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By Mr R. Hutson

All the king’s metrics and all the king’s men could not put Afghanistan together again (at least in terms of “Western” will). 

There are stark parallels between coalition efforts in Afghanistan and the response to COVID-19. The basis for this assertion lies in the trappings of “Western” decision making: namely, measurability and utility[1].  Number of Forward Operating Bases, land controlled in square kilometres, number of firefights (or lack thereof) etc. These metrics, among others, were thrust upon decision makers at all levels as a mechanism to ascertain success and scream supposed success to the world. Yes, decision-makers both military and political require a basis for decisions but it appears that the wrong metrics were chosen, or worse, omitted and/or manipulated – if metrics were indeed entirely crucial[2]. Further still, I argue that some of the most critical aspects pertaining to operational success (as opposed to metrics) could not be measured – at least in relation to the West’s efforts in Afghanistan. Pardon? Is not the tag-line for any General “how much will it cost me and how can I measure its success?” Precisely my point. Have you quantified the will of the people? Quantified the moral as opposed to the physical?[3] Or even articulated their utility? Compounding frustration is the need to understand causation. Number of Forward Operating Bases is a brilliant metric for operational success – if success was defined as “The Number of Forward Operating Bases”. Ah, but surely the number thereof is attributable to probable success?[4] 

All this to say that 1) The West has a strong proclivity to favouring metrics-based decision making, and 2) Having been lambasted with metrics, we tend to infer causation favourable to our desires – will… if you will. We want to win, so “show” us winning. Thus, the number of Forward Operating Bases etc. becomes all-too-important.  

Before I delve into the relationship of the Taliban, more accurately the war with them, and COVID I believe it would be remiss to not revise a sound basis for decisions[5]. But I cannot now do so satisfactorily – perhaps ever. I will contend, though, that wisdom, intuition and mutual trust are more important than metrics in and of themselves. No, wisdom and intuition are not lost. However, by process of repetition, it appears these profound aspects of humanity all too often get kicked to the sideline when someone else offers an argument replete with metrics. Indeed, am I not want to do so now in support of my own assertions? Contradiction crouches at the door. 

Enter COVID. 

Pestilence is a damned thing indeed. COVID poses a threat to humanity and therefore to New Zealand. That threat has been mulled over by many well-established institutions and in quite some detail[6]. Further, New Zealand decision-makers at the highest level have done their due diligence and crunched the numbers. New Zealand’s response to COVID, specifically in relation to “Levels 3 and 4” is, at minimum, disproportionate[7]. It is around this term “proportionality” that I will centre my argument for it holds significant importance to decision makers in the military the world over – it is one of the few codified aspects of war scrutinised in court[8]. As dropping an atomic bomb on Hirsoshima is proportional, so too is locking-down an entire population. Ah, but the threat surely justifies it. Yes, COVID is a real threat. But to an extent proportional to near-eradication of Freedom of Movement, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Peaceful Assembly?[9, 10] The extent of the threat? People will die. People will suffer. Hospitals possibly overwhelmed. Quite harrowing prospects indeed. But these harrowing aspects have pre-existed, do exist, and will continue to exist irrespective of the advent of COVID. Yet no such lockdowns were imposed. So then, has the situation changed sufficiently that would see it as a proportional response whereby citizens in Oban (Stewart Island), right through to citizens in Te Hapua (the Far North) are overnight legally prohibited from attending a funeral? 

While COVID is a possible threat to National Security, lockdowns certainly destroy it[11, 12].  

So then, the relationship between the efforts against the Taliban and those against COVID rears its head. Specifically, our lust after metrics and utility and our suppression, even rejection, of wisdom. I do not posit I would have done a better job. I do posit there is something to be learned from this. What utility is there for someone attending a funeral? Indeed, even if defined, how could one measure it? It is clear that COVID spreads at such-and-such rate. Its infection mortality rate is such-and-such[13]. The hospitals have a quantifiable amount of beds. Precisely. Just as, among other metrics, the number of Forward Operating Bases became unjustifiably paramount, so to have the metrics of infection fatality rates and hospital capacities. It is a lie by omission. Omission of nearly every other aspect of humanity that exists outside of COVID. Those aspects of humanity like love and togetherness, I posit the most significant, escape our grasps in providing hard data as uncovered by measurability and utility. So, they are kicked to the sideline.

What is the situation now in Afghanistan? Did not our gods of such reason save our Western faces from humiliation?



  1. I am tempted to cite just shy of all influential Western, books, memos, papers and what-have-you as the notions of measurability and utility are so incredibly pervasive. I will cite just one example: “The Expected-Utility Hypothesis and the Measurability of Utility” Milton Friedman and L.J Savage, Univeristy of Chicago. The Journal of Political Economy, December 1953. The point in this example is not you brushing up on economics, rather, how seriously anything associated with measurability and utility is treated by the intelligentsia. It conforms to the basis of thinking that we like – like very much.
  2. “At War with the Truth” Washington Post, Dec. 9, 2019.
  3. Napoleon’s Maxims of War
  4. This is not to say that measurability and utility were the only contributing factors to defeat. Only that they were such a pervasive aspect of the war – like many others. Some of them won.
  5. The apparent arrogance in this assertion is not lost in me. I would argue that the vast majority of people, if not all, know the following at minimum through intuition. It appears to me though that it has a tendency to be lost in the ether – to our detriment. 
  6. Mortality Analyses, Johns Hopkins University of Medicine. 
  7. COVID-19 Public Health Response (Alert Level Requirements) Order (No 9) 2021.
  8. Customary International Humanitarian Law, Rule 14.
  9. At this juncture, and due to the recent and heavy association between any detractors of lockdown and so-called “quacks”, I will divulge that I have had my COVID vaccine and my second is on its way. This is stated so that the reader might remain focussed on the argument as expressed, rather than the hair-brained arguments associated with such a detractor that may arise.
  10. New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.
  11. Defining National Security, Fact Sheet No. 3, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. In particular “quality of life”. 
  12.  The World Health Organisation’s position on ‘lockdowns’ as a way of fighting COVID-19. 
  13. A systematic review and meta-analysis of published research data on COVID-19 infection fatality rates, Giedeon Meyerowitz and Lea Merone, 29 Sep 2020.