It’s Not Just a War — It’s an Adventure (re Afghanistan) (Sept. 18, 2001)


[This was one of a half-dozen articles that I submitted for publication to various newspapers and magazines, in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. Several others follow this one. One of this set of articles is posted in another blog.]

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The idea, at present, seems to be that we will commence a ten-year War Against Terrorism (WAT?), requiring conflict upon the soil of multiple nations, where we will search for people who may look like all the other people there, and will destroy anything resembling traditional military facilities, which the former occupants will have abandoned long before we arrived.

Not wanting to lose any soldiers unnecessarily, we will follow the approach perfected against Iraq [in the Desert Storm Operation of 1991]:  first pummel the country with expensive smart bombs that are fun to watch; spawn the horror stories that accompany every war; make ourselves the primary focus of the region’s hatreds, in place of whoever it was they hated previously; and ultimately fail to produce a comprehensive solution to the original problem.

Success, as presently defined within this concept, will consist of driving all terrorists out of Afghanistan.  Presumably the most dangerous ones will have the intelligence to take shelter in places we will not attack — Iran, for example, or North Korea, or various republics of the former Soviet Union.  Having cleansed Afghanistan, within some evolving sense of the term, we will return to our shores and await further developments.

This is a formula for failure. It is not just that any mention of a ten-year fight against guerrillas smacks of our struggle against communism in Vietnam. It is, more importantly, that we are once again defining our effort in terms of a negative — of something we would like to stop — rather than as a real mission statement, as some positive achievement that we would like to bring about.

I suggest that, this time around, we should pay more serious attention to the vision thing. Americans will never stand for another protracted military struggle lacking both financial and philosophical persuasiveness.  By contrast, when it comes to highway fatalities, handguns, and fatty diets, we will accept the equivalent of a new Vietnam every year, if we see it as a necessary by-product of our lifestyle.

After a Civil War in which passions ran high, we worked toward the ideal of a just and lasting peace, with malice toward none and charity for all.  After a World War in which our participation began with hatred toward the perpetrators of a day of infamy, we imposed an unconditional peace, but also an honorable one, dedicated to the establishment of freedom in the land of the attacker.  On those precedents, let us commence this war with an eye to the ultimate goal.

Viewed as a military adversary, Afghanistan is formidable.  This fact demonstrates the absurdity of treating Afghanistan as a military adversary.  The country that cannot feed, educate, or protect its people, many of whom are trying to kill one another, has found a game in which it can stand up there with the big boys. The more we make this simply a military struggle, the more we grant superpower status to that wrecked land. A primarily military focus will lead the whole War Against Terrorism into uncharted territory.

To date, the implicit message we have sent to Afghanistan is that its citizens must flee their cities by the thousands, as they are doing, in fear for what we might do to them; and that its leaders must consider a “holy war” against us — which implies, of course, that we are the unholy adversary.  In a war that may require our soldiers to traipse through alien countryside, we thus begin with a P.R. disaster.

This is a far cry from who we are and what we want to do. Where, at this moment, are the WWII G.I.s who handed candy bars to the kids in the enemy land? Where are the volunteers of the Peace Corps, who have long attempted to improve lives in such godforsaken places?  How is it that the U.S. federal government seems to have become primarily associated, in the Islamic mind, with the face of Darth Vader?

We cannot browbeat the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, never mind those of Iran and North Korea, into behaving as we expect.  But with an eye to the future, we can demonstrate to their peoples that we are a force for good; and in doing so we can at last show that we are willing to fight for more than the price of gasoline. Whether that always persuades all of them to work with us, no one can say; but it is a start.

Since ancient times, spiritual values have often determined the progress of physical wars.  In the more positive instances, those values can give soldiers the pride of serving as representatives of something larger than themselves.  This is what we need now.

The surest guide to proper strategy in Afghanistan lies in our established values. For one thing, we do believe in taking over a country that has attacked us, and installing institutions therein that can win their people’s gratitude and faith. Afghanistan is one of the ripest territories on Earth for such an enterprise. Few places provide a better opportunity to show that a representative government can accommodate all of the factions now ripping that land to shreds; few publics are more weary of the alternative.

Our military strategy in Afghanistan should follow the peacetime goal of building a democracy. If we have indeed jettisoned the slapdash urge to hit fast and then run away and hope it all works out — that is, if we are indeed ready to do it right — then we can start by assembling a multinational force of technicians and educators as well as soldiers.  Such a force could legitimately begin to clear ground, within Afghanistan, to be ruled by a provisional government to which all Afghan factions may send delegates.

The purpose of this multinational force would not be to take over all of Afghanistan at once, but rather to take over some genuinely governable segments and to begin to establish peaceful and tolerant institutions in them. Such institutions will be targets for resentful guerrillas from the outlying portions of the country, and no security can stop them all; but at that point the mantle of behaving badly will have shifted to the real bad guys, as the Afghans themselves will see, and we will have a chance of achieving something of which we can be proud.


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