Last Tuesday night I watched "Obama's War", PBS Frontline's hour-long documentary about the war in Afghanistan. The main value of the documentary was that it showed a lot of things that you don't see on other broadcasts- and I'm not referring to the violence. Little things, like a marine trying to communicate with a group of Afghan villagers and running into translation issues, or the troops lazing around sans gear in the 120 degree heat of an abandoned school, gave you a sense of what it must really be like to be there. Now, I'm sure soldiers would laugh at the idea that someone like me 'understands' what it's like to be there (I don't profess to know that much) but for the first time, I felt like I had gotten at least an inkling of what it must really be like there, aside from the explosions and the television vistas of oceans upon oceans of sand.
If I took one thing away from the program overall, it was that the war in Afghanistan is not only different from the war in Iraq; it's like the war in Iraq through an insane funhouse mirror, where everything is similar on multiple levels but different in every way that truly matters. "Yeah, they're asking for more troops in Afghanistan, but this time they have an actual PLAN for what to do with those troops. This may seem like a pre-emptive war, because we're trying to sort out Afghanistan in order to avoid future terror attacks, but it's actually not pre-emptive because it's a continuation of the same war we started eight years ago- the one that was actually in direct response to an attack. Their current plan is based on winning the trust of the Afghan people through kindness and respect, which would probably work were it not for the fact that the Afghan people have been treated so arbitrarily over the course of the war, not to mention the last several decades, that they don't believe it when the troops say they're there to help. Instead of distracting us from a more important subject, this war is also a shadow-war with our ally Pakistan, who are peaceful on the surface but have been supporting the Taliban all this time, and one way or another, we are going to have to set a precedent for how military powers will deal with this kind of warfare, which bypasses diplomacy or even accountability, by doing the dirty work through faceless terror organizations," and so on.
I believe that General McChrystal is right in requesting more troops in order to strengthen the counter-insurgency, but then I hear myself thinking 'more troops' and 'Middle East' and I want to slap myself. I know it's different, but the failures of the Iraq war instigated a kind of paradigm shift in how most people in the US think about war: We don't want to go into it half-assed ever again. In fact, we don't even want to go into it three-quarters, seven-eights-assed ever again. It would take the emergence of swastika-emblazoned ,WWII-era Nazi's en masse from a time machine to convince many Americans that it's worth sending any troops into any war EVER AGAIN. "Get the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan" has become a mantra, and many people don't want to acknowledge the fact that those are two different things; it just makes everything so painfully complicated.
For example, there's a lot of talk of 'nation-building' in Afghanistan, and it was basically glossed over in Tuesday's documentary when one diplomat said "This is Nation RE-building; there is already a Nation there." Unless you're looking at it from a Poli-Sci perspective, that seems like meaningless semantics, but it's critically important. When all these people say Nation-building, what they really mean is State-building; Nation building is virtually impossible. The sense of shared history and destiny that forms a Nation cannot be forced; the machinery of the state that complements that Nation is another story. It's extremely difficult to build a state without a nation, and that's the main problem in Iraq; the place is made up of several distinct nations who, for the most part, would be just as happy never to see each other ever again. In Afghanistan, while the organization is primarily tribal and local, the major conflicts in their history have not been along ethnic lines, at least in recent decades. Left to their own devices, the Afghan people instituted a secular, progressive government in the 1970's, which lasted until the Soviet Invasion. Recent history attests that they don't have a problem with the idea of being united under one government, and a secular one at that; they just wish their current government wasn't corrupt to the point of uselessness. In other words, we're not trying to force something on them that they have no interest in.
Another aspect of the situation that is difficult to understand is the role of religion, although that's really more about the concept of religion as an organizational tool than actual religious belief; another thing that "Obama's War" did was reinforced my opinion that all of these conflicts are 99% secular, 1% religious. Money, territory, power, ethnic prestige-- these are all purely secular concerns. The holy war concept is a useful lie, because it sounds a lot better when you say "I'm doing this because God told me to, therefore it is RIGHT", as opposed to "I'm tired of being one of the have-nots in this society and my peeps have hated your peeps for eons anyways, so I don't have a problem killing you to get ahead." Whether that's a lie for the outside world or a lie they've internalized probably depends on the individual extremist, but it doesn't really matter. You can blame religion all you want, but the fact of the matter is, if we somehow woke up tomorrow to a world where religion no longer existed, people would find another pretext to fight over money, power, and prestige. "Jihad" isn't a philosophy, it's a meme.
Frankly, any talk about 'Jihad' at this point is a complete waste of time, because what terrorists groups are doing has virtually no relationship with anything in Islam. Terrorists want to hide behind the belief that there actually is some sort of holy war going on here, and every time we talk about their 'Jihad', we're cooperating with them. If there's anything resembling a true Jihad going on, it's on the part of Muslims who are fighting to stop their practical, egalitarian belief system from being defiled by all of this.
If you still don't believe that religion isn't really at the heart of any of this, consider this: the true believer, who takes every word of their text literally, has no reason to hurt you in this life; he BELIEVES that you will burn in hell. Feeling the need to shoot you is a sign of true spiritual insecurity, and it's downright embarrassing.
