In 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that "our age is involved in irony because so many dreams of our nation have been so cruelly refuted by history." But what exactly did Niebuhr mean by "irony" and to what end did he use the term?
"If strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it," there is irony, according to Niebuhr. In his seminal work The Irony of American History, Niebuhr argued that the "whole meaning" of international politics could be ascertained only with the help of a hefty dose of irony. In some respects, the content of his analysis now feels dated. For example, Niebuhr argued that the success of American capitalism was due in large part to the "recognition of American capitalists (what French capitalists, for instance, have not learned) that high wages for workers make mass production efficiency possible." Overall, however, Niebuhr's analytical framework of irony feels as insightful and fresh as ever.
In today's geopolitical landscape, nowhere does irony seem more brutally apparent than in Afghanistan. Can we safely say that it is ironic for the United States, slowly coming to accept its imperial role in the world, to insist that military victory is possible in the graveyard of empires? Is that really any different than strength becoming weakness because of the vanity strength may incite?
Today, the ratio of Allied to Taliban soldiers stands at 12:1. A recent report by the Associated Press noted that since many of those Allied forces are recently trained Afghan security forces compared to the more experienced Taliban, the true military ratio stands closer to 5:1 - still a significant numerical disparity which does not even begin to account for the United States' technological superiority. Yet these advantages seem to be less important than those possessed by the Taliban; so much so that General McChrystal has said that barring a significant troop increase, the war in Afghanistan "will likely result in failure."
The Taliban are certainly a formidable adversary, and the US military under General McChrystal is certainly beginning to make some appropriate changes (we now use such metrics as the frequency of local cooperation with allied and Afghan forces and the growth of Afghanistan's legitimate economy to measure the success of the counter-insurgency, rather than the infamous "insurgent body count"), but is it not ludicrous to imagine that adding soldiers is the appropriate method for achieving our (vague) goals, given that our problems clearly don't stem from a military inferiority? Is it not ironic that because the United States refuses to acknowledge the limitations of its military, the military's capabilities stand poised to become even more limited?
At its essence, our troubling situation in Afghanistan stems precisely from this irony. If we cannot see the conflict in Afghanistan for what it is, a political struggle, then we may find ourselves handed a military defeat. If the conflict were purely a military matter of numbers (and technology), would the military situation not appear less grave? Or, if numbers don't make as much of a military difference as we thought, why aren't we considering new military strategies that don't hinge on numerical superiority? And do our Generals consider the great extent to which additional forces may engender proportionately greater bitterness among the Afghan population, who want nothing more than for their thirty years' war to end? It seems highly probable that foreign troop increases will only lend weight to the growing notion among Afghans that the Taliban are essentially winning. Such an impression would be dangerously potent propaganda for the Taliban's own "hearts and minds" campaign directed at the Afghan people.
If past failures go unappreciated, if might becomes weakness, and if weakness begets strength among our enemies, a troop increase in Afghanistan would assuredly be the acme of irony in international politics. It is time to turn out attentions away from military matters and toward political ones: if the United States cannot beat the cabal of hateful fanatics known as the Taliban politically then we are in the midst of a crisis in our fundamental ideological concepts. I sincerely doubt that, if we move swiftly, such a crisis will come to pass. But if we continue to linger any longer over a misconceived political debate regarding troop increases, the current irony of Afghanistan may well morph into the tragedy of defeat.