Another policy success

This morning a report landed in my email inbox from the American Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) entitled Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan.

SIGAR audits the development assistance provided by the United States to Afghanistan. His reports make depressing reading, being mostly a catalogue of billions of dollars of misspent resources producing few if any positive results.

The latest report is no exception. Its conclusion: ‘After a decade of reconstruction and over $7 billion in counternarcotics efforts, poppy cultivation levels are at an all-time high.’ ‘Afghan farmers grew an unprecedented 209,000 hectares of opium poppy in 2013’, says the report, ‘With deteriorating security in many  parts of rural Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivations are likely in 2014.’



Attempting to prevent people from consuming illicit drugs by destroying the supply is a strategy that has not had notable success anywhere else. Yet, as with so many other failed policies America and its NATO alllies insanely persist in doing the same thing over and over again in the hope of getting a different result. How can this be explained?

Psychology provides a clue in the form of the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’: people attribute others’ mistakes to something internal to them (e.g. their malice or incompetence), but their own mistakes to some external factor beyond their control. So it is that in this case, the US Department of State and the Department of Defense, in their responses to SIGAR (included in the report) lay the blame for the bad poppy cultivation figures on the Afghan government.  ‘Our counternarcotics goals can only be accomplished when these are also Afghan counternarcotics goals’, says the Department of State. ‘In our opinion, the failure to reduce poppy cultivation and increase eradication is due to the lack of Afghan government support for the effort’, says the Department of Defense.

This, of course, is an entirely self-serving explanation, as it excuses the Americans for their own failures. It thereby allows them to persist in the belief that counter-narcotics strategies are not inherently futile, and to continue to pour resources into them in the hope that next time things will work out right.

No Justice for East Ukrainians

A provocative piece by Vera Graziadei, though I should point out that, as reported by Amnesty International, crimes have been committed by both sides.

Update: Amnesty International has issued a report today (20 October) concluding that evidence ‘points strongly to the commission of at least some extra-judicial killings by both sides in the conflict.’ I may return to this in a later post.

The politics of space

Guest post by Nicholas Robinson.


(Photo: Shamil Zhumatov)

On 14 December 1972, humans walked on the Moon for the last time. Forty-two years later, no one has gone anywhere further than low-Earth orbit. The most ambitious project since the Apollo programmes is arguably the heavily-criticised International Space Station (ISS), an international collaboration costing over $100 billion. That project’s future is now in doubt, as Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has threatened to shut down the station by 2020. This announcement comes following American sanctions against Russia. NASA has essentially stopped working with Roscosmos (the Russian Federal Space Agency), except on ISS-related matters. The USA pays Russia millions of dollars to send astronauts to the ISS, because since the retirement of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011 it no longer has the capacity to send people into space itself. In fact, nobody has had the capacity to send people to the Moon since 1972, and the Space Shuttles were themselves designed in the 1970s.

The fact is that astrophysics and space programmes have generally been used as means to a political end. The Cold War space race between America and the Soviet Union was not really about science or exploration – it was about politics and defence. Carl Sagan, in his book Pale Blue Dot, explains: ‘The President did not talk about discovering the origin of the Moon, or even about bringing back samples for study. All he seemed to be interested in was sending someone there and bringing him home … What’s so special about space technology? Suddenly, I understood. Sending people to orbit the Earth or robots to orbit the Sun requires rockets – big, powerful rockets. Those same rockets can be used for nuclear war.’ In other words: if you can hit a target 400,000 km away with a missile, you can easily hit anywhere on Earth with a missile. It’s worth noting that, of all 12 men to have walked on the Moon, only one was a scientist: Harrison Schmitt, a geologist.

During the Cold War, rivalry between America and the USSR happened to encourage space exploration. Today, poor Russian-West relations are hindering it. Given how underfunded NASA, and science in general, are (the National Science Foundation, the major source of American federal research funding, currently has a budget of only around $7 billion), it is rather amazing how much they get done. Even in the face of politics.

Looking at Russia from the wrong reference point

Psychological research suggests that human beings do not evaluate losses and gains in absolute terms but relative to some reference point. This came to mind when reading Gregory Feifer’s book Russians: The People Behind the Power, which was published earlier this year.

The book is 350 pages of unrelenting negativity. ‘Putin’s system turned out to be all about dictatorship’ (page 34), Feifer says, and is ‘not based on popular support’ (page 38). ‘Anger is never far from the surface’ (page 43). ‘Poverty is endemic’ (page 47), is worse than in the Soviet Union, and ‘continues getting worse’ (page 65). One can observe ‘the obvious disintegration of the social fabric’ (page 70), as ‘hopes for a better life steadily decline’ (page 73). Drinking is ‘helping drive men’s life expectancy down’ and ‘the population continues to shrink. … It’s getting worse’ (page 89). ‘Putin’s self-interested authoritarianism is driving his country off a cliff’ (page 213), Feifer remarks. He concludes that the West must take a hard line against Russia and ‘must have no illusions about what kind of country they are dealing with’ (page 348).

As befits a journalist’s work, Feifer’s book is anecdotal rather than academic, and he draws unwarranted conclusions from his anecdotes. Putin does in fact enjoy popular support (an 87% approval rating according to a recent Levada poll). Surveys suggest that Russians are happier than ever. Russia has enjoyed massive economic growth in the past fifteen years which has substantially reduced poverty. The mortality rate is declining, as is alcoholism, and the population is growing.

There are, of course, many bad things about modern Russia. But there are good things too. Feifer is far too one-sided. What explains this? I think that it may have something to do with the reference point he starts from. Feifer begins his book by describing his experiences in the Soviet Union at the time of the August coup in 1991 which briefly ousted Mikhail Gorbachev and ended with Boris Yeltsin forcing the coup leaders to back down. This is Feifer’s reference point – the heady, exciting days when he and others believed that the Soviet Union was going to become a liberal democratic, Western state. Seen from this perspective, the Putin era has been a terrible disappointment – thus the inclination to describe it in such negative terms.

My reference point is very different: it is the time I spent as a student in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Remembering the general dinginess, the difficulty of finding the most basic goods, the sullen and incompetent service, and all the rest of it, I cannot look at Russia today and think that the country has gotten worse. Despite all its flaws, it has obviously gotten a whole lot better.

Feifer’s problem, I think, is that he is comparing Russia not with what it really was at any time in the past but with an idea he had of what Russia could be, an idea which was quite possibly never realisable. The result is an unfair assessment of the country’s progress.

Foreign policy insanity

According to yesterday’s New York Times, a 2013 classified study examined the results of CIA experiences in arming and training rebel groups in other countries. The conclusion: ‘many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict.’ The only ‘successful’ example the report could come up with was the support given to the Afghan mujahideen which led to the toppling of the Najibullah government in 1992. But given the subsequent history of Afghanistan even this doesn’t look too good.

Despite this dismal track record, President Obama has given the go-ahead to the CIA to arm and train Syrian rebels in an effort to defeat the Islamic State and overthrow Bashar al-Assad. It is not as if Obama didn’t know better – he had apparently read the CIA report and didn’t want to support the Syrian rebels. But eventually he caved in to pressure from the CIA and the Department of State. He felt the need to show the American public that he was doing something. Thus, foreign policy, as so often, was subordinated to domestic politics, and the president approved a policy he surely understood was bound to fail.

Insanity, Albert Einstein supposedly said, consists of ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ If that is the case, then American foreign policy is insane.

One language good, two languages better

I live in a bilingual country, and I work at a bilingual university, where I teach in both languages. But bilingualism isn’t just a personal preference. It is also a political choice, at both a personal and a national level.

With this in mind, I was interested to read two recent articles which discuss how two countries with a significant Russian-speaking population, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, deal with the language issue.

In an article entitled ‘Kazakhstan: Wildflower Rising from the Steppes’, security consultant David Law discusses what he recently saw in Kazakhstan, commenting that:

 If the older generations of Russians did not receive any instruction in Kazakh in their youth, now in both the Kazakh and Russian language schools, the second language is taught. The younger cohort of Kazakhs and Russians is growing up bilingually and often trilingually. This is a testimony to the realisation that increasingly the best opportunities will go to those who can communicate with not only their fellow citizens in their language but also with the internationals who in growing numbers have come to find treasure in Kazakhstan’s booming economy. … Overall, President Nazarbayev, in power since 1989, deserves credit for his stewardship. While promoting Kazakh as the national language, he has been a champion of the country’s diversity. He has systematically defended the notion that Russian, the lingua franca of the Soviet period and still ubiquitous, should serve as the language of inter-ethnic communication.

Nazarbayev is a dictator, and it would be a mistake to idealize his government. In addition, despite impressive economic growth in recent years, Kazakhstan has significant economic and social problems. Law nevertheless notes that Nazarbayev has handled the language issue well.

By contrast, in an article in World Politics Review (subscribers only), American academic Nicolai Petro examines the situation in Ukraine. Recently returned from a year-long sabbatical in Odessa, Petro notes that the country is officially Ukrainian unilingual despite the fact that about 40% of the population speak Russian as their first language. He explains that Western Ukrainians see this as ‘a matter of righting a historical injustice’ and believe that failure to enforce the language monopoly will weaken the Ukrainian national identity. Eastern Ukrainians, however, feel that their culture includes both Ukrainian and Russian strands, and see such ‘Ukrainianization’ as restrictive, as attempting to erase part of their history and to diminish them.

Law describes Kazakhstan as having shown a ‘commitment to unity through respect for diversity.’ Petro urges Ukraine to make the same commitment. If Ukraine wishes to have a stable future, he writes, ‘the two core components of Ukrainian identity will have to learn to coexist on equal terms within one nation. This means recognizing that the Russian language and cultural heritage are integral parts of Ukrainian  identity.’

Russia, the West, and the world

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