Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Price of war, price of peace (Sunday Reflections for December 13, 2009)

After three months of deliberation, President Obama announced in a speech to the nation his new Afpak policy (as the White House called it). We know what a powerful orator the president can be but this was far from his best effort. Most everyone recognized, however, that this wasn’t because he was off his game but because he just didn’t have very good material to work with.

Afghanistan has befuddled nearly every foreign invader or empire that tried to dominate it. It’s hard to believe the US will be the exception. Afghanistan is not a threat to the United State nor has it ever been. It’s a small, undeveloped and unorganized country half-way around the world. Yet its rugged terrain and previous irresponsible Taliban government made it an ideal base of operations for terrorists who could and did attack us.

We invaded Afghanistan eight years ago and, using mostly local militias, overthrew the Taliban and chased Al Qaeda to the Pakistan border, where they disappeared into the mountains. Then we became distracted by the war with Iraq. In the years since the Taliban have regrouped and regained territory and popular support, aided by the inept and corrupt Karzai government which replaced them.

The threat from Al Qaeda, however, is unclear. US officials estimate their numbers in Afghanistan at only about a hundred. There likely are more in Pakistan and places like Somalia and Yemen. Always shadowy and amorphous, it is not known if any real centralized planning or coordination is going on. Whatever remains of the Osama bin Laden core in the Afpak border regions seems primarily involved in training recruits who then scatter around the world.

Will this latest “surge” work? No one knows. It’s not even clear what that means. Many say the real battle is in Pakistan, which needs to be fought by Pakistanis and which our involvement is making more difficult. Others say that fighting Al Qaeda is not something that can be done with “boots on the ground” anyway but is much more about intelligence, “special ops” and aiding the countries where they are located. In many ways, Al Qaeda more resembles something like the Mafia than a fighting force and police may be more affective in containing them than the military.

Perhaps Obama’s goal is to make a forceful enough pushback to enable some kind of negotiated deal with the Taliban. Many US and NATO experts, both civilian and military, say that ultimately the Taliban have to be brought into the Afghan government. Perhaps all this is about dealing Western allies a stronger hand so they can negotiate from strength. The Taliban can be brought into the government with their agreement not to give shelter to Al Qaeda.

At which point, we can get out. Perhaps the most believable part of Obama’s speech was that he identified the elephant in the room: the US cannot afford this war. What has been glaringly absent since 9/11 has been any call for national sacrifice. We have been waging war on the national credit card, with taxes cut rather than raised. Despite obvious and even scandalous strains on military personnel, there has not been even a discussion of instituting a draft.

Obama’s real dilemma is not military but political. While he would be excoriated for “cutting and running” if he simply pulled out of Afghanistan, Obama knows there is no support to pay for the scale of war and rebuilding the experts say is necessary to guarantee success there. So he is gambling that a limited effort will produce enough results to enable the US to get itself out of this mess in short order.

Since 9/11 it’s obvious that we live in a world very different from what we knew in the last half of the 20th century. We are still learning what that world is like and how to live in it. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the US made a 20th century response to the terrorist attacks that began the new century—a response that has been enormously costly but has produced few of the results we wanted or expected. After 9/11 certainly some retaliation on Al Qaeda was inevitable. In the new world of asymmetrical war, however, “sending in the Marines” is often not going to be appropriate and likely to make things worse.

People around the world are experiencing tumultuous cultural and economic change. Frustration and anger has overflowed in many places but not in all. India is growing rapidly and still has vast economic disparities. It also has the third largest Muslim population in the world yet both internal violence and exported violence are rare. We need to learn from places like India how nations in transition can keep their people from becoming so frustrated or afraid that they feel they have no alternative but to resort to violence or support violence.

As a global economic power we also have to learn how to act in ways that respect other cultures and benefit all levels of society. We have often supported oppressive elites who are detested by the rest of the population. Teddy Roosevelt famously said the US should “speak softly but carry a big stick.” We have the “big stick” but we’ve forgotten the “speak softly” part.

Perhaps today what we need more than anything is a new level of maturity on our part. Our conflict now is not with someone nearly our equal, like the former Soviet Union. Rather we are more like the oldest sibling who has to tolerate the misbehavior of younger brothers and sisters, including a few kicks in the shin. We can’t just hall off and smack them as much as we may want to. While the meaning is broader than this, I think it is not inappropriate to remember Jesus’ admonition that when someone strikes you on the cheek you should turn the other to them, as well. Restraint, while not always appropriate, can sometimes produce surprising results because it so surprising and unexpected.

Therapists often ask clients stuck in self-defeating behavior, “And how’s that working for you?” With regard to our role and behavior in the world, as a nation we also need to have some reality checks. We need to put as much effort into learning methods of peace as we do methods of war. We need to persuade our adversaries—and ourselves--that we all have more to gain from cooperating than fighting. War is a waste, something those who fight them know best of all:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron. (Dwight Eisenhower, 1953)

Update: Several recent columns in the New York Times raised serious questions and doubts about the Obama strategy and are well worth reading:

Frank Rich "Obama's Logic Is No Match for Afghanistan"
Roger Cohen "Afghanistan on Main Street"
Thomas Friedman "This I Believe" and "May It All Come True"


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this Doug. I've felt like I've been "cursing the wind". It makes me uneasy to think this is also part political, i.e. a way to help get a health care bill passed. Yucky way to do that.

David Mc

Anonymous said...

Leftists have recently rediscovered Ike's warnings about "the military-industrial complex" and used/abused them. Ike was, of course, singing a different tune when he was invading France in 1944. But in 1953, as the Cold War was amping up, the situation was different, the dangers different. So it is now. This is not the Cold War, we aren't in the same situation where we think nuclear buildup is going to destroy the world. The two wars in the middle east together don't equal even one front in WW2, or Korea, or Vietnam - in terms of men lost, percent of GDP expended, and military buildup. Such dire warnings are not appropriate or useful.