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The AfPak Dilemmas: Part of the Problem

One of the basic distinctions I try to emphasize in my courses is the difference between a dilemma and a problem. A dilemma involves choosing between (or among) roughly equivalent good (or bad) options, while a problem calls for selecting what is determined to be the better option among a range of choices that are not deemed even roughly equivalent. This is a somewhat “loose” distinction that comes in handy when trying to understand the work of public administrators.

I think the difference applies in the current situation in Afghanistan. A Facebook post this morning from a former student stationed there drew attention to a Washington Post story about a decision to pull US troops from deployment in a sparsely populated area where the Taliban was active and instead focus US military commitments to more populated areas where US troops can be used to greater effect.

Going beyond the details, this is a classic case of “dilemma dealing” in that the commanders had to chose between two equally (again, roughly speaking) bad options. It is also an indication of the current state of affairs in what the Post now calls the “AfPak” front. The focus is no longer on solving the Taliban “problem”, but rather in dealing with the dilemmas created by our commitment to confront that problem.

Understood this way, one can have a greater appreciation of the significance of the current debate over “strategic options” within the Obama Administration. Strategies are designed to address problems, but it would be a mistake for them to be considered without focusing on the dilemmas they create for the troops on the ground. McChrystal’s now well publicized report should be read for what it is: an assessment of the dilemmas the US deployment is facing that have to be contended with. It is not, as some have read it, a call for any particular change in the strategic approach. This is not an emerging MacArthur-Truman confrontation as some seem to be implying.

September 24th, 2009 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments