Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Politics of Empire, Taliban | Tags: Afghanistan, Afghanistan troop surge, counter insurgency, military contractors
This week General McChrystal’s review of what is needed in Afghanistan began to make its rounds. Although the unclassified “multi disciplinary assessment” might not titillate your breakfast musings, it sets the tone for the coming debate and if we want to engage in the discussion, we better know what it says. In a word the report calls for the ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force which includes NATO and other forces to change its internal culture by getting closer to the people, protecting the people, and tightening up its command structure while it decentralizes in order to respond to local conditions. It repeatedly calls for the mission to be properly “resourced” which is Pentagonese for more troops and it urges more ability in language and cultural skills to relate to local people.
The memo reminds the Afghan government that it needs to clean up its act. It alludes to the mantra of corruption as if this is a new characteristic of a “counter insurgency” situation. The pages note that the abuse of power and privilege by the Afghan government has not helped. However it does not remind its readers that corruption, abuse of power and opportunism, also standard form in US politics at home, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, are common themes in war and particularly where there are insurgencies.
The report is silent about religion or traditional communal decision making of Afghan village culture as a component for healing – well the memo actually does not use the term healing. It makes no mention of gender roles or how traditional justice processes work among the various ethnic groups. It vaguely acknowledges the possibility of selective negotiations and uses the term reconciliation. But the central theme is a call for what it names as a new strategy and warns that without it and proper resourcing things can get worse, much worse.
The memo lets us know that “conventional warfare culture is part of the problem”. Immediately I thought of the US Air Force or the newly conventionalized robotic war machine at Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas. Would these projects and units like them that do so much damage to relationships, trust and long term confidence be shut down? I tried to conjure up images of how a marine unit might look, devoid of its Hummers, trucks, and helicopters and ready access to a plethora of communication devices just a few of the elements of the conventional warfare culture that I know.
It’s a stretch to think of a marine unit “tasked” to build relations with the local people, sitting in circles of elders, sharing food, brain storming about what works and what doesn’t work. I imagine those marines travelling by bicycle, without arms, uniform or even candy to give out. Maybe a sign somewhere on the bicycle would say “I am an unarmed soldier and I am here to help”. I thought that General McChrystal should know that imaginations like the one implanted within me creates images for an army that could embrace serious internal cultural change.
For the record, McChrystal should be reminded that beginning one century ago an unarmed nonviolent army of 100,000 like the marine unit I described once existed among the tribesmen like the people McChrystal’s army now fights in border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Badshah Khan, its leader, was buried in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in 1988. The cultural changes advocated here are not as remote to Afghanistan as conventional thinking might consider them to be. I know that General McChrystal would still be worried about the security of his unarmed troops. Should he be worried? Yes! Would ISAF death rate be worse than it is presently with all the armour, the weapons, and airplanes removed.. Probably not!
A bonus to a major cultural shift towards simplicity for foreign forces in Afghanistan may be its attractiveness back home in a society that is rooted in notions of sacrifice. For conservatives it would mean lowering the costs. For liberals it would appeal to notions of really helping rather than breaking things. Going low budget with constant self reflection has been tried by private groups and it works. Implementation will require a different kind of consultant, contractor, trainer and analyst. The new strategy could silently eliminate all the armed mercenaries that repeatedly sully the image of our country. Everybody would win with this strategy, Afghans, Americans, conservatives, liberals even the Pakistani and Iranian neighbours who would feel less pressure to keep up in terms of missiles and military hardware. Successful implementation of the new culture of the International Security Assistance Force would clearly mean less troops, not more, as the values behind the new culture take root.
Another suggestion that I liked in this memo is the call for people to think. To break through the fog of the more than 130 military acronyms in this document does require thinking. But why not take General McChrystal at his word and think more deeply with him about what might work. Neither President Obama nor his White House staff are particularly experienced in Afghanistan although some of them have done unarmed community projects and that is a plus if they take time to remember how they connected with communities.
One of the ways in which the Afghanistan effort has been “under resourced” for the last 8 years is thinking. I don’t presume to have all the answers about security. However I believe that the people I have known and worked with in villages, provincial towns, and cities across this world including Afghanistan really have useful thoughts and solutions. The problem is that no one can get to them because the contractors, the Hummers, the drones and the conventional warfare culture gets in the way. It’s a big deal to change a culture. General McChrystal will need a lot of support because he will get mean opposition if he in fact survives long enough to work out a vision.
The memo is reaching for something that may have a moral equivalency to conventional war. Any soldier who resolves to find a way for change outside the standard instruments of war is stepping into testy waters. That is why he or she thinks more troops are needed just in case nothing works. The memo fails to show how more resources will bring the mission closer to success. Military thinkers like the rest of us stumble around when we know we must work outside the box. If more resources just brings escalation and deepens the resolve of both sides for victory using terrorism if necessary, the mission will fail. If this process of culture change can turn us to deeper things, like how justice is accomplished, the conversation before us may help.
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