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Britain and the United States have been suffering from intervention fatigue. The reason is obvious: our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven far more costly and their results far more mixed and uncertain than we had hoped.
This fatigue manifested itself in almost exactly a year ago, when Britain’s Parliament refused to let the Government offer military support to the U.S. and France in threatening punitive strikes against Syria’s Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. Since then, however, developments in Syria have shown that our choosing not to intervene doesn’t necessarily make the world a safer place. Nor does it mean that distant strife stays away from our shores.
There is reason to suppose that the West’s failure to intervene early in support of the 2011 rebellion against the repressive Assad regime left a vacuum for the jihadists to fill—jihadists whose ranks now include several hundred British citizens.
There’s also some reason to suppose that the West’s failure to support Georgia militarily against Russia in 2008, and to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, has encouraged President Putin to risk at least covert military aggression in Ukraine. I’m not saying that the West should have supported Georgia and punished Assad. I’m merely pointing out that inaction has consequences, too, sometimes bad ones.
Now, however, despite out best efforts to keep out of direct involvement in Syria, we are being drawn in again. The rapid expansion of ‘Islamic State’, involving numerous mass atrocities, has put back on our national desk the question of whether we should intervene militarily to help stop them.
What guidance does the tradition of just war thinking give us in deliberating about military intervention? The first thing to say is that there are different streams in the tradition of just war thinking. In the stream that flows from Michael Walzer, the paradigm of a just war is national self-defence. More coherently, I think, the Christian stream, in which I swim, holds that the paradigm of a just war is the rescue of the innocent from grave injustice. This rescue can take either defensive or aggressive forms. The stipulation that the injustice must be ‘grave’ implies that some kinds of injustice should be borne rather than ended by war. This because war is a destructive and hazardous business, and so shouldn’t be ventured except for very strong reasons.
What qualifies as ‘grave’ injustice, then? In the 16th and 17th centuries just war theorists like Vitoria and Grotius proposed as candidates such inhumane social practices as cannibalism or human sacrifice. International law currently stipulates ‘genocide’. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protest (‘R2P’) would broaden the law to encompass mass atrocity. Let’s suppose that mass atrocity characteristic of a ruling body is just cause for military intervention. Some nevertheless argue, in the light of Iraq and Afghanistan, that intervention is not an appropriate response, because it just ddoesn’twork. Against that conclusion, I call two witnesses, both of whom have served as soldiers, diplomats, and politicians, and have had direct experience of responsibility for nation-building: Paddy Ashdown and Rory Stewart.
Ashdown, the international High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002-6, argues that “[h]igh profile failures like Iraq should not … blind us to the fact that, overall, the success stories outnumber the failures by a wide margin”.
Rory Stewart was the Coalition Provisional Authority’s deputy governor of two provinces of southern Iraq from 2003-4. He approached the task of building a more stable, prosperous Iraq with optimism, but experience brought him disillusion. Nevertheless, Stewart writes that “it is possible to walk the tightrope between the horrors of over-intervention and non-intervention; that there is still a possibility of avoiding the horrors not only of Iraq but also of Rwanda; and that there is a way of approaching intervention that can be good for us and good for the country concerned”.
Notwithstanding that, one lesson from our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan—and indeed from British imperial history—is that successful interventions in foreign places, which go beyond the immediate fending off of indiscriminate slaughter on a massive scale to attempting some kind of political reconstruction, cannot be done quickly or on the cheap.
Here’s where national interest comes in. National interest isn’t necessarily immoral. A national government has a moral duty to look after the well being of its own people and to advance its genuine interests. What’s more, some kind of national interest must be involved if military intervention is to attract popular support, without which intervention is hard, eventually impossible, to sustain. One such interest can be moral integrity. Nations usually care about more than just being safe and fat. Usually they want to believe that they are doing the right thing, and they will tolerate the costs of war—up to a point—in a just cause that looks set to succeed. I have yet to meet a Briton who is not proud of what British troops achieved in Sierra Leone in the year 2000, even though Britain had no material stake in the outcome of that country’s civil war.
It is not unreasonable for them to ask why their sons and daughters should be put in harm’s way.
However, the nation’s interest in its own moral integrity alone will probably not underwrite military intervention that incurs very heavy costs. So other interests—such as national security—are needed to stiffen popular support for a major intervention. It is not unreasonable for a national people to ask why they should bear the burdens of military intervention, especially in remote parts of the world.
It is not unreasonable for them to ask why their sons and daughters should be put in harm’s way. And the answer to those reasonable questions will have to present itself in terms of the nation’s own interests. This brings us back to Syria and Islamic State. Repressive though the Assad regime was and is, and nasty though the civil war is, it probably wasn’t sufficiently in Britain’s national interest to become deeply involved militarily in 2011. The expansion of Islamic State, however, engages our interest in national security more directly, partly because as part of the West we are its declared enemy and partly because some of our own citizens are fighting for it and might bring their jihad back onto our own streets.
We do have a stronger interest, therefore, in taking the risks and bearing the costs of military intervention to stop and to disable Islamic State, and of subsequent political intervention to help create sustainable polities in Syria and Iraq.
Recent events in Iraq, as the militant group ISIS (or ISIL) strives to establish an Islamic state in the country that threatens to undo everything that western involvement achieved there after 9/11, illustrates well the volatility of the entire region and the interplay of religion and politics. Sunnis who felt cast aside to the periphery of political affairs by the Shiite government are rallying to ISIS. American-trained Iraqi forces (at a cost of several billions of dollars) have proved ineffectual, and who knows if the Iraqi government could fall, and what the country will look like — and be doing — in a year’s or even a matter of months’ time.
For well over a decade we have witnessed Western involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, ostensibly to benefit the wellbeing of the native peoples and in the case of Iraq, to stamp out the exploitive and murderous dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The result was going to be the introduction of democracy for an oppressed nation; the diverse factions and different religious faiths would unite, and ties with the West would thus enter a new (and grateful) phase. But the Iraqi war that Donald Rumsfeld confidently asserted would take only six weeks and certainly not more than six months took far longer than that and cost an inexcusable number of lives. And the strategies to what might be called nation building failed miserably. The last few weeks are proving that. The campaign in Afghanistan likewise hasn’t met its objectives. Taliban influence remains strong and even growing, and as the death count for military and civilian personnel bloodily grew, people realized Afghanistan was the unwinnable war. So the question is inevitable: will Afghanistan go the way of Iraq as well?
