Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March 19th -- Looking Back, Looking Forward

Most references this year to March 19th will note that this is the sixth anniversary of the U.S. –led invasion of Iraq with the subsequent continuous death and destruction inflicted on a people and a land that had not attacked the United States or in any way posed a threat to the nation’s well-being, prosperity, or vital interests.

Now this way of reckoning the passage of time is today the more common mode of keeping track of events, a mode that fits well with cultures that are tied to the use of portable calendars that can be marked to remind us of significant occurrences in history.

But there is another way of expressing the passage of time, one that would note not that this March 19th is the sixth anniversary of a past event such as the Iraq invasion but that it is the beginning of the seventh consecutive year of war in Iraq. This way of expression places more emphasis on looking forward to the unfolding of time and events and less on looking back to what is history. The distinction is clearly embodied in the way one expresses the age of a child. In the “historical” framework, a child who has survived in the world for 365 days (or 366 days in leap year) since birth is declared to be a one year old. In the future-oriented mode of expression, the new-born is one – he or she is living life from the moment of birth, and thus at the end of the 365 or 366 day cycle the baby is starting her second year of life.

I do not recall who pointed out to me these two different orientations, the different psychologies expressed by these approaches to life and to living. But I do recall that the future oriented viewpoint was generally associated with the east while the historical was better adapted to the competitive west where we are always measuring our performance over time compared to the success (or failure) of our “competition.” And it does suggest that the non- historical view might have been relatively widespread in earlier times when the pace of life was slower, when the majority of the population of the majority of countries around the globe were engaged in subsistence or near-subsistence agriculture.

So what does this have to do with Iraq this March 19th? Over the course of the last year, the fighting and the killing have gone down. But next door in Afghanistan the opposite is occurring. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the Pentagon and the White House thought the coalition had defeated al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. They made the mistake of looking back instead of looking forward trying to see the way ahead in Afghanistan.

In reversing the weight of coalition efforts back into Afghanistan, President Obama runs the risk of letting Iraq slip back into sectarian, tribal, and ethnic violence such as dominated that country in 2005 through 2007. Some commentators are calling for an approach in Afghanistan similar to the “Petraeus tactic” credited with winning over to the U.S. side large numbers of Iraqi insurgents. This suggests that the president may face controversy over his troop build-up that will require extraordinary effort to preclude entrapment – as has happened so often in the past – of “dominant” military powers in Afghanistan.

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