The Solution, such as it is
The really frustrating part for me is that there actually is a clear solution; it's just politically unfeasible. Unfeasible to the point where I wonder if we wouldn't be better off packing off and going home, regardless of the fact that everything will only deteriorate further, and who knows what consequences will stem out of that.
In the documentary, the American troops stationed themselves near a market in order to get closer to the Afghan people; afraid of being shot by the Taliban, the civilians abandoned that market and went to shop at a different one, miles away. The Marines then had the unenviable task of trying to convince the villagers, through poor interpreters, to come back to the market. The Afghan people don't believe that the soldiers can protect them from the Taliban, and why should they? Soldiers are dying; the marines don't have sufficient resources to thoroughly protect themselves, let alone anyone else. Forget about forging long-term trust and proving that the Americans are there for the duration this time: the Afghans don't have good reason to trust the Americans when they say "We will protect you from getting shot tomorrow."
In order to win true, deserved trust from the Afghan people, the troops have to be able to say "We will protect you", and make it look like a no-brainer; if the US presence were so overwhelming that you couldn't through a rock in Afghanistan without hitting an armed marine, suddenly the idea of the soldiers protecting the populace would have to be taken seriously. If the US presence were such that the idea of a Taliban attack was ludicrous, because, with all the marines around, it would be unclear whether the Taliban would have a place to stand, we would not have to convince the Afghans of our commitment to their safety; it would be palpable, so demonstrably true that there would be no question. With that level of safety, there would be greater cooperation in areas that will ensure future success- training large numbers of Americans to speak the local languages, supporting the next generation of Afghan artists and musicians who will promote and expand the traditional culture and help build Afghan pride and solidarity, building schools, etc. The impenetrable military shield would create a venue where all the things which would truly build Afghanistan- most of which are non-military, and would require non-military actors- would be possible on a grand scale.
If we followed this strategy, we could create a kind of sister-country in Afghanistan, helping them to follow up on the progressive path they started on in the 1970's, before the cold war threw everything off track and led to the post-war troubles that spawned the Taliban. In the new Afghanistan, the Taliban would be unwelcome; they could try to survive through their cooperation with Pakistan, however I don't see how that could work- the Pakistani government has been nothing if not pragmatic. If supporting the Taliban in resisting the US would seem like a tremendous resource drain for them (which it would be, if the US presence was on the scale that I am talking about), does anyone really doubt that Pakistan would drop them like a hot potato? There has been much talk about coercing Pakistan to be cooperative; in my view, we could bypass that entirely. Just make supporting the Taliban a big enough pain in the ass for them to deal with that it's not worth it to them anymore, and suddenly we're on the same side.
The obvious problem here is that, in addition to the issue of getting a war-wearied American populace to commit to a military objective on this scale (which is probably a deal-breaker in and of itself), I don't know if the numbers I'm envisioning here are even possible without a draft. Maybe they would have been possible had the Iraq war not so thoroughly exhausted the American military, but as of right now I doubt it. Of course, then I see myself typing words like "draft", and I want to slap myself again. It's so bizarre; I don't like the idea of large-scale military engagements one iota, but given that this situation has already been created, committed to, and sacrificed for, we can either do what it takes to win- an effort that will, at least in the short term, seem like madness, and anachronistic madness at that ('didn't we learn anything from Vietnam?' as many will say with even greater didactic frequency')- or continue to play a waiting game, hoping that we'll get lucky and things will somehow take a turn for the better of their own accord. I'm afraid that without a much more significant commitment, the level of involvement we have in Afghanistan now will do nothing except stall the inevitable, if even that. If we send more troops, that means more Americans sending their children off, possibly to die, on a premise that no one professes to truly understand; if we don't, those that have died so far will have done so for nothing, and will continue to do so in dribs and drabs until we eventually slink away with our tail between our legs, after another decade or two of stalling, while the terrorist nirvana that Afghanistan will have become plots more heinous crimes against humanity.
There is no way out of this that isn't difficult and ugly; if I seem to favor the higher-risk, go-for-broke approach, it's because that at least in theory, that strategy could eventually create another strong, secular ally in the region- almost like a second Israel, albeit with very different fashion and cuisine. And if we set a precedent of rehabilitating failed states, it will make it difficult for terrorist organizations to get a firm foothold anywhere- could they really take advantage of the power vacuum in Country X, if in all likelihood the US (or maybe even China) could step in at any moment? Despite how ludicrously expensive the whole thing may sound, making a habit of turning terrorist hotbeds into proper states means we'll be dealing with proper states rather than terrorist hotbeds; and unlike terrorist hotbeds, dealing with states is something America traditionally doesn't suck at.
We've been afraid of the loud bang of nuclear MAD, World War III, for a long time. Lately, it looks increasingly like there might not be any bang, but a series of whimpers so cacophonous they end up being louder in the end. The WWII metaphors of the Bush Administration, used to try to justify the War in Iraq, annoyed the hell out of me, but as with so many things, maybe they were partially right- even more unforgivable than being flat out wrong, which we could just ignore. You cannot apply the rules of WWII to today- the paradigms have changed. For one thing, it's a lot harder to tell when you've won. But one thing remains the same; if what you're fighting is truly a World War, you have to commit.
I know; it's easy to say. "If that's what you think, why don't YOU go to Afghanistan, missy?" Well, maybe I will- it's possible they might need English majors there at some point. They certainly don't have much of a use for us anywhere else.