There is a lot to be said for the phrase “history repeats itself,” and a lot of lessons to be learned from history. Although analogies have sometimes been made to the earlier and unsuccessful British and Russian involvement in Afghanistan, Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the former Persian Empire and Central Asia over two millennia ago need to be studied more. He was the first western conqueror in the east, and the problems he faced in dealing with a diverse subject population and the strategies he took to what might be called nation building shed light on contemporary events in culturally dissimilar regions of today’s world.
The Macedonian empire of the later fourth century BC was the largest empire in antiquity before the Roman, stretching from Greece to India (present-day Pakistan) including Syria, the Levantine coast, and Egypt. Yet it took less than 40 years to form thanks to Philip II of Macedonia and especially his son Alexander (the Great). Alexander’s conquests in Asia opened up economic and cultural contacts, spread Greek culture, and made the Greeks aware that they were part of a world far bigger than the Mediterranean. When Alexander crossed the Hellespont in spring 334 and landed on Asian soil he had a clear strategy in mind: to replace the Persian Empire with one of his own. A decade later in some spectacular battles and sieges against numerically greater foes, he had done just that. In 323 he was all set to invade Arabia when he died, just short of his 33rd birthday, at Babylon.
Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, representing Alexander the Great on his horse. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
But as Alexander discovered to his detriment, and as makers of modern strategy know all too well, defeated in battle doesn’t mean conquered. Moreover, he hadn’t anticipated how he was going to rule a large and culturally diverse subject population, whose religious beliefs and social customs weren’t always understood by the invaders and even disregarded. When the last Great King of Persia, Darius III, was murdered, Alexander faced a dilemma: how to rule? There had never been a Macedonian king who was also ruler of Persia before. Alexander had to learn what to do on his feet, without a rulebook or foreign policy experts.
He couldn’t proclaim himself Great King as that would create stiff opposition from his men, who wanted only a traditional Macedonian warrior king. So he opted for a new title, King of Asia, and even a new style of dress, a combination of Macedonian and Persian clothing. In doing so he pleased no one — his men thought he had gone too far and the Persians not enough. Alexander also didn’t grasp — or didn’t bother about — the personal connection between the Zoroastrian God of Light, Ahura Mazda, and the Great Kings, whose right to rule was anchored in that connection. The religious significance of the great Persian palace centers were disregarded by the westerners, who saw them only as seats of power and home to vast treasuries. Then in what is now Afghanistan, Alexander banned the Bactrians’ custom of putting out their elderly and infirm to be eaten alive by dogs kept for this purpose. A barbaric practice to us, for sure, but another instance of high-handedness and imposition of western morality in a foreign land.
It is little wonder that Alexander was always seen as the invader, that his attempts to integrate his various subject peoples into his army and administration failed, and that “conquered” areas such as India and Afghanistan revolted as soon as he left so they could go back to how things used to be. Unwinnable wars indeed, then and now. Alexander’s dilemma of West meeting East set a pattern for history. He unashamedly set out to rule a great empire by force, and failed. Today, the West might embroil itself elsewhere to help spread democracy, but those best intentions can fall apart without understanding the peoples with whom you’re dealing. The problems Alexander faced in dealing with a multi-cultural subject population arguably can inform makers of strategy in culturally different regions of today’s world. But at the end of the day politics and religion are so tightly interwoven and misunderstood, and animosity towards the invader, be it Alexander then or the West now, so great, that for anyone from the West to talk of imposing stability and a new order is hubris. Iraq now is proving that, no different from the Persian Empire to outside rule two millennia ago.
In 2003, former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld infamously foresaw victory in Afghanistan and Iraq as demanding a “long, hard slog” and listed a multitude of unanswered questions. Over a decade later, as President Obama (slowly) fulfills his promise to pull all US troops from Afghanistan, a different set of questions emerges. Which Afghans can coalition troops trust to replace them? Will withdrawal lead to even more corruption in the Hamid Karzai government or that of his successor? Has the return of sectarian violence in Iraq been inevitable?
One assumes that the difficulties associated with withdrawing an occupation force are less daunting than those accompanying invasion. Yet the history of US occupations in Latin America demonstrates just the opposite: invasion itself raises the standards of political behavior in invaded countries to stratospheric heights, thus guaranteeing failure and disillusion when the time comes for withdrawal.
A century ago, the Woodrow Wilson administration promised non-intervention in Latin America, but then, in response to World War I, lengthened the already existing US occupation on Nicaragua and started two new occupations, in 1915 in Haiti and in 1916 in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Publicly, the White House declared that the marines occupied these poor, small republics to protect them from the roaming gunboats of Kaiser Wilhelm.
Much like George W. Bush and his administration did in the Middle East, privately Wilson and his aides shared a vision of a Caribbean area remade in their own image, one where violence as a political tool would be abandoned, political parties would offer programs rather than follow strongmen, and the military would be national and apolitical. Wilson wanted, he said, “orderly processes of just government based upon law.” “The Wilson doctrine is aimed at the professional revolutionists, the corrupting concessionaires, and the corrupt dictators in Latin America,” he added. “It is a bold doctrine and a radical doctrine.”
Too bold and radical, it turned out. At first, failure was not apparent. Marine landings were practically unopposed, as were the overthrows of unfriendly governments. Road building and disarmament moved ahead.
But it was all done without the invaded taking a leadership role, and often against their wishes. There was a great paradox in military occupations teaching democracy. “It is typically American,” one marine later mused, “to believe we can exert a subtle alchemy by our presence among a people for a few years which will eradicate the teaching and training of hundreds of years . . . It is a hopeful theory, but it lacks common sense.” One Haitian advanced that “we have now less knowledge of self-government than we had in 1915 because we have lost the practice of making our own decisions.” A group of Haitians agreed, “there is only one school of self-government, it is the practice of self-government.”
The withdrawal of troops, therefore, became a long, hard slog out. Marines began the process only reluctantly when the invaded became so vocal that they compelled the State Department to eschew plans for reform and just order the troops out. In Nicaragua and Haiti, massacres of or by US troops helped trigger withdrawal. Dominicans rejected all US proposals for withdrawal until they included the return to power of strongmen.
As withdrawal neared, signs were everywhere that the invaded had absorbed no lessons from invaders. Incompetence, discord, and violence plagued elections. New regimes fired competent bureaucrats and appointed friends and family members to office. In Nicaragua, hacks from enemy parties filled the ranks of the constabulary.
Haitians were equally divided between black and mixed-race office-seekers, between north and south, between elites and masses. One US commissioner called Haitian peasants “immeasurably superior to the so-called elite here who affect to despise them and propose to despoil them.” Yet, pressured by public opinion, he cut deals with the worst political elites as marines abandoned plans for creating a responsible middle class in Haiti.
Marines also found themselves in a paradox as they championed nationalism so as to minimize anti-U.S. sentiment. In Nicaragua, occupiers banned any political talk or any flying of partisan flags in the constabulary. They marched guards twice a day with the blue and white Nicaraguan flag and had them sing the national anthem as they raised and lowered it. This was “a ceremony new to a country that for years has known no loyalties except to clan or party.”
US policymakers often threw up their hands as they pulled out troops. Of disoccupying Veracruz, which he also invaded in 1914, Wilson sighed, “If the Mexicans want to raise hell, let them raise hell. We have nothing to do with it. It is their government, it is their hell.”
“It is more difficult to terminate an intervention than to start one,” later observed diplomat Dana Munro, a lesson learned after years of wasted effort in Latin America. US policymakers in the Middle East would do well to take it to heart and avoid leaving the invaded rudderless in their hell.
O-Dark-Thirty is a literary journal for veterans, current military personnel, and their families. Created by the Veterans Writing Project, it helps those who have served tell their stories — and makes sure those stories are accessible to the rest of us.
For many soldiers, especially those who have served in combat roles, returning to “regular” life brings a new set of challenges. In Paving the Road Back, psychiatrist and Warrior Wellness Unit director Rod “Doc” Deaton gives those who serve our veterans a deeper understanding of the stresses of this transition.
“Readers will appreciate that young people solve all of the questions at hand and ultimately bring the two families together.” Kirkus
title: Saving Kabul Corner
author: N. H. Senzai
date: Simon and Schuster; 2014
main character: Ariana Shinwari
From Afghanistan to America, family matters most in this companion to Shooting Kabul, which Kirkus Reviews called “an ambitious story with much to offer.”
A rough and tumble tomboy, twelve-year-old Ariana couldn’t be more different from her cousin Laila, who just arrived from Afghanistan with her family. Laila is a proper, ladylike Afghan girl, one who can cook, sew, sing, and who is well versed in Pukhtun culture and manners. Arianna hates her. Laila not only invades Ariana’s bedroom in their cramped Fremont townhouse, but she also becomes close with Mariam Nurzai, Ariana’s best friend.
Then a rival Afghan grocery store opens near Ariana’s family store, reigniting a decades-old feud tracing back to Afghanistan. The cousins, Mariam, and their newfound frenemie, Waleed Ghilzai, must ban together to help the families find a lasting peace before it destroys both businesses and everything their parents have worked for. –Source
Saving Kabul Corner seems to develop quite independent of its companion novel Shooting Kabul, a book I have not yet read. This book had a compete story line and makes little reference to prior events. Particularly for a continuing storyline, the main characters were well developed.
This story revolves around Arianna’s dislike for her cousin, Laila, from Afghanistan who is staying with her. Something odd is going on in the neighborhood that could mean the end of the family’s local business. Arianna and Laila along with schoolmates Mariam and Waleed, work together to solve this mystery. The story begins with Arianna looking forward to a new home her father is having built. She describes strong desire for privacy and looks forward to getting her own room. Unfortunately, the new house is never again mentioned.
The Shinwari family is very much connected to events in their homeland, as are many first generation Americans. While I think Senzai did a skillful job of balancing the portrayal of events in Afghanistan with Arianna’s life in Los Angeles, I think there were at times too many historical details crammed into the novel. Senzai gives us Arriana, in a story drenched in Afghan history, laced with the language and decorated with the foods and a storyline that is as American as apple pie. Is she telling us that at the core, we are all very much the same?
Saving Kabul Corner is written for readers at the younger end of the YA spectrum.
"Stunning photos reveal the Afghanistan we rarely see."
title: Beyond Bullets
author: Rafal Gerszak
date: Annick Press; August, 2011
middle grades non-fiction
Rafal Gerszak is an award winning photojournalist who decided to cover the Afghanistan War from two perspectives. He first spent 12 months embedded into an American patrol. What he witnessed during this time is recounted in the first half of Beyond Bullets. He brings readers to the warfront with his descriptive honesty. While he admits to not being a soldier, to not being prepared for the attacks perpetrated on the soldiers with whom he travels, he does assume their perspective in viewing situations encountering individuals who could be friend as easily as foe. He then switches his perspective to helps readers to understand the daily actions that are impacting life in this country, and that had affect it decades before under Russian attacks. From this image, he takes us to the civilian side of the story where people work, play, learn and celebrate while suicide bombers are quotidian events.
From the use of handwriting like font to the discussion of photographs in the text, the book takes on the feel of time spent with a gifted storyteller. Gerszak’s only agenda seems to be telling what it is like living in a country at war. It is neither political nor moral.
Just now, I wonder: What do the people of Afghanistan call this war? Gerszak does take a very American/Canadian/NATO perspective on this conflict, but if he didn’t his book probably would be beyond our comprehension.
Rafal Gerszak was forced with his family to flee their home during the Soviet era and live for some time in a West German refugee camp. After immigrating to Canada in 1990, he began to identify with socially displaced groups.
Outdated goals of war in the 21st century
By Louis René Beres
Even now, when the “fog of war” in Iraq and Afghanistan is likely at its thickest point, our leaders and military commanders still speak in starkly traditional terms. Such ordinary emphases on “victory” and “defeat” belie the profound and critically-nuanced transformations of war presently [...]
Buz-e-Chini is being hailed in the news story above as being the first computer-animated short in Hazaragi, the language of the Hazara people, who are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. The director, Abbas Ali, was born in Afghanistan, but fled the country when the Taliban took over and studied animation in Pakistan. The film appears to have been produced mostly in Pakistan since the production company is Karachi-based Post Amazers. Also, in the news piece above, the director indicates that he started production on the film while he was still living in Pakistan.
The entire film can be viewed below. It’s an impressive production based on a Hazara folk tale. The film is dedicated to Hussain Ali Yousafi, the voice of the wolf, who was assassinated in 2009. No one said making animated films in Afghanistan would be easy.
I have mixed emotions about publishing this blog the day after Australia’s worst single-day fatalities since Vietnam. On the one hand, the post may seem a little insensitive; on the other, it’s arguably never been more timely.
What’s clear is that regardless of what you think of the US’s (and our) involvement in Afghanistan (and I’ll wholly admit to being wholly in the ‘against’ camp), things are not going well.
I picked up Michael Hasting’s The Operators on ABC journalist Naomi Woodley’s advice—and I have to thank her. While not quite in the realm of uber high benchmark Race of a Lifetime, which I rabidly recommend to anyone who’ll listen, Hasting’s book is the first I’ve read in a while that unpacks complex, fraught, of-the-moment issues in an incredibly insightful, game-changing, haunting manner.
The Operators is the extended, book version of an explosive Rolling Stones article Hastings wrote after being allowed inside ‘the bubble’ of General Stanley McChrystal, AKA the guy in charge of the US troops’ stay in Afghanistan.
Courting the media and arguably keen to make the cover of the iconic Rolling Stone magazine and impress his son, a musician, McChrystal allowed Hastings to accompany him and his team during a PR trip to Europe as well as spend time with them in Afghanistan. It wasn’t an unusual allowance. What was unusual was that McChrystal and his team were far more frank and unguarded than Hastings ever expected to find.
Over the course of a few Almost Famous-ilk weeks, which included an unexpectedly extended stay with them in Europe courtesy of the Icelandic ash cloud, Hastings witnessed the team going off message. These indiscretions (if that’s the best way to describe them) included them criticising President Obama for not supporting the war and effectively saying it was unlikely they’d catch Osama bin Laden.
Hasting’s subsequently published article didn’t put McChrystal on the Rolling Stone cover (Lady Gaga commandeered it as he and McChrystal had joked), but the article did go explosively viral (that’s an, er, technical term)—so much so that it saw McChrystal summoned back to the US and summarily fired.
Hastings’ incisively written book is unsettling on many, many levels. It exemplifies the constant tension between journalist and subject, and the heightened tension of embedded journalism.
‘You’re not going to fuck us, are you?’ one officer asks him, to which Hasting’s gave his standard reply: ‘I’m going to write a story. Some of the stuff you’ll like, some of the stuff you probably won’t like.’
Later in the book, he outlines his position further:
I knew McChrystal’s team wouldn’t be happy with the way the story was shaping up. It was the classic journalist dilemma. Janet Malcolm had famously described journalise as the art of seduction and betrayal. Any reporter who didn’t see journalise as ‘morally indefensible’ was either ‘too stupid’ or ‘too full of himself’, she wrote. I disagreed. Without shutting the door on the possibility that I was both stupid and full of myself, I’d never bought into the seduction and betrayal conceit. At most, journalism—particularly when writing about media-hungry public figures—was like the seduction of a prostitute. The relationship was transactional. They weren’t talking to me because they liked me or because I impressed them; they were talking to me because they wanted the cover of Rolling Stone.
I think he’s 90% right about that. Rolling Stone’s rep is what got him in the door and leant him an immediate, ‘rock star cool’ legitimacy. But while there’s an element of transaction—McChrystal needs the media as much as they need him and he’s after good media coverage—the emphasis is on the word ‘good’. He might be in charge of a war, but he’s human—he hopes to be liked and trusts that journalists will show him in a flattering, heart-in-the-right place light.
I’m still confused why the media officer didn’t set ground rules/wasn’t trying to get the guys to be more on message at the time. It makes me think he thought there was a tacit agreement in place that Hastings would overlook the off-the-cuff honesty, or at least buff its rough edges. That or they were just a little naïve.
That naivety perhaps explains why McChrystal was upset that Obama wasn’t falling over himself to throw money, troops, and anything else McChrystal asked for for Afghanistan. McChrystal seems not to fully comprehend that Obama, the very antithesis of gun-toting George Dubya, was elected on an anti-war stance and was never, ever going to be blindly complying with his more-muscle, more-money requests. He also seems completely oblivious to the fact that Obama inherited a financial crisis of epic, worldwide proportions and that an offshore ‘war’ costing the US in the vicinity of $600 billion annually might not be helping him balance the budget.
McChrystal’s lucky Obama didn’t tell them they had a drop-dead date and that there’d be no more funding beyond that (which is what I’d be tempted to do were I in Obama’s place—yes, it would be ugly, but no more or less than them staying in there fighting and further fueling a futile ‘war’).
Which hints at the book’s other, necessarily troubling theme of (if you’ll forgive me for paraphrasing the famous saying) war: what is it good for? If The Operators’ findings are anything to go by: nothing. Worse, the very reason for the US being in Afghanistan seems shakier than ever. Al-Qaeda wasn’t really setting up shop, bin Laden turned out to be in Pakistan and not Afghanistan, and troops found themselves caught up not in fighting terrorism but a decades-old civil war.
This sentiment is summed up well in the resignation letter of Matthew Hoh, who was only the third senior American government official to have resigned for reasons of conscience. Hastings quotes it here:
To put [it] simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued US casualties of expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war. … If the history of Afghanistan is one great stage play, the United States is no more than a supporting actor, among several previously, in a tragedy that not only pits tribes valleys, clans, villages, and families against one another, but, from at least the end of King Zahir Shah’s reign, has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated, and moderate of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate, and traditional.
He goes on to liken Afghanistan to Vietnam, something we’re increasingly seeing and hearing around the world:
Our support for [the Afghan] government, coupled with a misunderstanding of the insurgency’s true nature, reminds me horribly of our involvement with South Vietnam; an unpopular and corrupt government we backed at the expense of our Nation’s own internal peace, against an insurgency whose nationalism we arrogantly and ignorantly mistook as a rival to our own Cold War ideology … If honest, our state strategy of securing Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda resurgence or regrouping would require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc.
Thousands of our men and women have returned home with physical and mental wounds, some that will never heal or will only worsen with time. The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can anymore be made. As such, I submit my resignation.
