Austin Bay

The war in Afghanistan now vexes Barack Obama and his administration.

It is a tough struggle, a Himalayan slog, but one President Obama himself claims is a "must win."

The problems afflicting Afghanistan and its violent neighborhood are maliciously complex -- "wicked" problems to use a catchphrase.

"Wicked" problems are dynamic and multidimensional -- intricate, constantly changing challenges that frustrate precise definition. As a wicked problem evolves, we can learn a lot about it -- useful knowledge informing constructive action. But the problem will still change in unforeseen and unexpected ways, seeding "unknown unknowns" that produce surprise. In a wicked problem like a war, surprise may be fatal.

A strategic planner I know says all problems involving human psychology have "wicked" elements. Here's the gist of a complex argument: as basic needs (food and shelter) are met, new needs (pension plans) arise. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, we "can't get no permanent satisfaction."

Even semi-satisfaction would please most Afghanis. Since fall 2001, Afghanis have seen some incremental improvements, positive changes from the point of view of everyone but terrorist fanatics. The Afghan government has had some success in beginning to build formal institutions. The Afghan Army can handle some basic security missions, and it is improving, albeit slowly.

Slow is an Afghan affliction. Yet fundamental change takes a long time, especially when a war-ravaged society must expand the "human capital" of modernity -- produce the teachers, accountants, electricians, nurses, policemen and farmers who brace stable, prosperous communities.

Slow may be fatal when you rely on the American public's will. That is reflected by the ongoing struggle over Afghan policy within the Obama administration and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill.

Obama appears to be committed to winning. During his campaign, Obama identified Afghanistan as "the right war." He is looking for diplomatic opportunities. He intends to send more U.S. troops and -- like George W. Bush before him -- demands more combat forces from NATO allies.

Key advisers warn that though deploying more troops serves useful purposes, adding tens of thousands does not guarantee "winning."

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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