particularly from the I’m-breaking-news perspective — and then I read one of these great chrystalizations and think, Well, we’re just probably fucked, aren’t we. I don’t know. You don’t have to speak French to craft a good U.S. France policy. But it helps! Language here is a way into the subtleties of how these policies are lived on the ground, which make them or break them.
Now I need to find a Rosetta Stone course in Pashto. It’s not like this lesson doesn’t apply to journalists, too.
Update: My friend Justin Logan chides me for using a shitty analogy — he’s right — and remarks: “But the problem is that we don’t have a normal diplomatic relationship with Afghanistan — we’re trying to transform the entire society.” I think he goes a little far there. We’re not trying to make Afghanistan into an urban country. We’re not even trying to make it into a democracy anymore. Our most direct aims there are now about protecting the population from insurgents; training a bigger and more capable security apparatus; and mitigating the governance and development consequences of corruption. That’s still an ambitious agenda! And Justin makes a good point. He’s more right than wrong. But, y’know, if people are going to take issue with my half-thought-out analogies…