I’ve always been vehemently opposed to us (Australia) supporting the US in both Iraq and Afghanistan—we have no business being in either, the operations are operating under misguided and false pretences, and even if they have the best of intentions, violence begets only violence. But nor is there any pleasure in ‘being right’ (whatever that might mean) and taking the moral high ground doesn’t make yesterday’s five-death day any less sobering.
Hasting’s book might have ‘fucked’ McChrystal, but perhaps necessarily so—The Operators highlights futility of the Afghanistan occupation and the too-high human and financial cost of a no-longer-clearly-defined ‘war’.
The signs are clear. President Barack Obama has nominated two leading skeptics of American military intervention for the most important national security cabinet posts. Meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who would prefer a substantial American residual presence after the last American combat troops have departed in 2014, Obama has signaled that he wants a more rapid transition out of an active combat role (perhaps as soon as this spring, rather than during the summer). The president has also countered a push from his own military advisors to keep a sizable force in Afghanistan indefinitely by agreeing to consider the “zero option” of a complete withdrawal. We appear on the verge of a non-interventionist moment in American politics, when leaders and the general public alike shun major military actions.
Only a decade ago, George W. Bush stood before the graduating class at West Point to proclaim the dawn of a new era in American security policy. Neither deterrence nor containment, he declared, sufficed to deal with the threat posed by “shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend” or with “unbalanced dictators” possessing weapons of mass destruction. “[O]ur security will require all Americans to be forward looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.” This new “Bush Doctrine” would soon be put into effect. In March 2003, the president ordered the US military to invade Iraq to remove one of those “unstable dictators,” Saddam Hussein.
This post-9/11 sense of assertiveness did not last. Long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan discredited the leaders responsible and curbed any popular taste for military intervention on demand. Over the past two years, these reservations have become obvious as other situations arose that might have invited the use of troops just a few years earlier: Obama intervened in Libya but refused to send ground forces; the administration has rejected direct measures in the Syrian civil war such as no-fly zones; and the president refused to be stampeded into bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.
The reaction against frustrating wars follows a familiar historical pattern. In the aftermath of both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Americans expressed a similar reluctance about military intervention. Soon after the 1953 truce that ended the Korean stalemate, the Eisenhower administration faced the prospect of intervention in Indochina, to forestall the collapse of the French position with the pending Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu. As related by Fredrik Logevall in his excellent recent book, Embers of War, both Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were fully prepared to deploy American troops. But they realized that in the backwash from Korea neither the American people nor Congress would countenance unilateral action. Congressional leaders indicated that allies, the British in particular, would need to participate. Unable to secure agreement from British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, Eisenhower and Dulles were thwarted, and decided instead to throw their support behind the new South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.
Another period marked by reluctance to use force followed the Vietnam War. Once the last American troops withdrew in 1973, Congress rejected the possibility they might return, banning intervention in Indochina without explicit legislative approval. Congress also adopted the War Powers Resolution, more significant as a symbolic statement about the wish to avoid being drawn into a protracted military conflict by presidential initiative than as a practical measure to curb presidential bellicosity.
It is no coincidence that Obama’s key foreign and defense policy nominees were shaped by the crucible of Vietnam. Both Chuck Hagel and John Kerry fought in that war and came away with “the same sensibility about the futilities of war.” Their outlook contrasts sharply with that of Obama’s initial first-term selections to run the State Department and the Pentagon: both Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates backed an increased commitment of troops in Afghanistan in 2009. Although Senators Hagel and Kerry supported the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, they became early critics of the war. Hagel has expressed doubts about retaining American troops in Afghanistan or using force against Iran.
Given the present climate, we are unlikely to see a major American military commitment during the next several years. Obama’s choice of Kerry and Hagel reflect his view that, as he put it in the 2012 presidential debate about foreign policy, the time has come for nation-building at home. It will suffice in the short run to hold distant threats at bay. Insofar as possible, the United States will rely on economic sanctions and “light footprint” methods such as drone strikes on suspected terrorists.
If the past is any guide, however, this non-interventionist moment won’t last. The post-Korea and post-Vietnam interludes of reluctance gave way within a decade to a renewed willingness to send American troops into combat. By the mid-1960s, Lyndon Johnson had embraced escalation in Vietnam; Ronald Reagan made his statement through his over-hyped invasion of Grenada to crush its pipsqueak revolutionary regime. The American people backed both decisions.
The return to interventionism will recur because the underlying conditions that invite it have not changed significantly. In the global order, the United States remains the hegemonic power that seeks to preserve stability. We retain a military that is more powerful by several orders of magnitude than any other, and will surely remain so even after the anticipate reductions in defense spending. Psychologically, the American people have long been sensitive to distant threats, and we have shown that we can be stampeded into endorsing military action when a president identifies a danger to our security. (And presidents themselves become vulnerable to charges that they are tolerating American decline whenever a hostile regime comes to power anywhere in the world.)
Those of us who question the American proclivity to resort to the use of force, then, should enjoy the moment.
President Obama is expected to announce at his State of the Union address tonight that 34,000 US troops — half the number currently stationed there — will return from Afghanistan next year. The war in Afghanistan has now continued for over ten years, since US forces entered the country after September 11th. The country, however, is still far from stable, and as Alex Strick van Linschoten, co-author of An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, explains, US involvement has become a crutch for a country still trying to find order. “It is a reality that the only thing holding the country together at the moment is essentially the presence of the foreigners, yet at the same time it’s one of the reasons for the continuing instabilities,” Strick van Linschoten says.
The Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, awarded biennially since 1996, was founded to celebrate the best translation of a children’s book from a foreign language into English and published in the UK. It aims to spotlight the high quality and diversity of translated fiction for young readers. The Award is administered by the ESU on behalf of the Marsh Christian Trust.
The Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation seeks to address a situation in the UK in which less than 3% of work published for children and young people has been from the non-English speaking world. Sarah Ardizzone, who has twice won the award, describes the act of translation as ‘literary ventriloquism and the Marsh Award aims to emphasiz translation as an art. The impact of the award has been reflected in the growing number of children’s books published in translation since it began.
On January 23, 2013 at a gala reception in London, UK, the 2013 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation was presented to Howard Curtis for In the Sea there are Crocodiles, written by Fabio Geda and published in the UK by David Fickling.
In the Sea there are Crocodiles is the harrowing story of a young boy traveling from his home in Afghanistan to Italy, in search of safety. Based on the experiences of Enaiatollah Akbari, his story is told with a sense of humour and adventure, and with great pace and tension. The judges described it as ‘a book of commendable literary quality, one that will nourish and inspire young people’.
Upon hearing the news that Curtis had won the award David Fickling, publisher, had this to say: “By every tweet, bulletin and news flash comes grim confirmation that there are indeed crocodiles in the sea, how wonderful then to hear the heart-warming news that Howard Curtis has won the Marsh Award for his brilliant translation of Fabio Geda’s amazing book, which shows indisputably that is is possible to swim safely in dangerous waters and reach our goal if we share the dogged determination, the sense of lightness and the pure human spirit of young Enaiatollah Akbari, oh, and if we listen carefully to our mothers too. This book is an inspiration, may the Marsh Award help carry it to every corner of the globe. It simply must be read.”
The 2013 shortlist – 5 books, 6 translators, 5 languages – demonstrates the high quality and diversity of translated fiction for young readers. The complete shortlist was:
CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen visited the Carnegie Council in New York City late last year to discuss Talibanistan, a collection he recently edited for Oxford University Press. Bergen, who produced the first television interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997, discussed the positive changes in Afghanistan over the past ten years: “Afghans have a sense that what is happening now is better than a lot of things they’ve lived through…”
Bergen was joined at the event by Anand Gopal, who wrote the first chapter in Talibanistan. Gopal recounts the story of Hajji Burget Khan, a leader in Kandahar who encouraged his fellow Afghans to support the Americans after the fall of the Taliban. But after US forces received bad intelligence, perceiving Hajji Burget Khan as a threat, he was killed in May 2002, which had a disastrous effect in the area, leading many to join the insurgency.
Peter Bergen is the director of the National Securities Studies Program at the New America Foundation, and is National Security Analyst at CNN. He is the author of Manhunt, The Longest War and The Osama Bin Laden I Know. Anand Gopal is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a journalist who has reported for the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and other outlets on Afghanistan. Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics, and Religion was edited by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann and includes contributions from Anand Gopal.
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Yesterday morning, Andrew Meyer, the operations manager for the First Book Marketplace, sent an email to the First Book staff sharing his thoughts about a young foreign service officer killed in Afghanistan while bringing books to children in need.
I was touched by Andrew’s email, and asked him if I could share it on the First Book blog.
Anne Smedinghoff (Photo from washingtonpost.com)
Many of you probably heard that six Americans were killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan this past Saturday. It seems that we have something in common with at least one of them: Anne Smedinghoff, a 25-year-old foreign service officer from Chicago. Anne was killed while delivering textbooks to children at a school.
Certainly we’re far from the chaos of Afghanistan, but I can’t help but feel a kinship with this young woman. I know as well as anyone that this business — this business of doing good — can be extremely challenging: long hours, increasing demand, lower salaries, uncertain funding sources, etc.
But never forget that we are all doing our part to increase knowledge and level the playing field. We are contributing to a movement that will have an impact centuries from now.
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on life since my wife’s passing back in September and I know that when my time comes I hope to be comforted by the fact that I’ve done my part to make the world just a little bit better.
I was struck yesterday by a news item about a UN report that states that the number of refugees in the world is now at a twenty year high – with a person leaving their home to seek refuge and safety every four seconds. Every four seconds. That is the state of our world. Syria alone now accounts for 1.6 million refugees. And world wide 46 percent of refugees are under eighteen – essentially children by our own definition.
So last year approximately 2 million children left their homes, sometimes with parents, sometimes without, to find a safer place to live. Children born into war, prejudice and starvation. These two million joined the seven million who are already out there.
Contrary to the image portrayed by some sectors of the media the majority of these refugees are being supported and looked after by the developing world – 86 percent of all refugees are in the care of the developing world.
And a statistic that took me by surprise, one in four of all refugees is from Afghanistan – and has been for the past 32 years. For 32 years there has been a steady stream of people fleeing Afghanistan in search of safety. A country that the US has spent $636,000,000,000 being at war with (and this number increases every second – see Cost of War website for the figures)
Today is World Refugee Day – the UN has a page detailing how people can help refugees and you can find it here. Small things can make a difference.
The “Summer of Recovery” has failed to materialize, and with that, the White House has had to start planning for 2012 earlier than expected.
After all, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had already conceded this summer that the House may fall to Republican hands. (Nancy Pelosi didn’t like the sound of his prescience then, but Gibbs was merely thinking strategically for his boss.) The one thing Democrats have going for them is that nearly every political commentator believes that an electoral tsunami awaits Democrats this fall, which means that they have low expectations on their side. And because the Democrats currently have a healthy majority, it would be nearly impossible that the flip will generate a Republican majority bigger than the one Democrats now enjoy. Victory for the Republicans would not taste so sweet because it would be fragile.
There is a silver lining inside this silver lining for the White House. If Republicans take control of the House, then at noon on January 3, 2011, President Obama will finally be able to do what presidents do best – blame the stalled progress on his domestic agenda on congressional intransigence, and switch to the domain in which presidents are able to act (and receive credit) unilaterally – foreign policy.
About a week and a half ago, Obama appeared to be embarking on this strategy, when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Whereas his second Oval Office address started with foreign policy issues and meandered awkwardly toward the economy (because the President was still hoping for a “summer of recovery”), the President’s first press conference inverted this order of priorities.
This press conference was delivered in the middle of the work day. It was directed to Washington elites and insiders, not the American public, for whom more talk of the economy would have been politically appropriate this election year. But the president began with the economy, but then ended with the Arab-Israeli conflict – displaying not only the agenda-setting power of the media to determine what presidents talk about, but also the instinct of presidents (even liberal ones) to withdraw to foreign policy as the presidential domain when domestic policy is not producing political credit for them.
It is no coincidence that very few Democratic candidates are campaigning on healthcare reform, even though it is the signature accomplishment of the Obama presidency and Democratic congress and the topic which headlined the political discussions of 2009. This is why Obama did not mention healthcare reform at all in his first and second Oval Office addresses, and he only brought it up haltingly and defensively in his first press conference last Friday.
With unemployment still at about 9.6 percent, everyone knows that the preeminent issue for Election 2010 is the economy. But Obama actually has, by a 10-point margin, higher approval numbers in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief than his handling of the economy. The White House realizes that the lack of results or higher casualties in Afghanistan doesn’t matter. What matters is that Obama is doing exactly what a Republican president would have done in Afghanistan and when there is nothing to fight about, the public approves.
After spending half of his first term on an ambitious domestic agenda for which he has gotten no credit but only blame, Obama may fin
Here’s more about the book, from the release: “[It] will tell the investigative and inspiring story of the 54 US soldiers who were attacked by and ultimately (after more than 18 hours of fighting) prevailed over 300-400 Taliban at Combat Outpost Keating in northeast Afghanistan. Tapper will detail the battle and the soldiers’ heroism and valiant service under fire and tell their stories, those of their loved ones, and those of the eight US troops killed that day. He will also investigate the unusual and compromising geography of the camp — tucked in a vulnerable valley surrounded by three heavily forested mountains near the Pakistan border, and explore the history of the camp within the context of the larger mission in Afghanistan.”
A children’s book, written by a soldier about an Afghani girl, set in the recent past. That’s a toughie. There are a lot of easier books out there to review too. Why aren’t I writing one about the adorable little girl who wants to be Little Miss Apple Pie or the one about the cute dog that wants to find its home? Well, sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone, which I suspect is what author Trent Reedy wanted to do here. With an Introduction by Katherine Paterson and enough backmatter to sink a small dinghy, Reedy takes a chance on confronting the state of the people of Afghanistan without coming off as imperialist, judgmental, or a know-it-all. For the most part he succeeds, and the result is a book that carries a lot more complexity in its 272 pages than the first 120 or so would initially suggest. Bear with it then. There’s a lot to chew on here.
Zulaikha would stand out in any crowd. It’s not her fault, but born with jutting teeth and a cleft upper lip she finds herself on the receiving end of the taunts of the local boys, and sometimes even her own little brother. Then everything in her life seems to happen at once. She’s spotted by an American soldier, who with his fellows manages to convince their captain to have Zulaikha flown to a hospital for free surgery. At the same time she makes the acquaintance of a friend of her dead mother, a former professor who begins to teach her girl how to read. Top it all off with the upcoming surprise marriage of Zeynab, Zulaikha’s older sister, and things seem to be going well. Unfortunately, hopes have a way of becoming dashed, and in the midst of all this is a girl who must determine what it is she wants and what it is the people she cares about need.
I approach most realistic children’s fiction with a great deal of trepidation, particularly when it discusses topical information. The sad truth of children’s books is that they are perfect containers for didacticism, even if you did not mean for that to be the case when you begin. With that in mind I read the first 120 pages of the story warily. I wasn’t certain that I liked what I saw either. Seemed to me that this book was indeed showing an in-depth portrait of Afghanistan, beauty, warts, and all, while the Americans were these near saviors, picking a poor girl out of the crowd upon whom to bestow free surgery out of the goodness of their golden glorious hearts. Fortunately, by the time we got to page 120 we saw the flip side of the equation. Yes, the Americans are perky and western and what have you. They’re also doofuses. Sometimes. They sort of blunder about Afghanistan without any recognition of the cultural courtesies they’re supposed to engage in. They merrily serve their Muslim guests food made out of pigs, unaware of what they’re doing. At one point Zulaikha’s father grows increasingly angry with them for their distrust of common Afghan workers (watching builders at gunpoint so that none of them steal tools) as well as their conversational blunders. Don’t get me wrong. The Americans are generally seen as good blokes. But I was worried that this book was going to be one sweet love song to the American invasion, and it’s not that. It’s nuanced and folks are allowed to be both good and bad. Even the ones writing the book.
I still got nervous, though. I desperately did not want this
This is the wrenching tale of Zulaikah, an Afghani girl who lives with a cleft palate that has earned her the nickname of Donkeyface from the bullies in her neighborhood. It is a modern story, set after the defeat of the Taliban. Zulaikah lives with a harsh taskmaster of a stepmother, her beloved older sister, and two younger brothers. Despite her face, she is the one her stepmother sends to the market for supplies, giving the other children a chance to mock her. With the Americans in town, Zulaikah is offered the chance to have her face repaired. She also meets Meena, an old friend of her late mother who offers to teach her to read. These are immense opportunities for her, but will she be allowed to take advantage of them?
Reedy is a debut author who served in Afghanistan with the National Guard. Zulaikah’s story is based on a girl he met in Afghanistan. Reedy has created a marvelous lens for readers to better understand Afghanistan, its culture and its people. The day-to-day life shown here is so very different from our own, that one never forgets that this is a different country. Yet Zulaikah’s hopes and dreams are universal. So this book manages to offer a view of a foreign country at the same time it is showing our united humanity.
Zulaikah is a heroine who has seen unthinkable things, lives with a very visible disability, and yet remains hopeful about the future. She is a girl living in a culture that devalues women and girls, and while she searches for someone to teach her to read, she is not straining against the culture she is a part of. That is a large part of what makes this book so successful. This is a girl who is a product of her family and culture, yet radiant with inner beauty and always hope.
This is a particularly timely book that offers a perspective of modern Afghanistan. It also offers a very human character who will have you viewing news of Afghanistan differently, now with a spirited girl to inspire understanding. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Michael Scheuer was the chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999 and remained a counterterrorism analyst until 2004. He is the author of many books, including the bestselling Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terrorism. His latest book is the biography Osama bin Laden, a much-needed corrective, hard-headed, closely reasoned portrait that tracks the man’s evolution from peaceful Saudi dissident to America’s Most Wanted.
Today is Girls’ Day in Japan and many girls will celebrating it with their families. I have written a post about the holiday in the past for PT. This year I’d like to draw your attention to girls in other parts of the world, namely in Canada and Afghanistan. Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan is an organization started in 2007 by a Canadian girl named Alaina Podmorow in British Columbia. After hearing a stirring talk by writer and activist Sally Armstrong about the plight of women in Afghanistan, Alaina started to fundraise by hosting a silent auction which raised enough money to support four teachers’ salaries in Afghanistan. She then contacted the organization Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and joined with them under the name she chose for her group and hence was Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan born! Check out their website for more details.
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Michael Scheuer was the chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999 and remained a counterterrorism analyst until 2004. He is the author of many books, including the bestselling Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terrorism (recommended by bin Laden himself). His latest book is the biography Osama bin Laden which he recently discussed on The Colbert Report (and this podcast!).
By Mark Kantor, Michael D. Nolan & Karl P. Sauvant
The conversation in the new and old media over the last several weeks has been dominated by reports about uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt and violent clashes in Bahrain, Yemen, the Ivory Coast, Iraq and elsewhere. In Libya, fighting currently is reported to take place close to strategic oil installations. Because of the scarcity of claims arising out of similar events in investor-state arbitration, political risk insurance claims determinations by the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) can play an important role to develop this area of law and fill these gaps in future investor-state arbitral arbitrations.
OPIC has a long history of dealing with claims under political risk insurance policies arising from political violence. Its first political violence claims arose as a consequence of the rebuilding efforts by the Organization of American States following political strife in Dominican Republic in 1967. Early claims included a 1968 claim arising out of war damage to an extension of Jerusalem airport. Since then, OPIC has addressed political violence claims relating to projects in inter alia Pakistan, Bangladesh, Chile, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Philippines, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Gaza, Colombia and Afghanistan. These claims concerned damages suffered as a consequence of declared war, violent secessions, military coups, civil war, or revolution. The variety of the different situations encountered in OPIC claims determinations provides valuable insight into how political violence can and does affect foreign investments.
One key element that OPIC determinations have spent significant time addressing is attribution to establish who is responsible the underlying act of violence and for what purpose it was committed. Was violence committed by a group that was trying to overthrow the government, was it committed by a group that was under the control of a government? Or was the violence non-political in nature and as such not covered by the OPIC policy?
The OPIC claims determination with respect to the Freeport mining project in Indonesia is perhaps particularly on point for current events. Freeport Indonesia was engaged in mining activities in the area then known as Irian Jaya (now West Papua), a province of Indonesia on the island of New Guinea The area in which Freeport Indonesia operated became part of Indonesia only after negotiations between the Netherlands and Indonesia. A year after Irian Jaya was joined to Indonesia, various dissident groups, known as the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (“OPM”) formed for the purpose of asserting independence.
In 1969, a first uprising took place, which did not damage Freeport Indonesia facilities. In 1976, though, Freeport Indonesia received letters from OPM demanding assistance in a renewed insurrection expected in spring of 1977. That uprising would reputedly be joined by a major invasion of nationalist forces from neighboring Papua New Guinea. An uprising did occur in 1977, including in the area of Freeport Indonesia’s facilities. Government of Indonesia armed forces were sent to quell the insurrection. The military apparently used Freeport Indonesia facilities as a base of operations. During the period from July 23, 1977 to September 7, 1977, Freeport Indonesia’s facilities suffered damage during acts of sabotage and attacks. Because the partisans shared a common purpose to assert independence, OPIC determined that the loosely affiliated OPM did constitute a revolutionary force despite its lack of a clear command structure. OPIC further applied a “preponderance” test, weighing the evidence available to OPIC to establish whether it was more likely than not that the harm done to Freeport’s facilities was the result of
A 60 Minutes report last night accused author Greg Mortenson (pictured, via) of fabricating parts of his bestselling memoirs and misusing funds from his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI).
The report examined three particular issues: (1) Did Mortenson first visit the village ofKorphe after a mountain climbing trip as he wrote in his memoir, Three Cups of Tea? (2) Was Mortenson captured by the Taliban as he alleged in his follow-up Stones into Schools? (3) Is the CAI carrying out its charitable mission with the money it collects from philanthropists and donors? According to several sources who were interviewed, the answer is “no” to all three questions.
Former CAI donor Jon Krakauer called Mortenson’s first meeting with Korphe villages “a beautiful story” and “a lie.” Mansur Khan Mahsud denied that the Taliban kidnapped the author. Mahsud appears in a photograph from the alleged kidnapping, but works as the research director of a respected Islamabad think tank.
David Ignatius of The Washington Post recently highlighted several “positive signs in Afghanistan,” citing progress on the diplomatic front, in relations between India and Pakistan, and on the battlefield itself. Of note, Ignatius stressed how U.S.-led coalition forces had cleared several Taliban strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. The enemy, according to the opinion piece, was “feeling the pressure.” That same day Britain’s former ambassador to Afghanistan condemned General David Petraeus’s tactics as counterproductive and “profoundly wrong.” Denouncing an overemphasis on military action, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles noted that the use of body counts and similar statistics was reminiscent of the Vietnam War and “not conducive to a stable political settlement.”
The allusion to Vietnam, made frequently in the last five years, suggests uncertainty over the true amount of progress being made in Afghanistan today. For nearly a decade Americans in South Vietnam similarly tried in vain to assess progression towards the daunting political-military objective of a stable and independent noncommunist government in Saigon. Military officers and their civilian leaders employed a range of metrics to track success in the myriad political, military, economic, security, and social programs. As early as 1964, analysts were wading through approximately five hundred U.S. and Vietnamese monthly reports in an attempt to appraise the status of the conflict. In the process, the American mission in Vietnam became overwhelmed with data, much of it contradictory and, thus, of dubious value. By war’s end, questions remained over whether the U.S. Army in particular had achieved its goals in Southeast Asia. That debate continues to this day.
The American experience in Vietnam has served—rightfully so—as only an imperfect roadmap for our more current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, all wars are unique. Our recent conflicts, however, do illustrate the continuing challenges of defining progress and success in unconventional wars and of developing a coherent strategy for such wars. It is here that an objective study of Vietnam can offer insights and perspectives into the unresolved problems of measuring what matters most in an environment like Afghanistan. Quantitative statistics often do not tell the whole story as governmental allegiances, population security, and political stability all are highly subjective assessments. As in Vietnam, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have varied from province to province and any broad, centralized appraisals of the war likely miss the finer points of local conditions driving the political and military struggle.
Even in a war without front lines, Americans expect wartime progress to be linear. Effort should equal progress. Progress should lead to victory. The widely contrasting views of David Ignatius and Sherard Cowper-Coles, however, imply a battle is being waged over the very idea of “progress” in Afghanistan today. (Asking if the United States “won” in Iraq would provoke equally opposing responses.) If historical examples can be instructive in any way, the problem of metrics in Vietnam arguably helps illuminate the reasons why gauging wartime progress in Afghanistan has produced such a wide range of opinions. Assessing wars oftentimes is just as difficult as winning them.