Saturday, October 24, 2009

War Fustrations

Last week (October 13), television’s Public Broadcasting System aired an examination of the war in Afghanistan on its weekly investigative program “Frontline.” The core of the program, titled “Obama’s War,” focused on a three-week photo journal record of a U.S. Marine Corps company’s operations as a lead unit of the 4,000 strong U.S. force deployed into southern Afghanistan.

This was not a “good news” or upbeat story. The reporter and his cameraman linked up with the Marines shortly after the unit arrived at its objective, a small town in Helmand province. This area is home turf for the Taliban movement; no U.S. unit – not to mention any Afghan army or police force representing the central government in Kabul – has been in the area for the past three years.

But the battle was not for control of the geographic terrain or to hunt down and capture or kill Taliban fighters. This was to be a long, sustained battle for control of the psychological terrain in which the U.S. soldiers, the Taliban fighters, and the ordinary Afghan noncombatants engage in a two-level game of chess. Each armed party maneuvers to block the other while simultaneously aiming to capture the neutral third queen and her pawns that have little interest in what the fight is all about. Put another way, as declaimed by the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, the Marines’ mission is to win the hearts and minds of the local residents.

Daily meetings with the governing elders of tribes, clans, and villages in the company’s “area of responsibility” are meant to encourage mutual trust by both sides: the Marines seek information on Taliban plans, movements, and the operation of local “shadow government” structures that are more responsive to the needs of the people than is Kabul. For their part, the elders object to the presence of the foreign soldiers and the death and destruction they bring with their military power and to which the Taliban respond.

If the Marines and the villagers are like the proverbial two ships that pass each other at night but never make sustained, substantive contact, the same relationship pertains between the Taliban fighters and the civilian population – but with the insurgents more willing to impose their interpretation of culture and governance. The difference in the relationship is quite clearly captured in the “Frontline” program. Frame after frame of the video camera tell of the frustrations that the foreign soldiers encounter at every meeting with the tribal elders – and transmit in their body language as well as their words to the civilian side. The Americans do not understand the Afghan language any better than the Afghanis understand English – or have any incentive to learn. Even indigenous translators who have studied American English are frequently unable to transmit the idiom and idiosyncratic connotations that are so important to conveying the exact “meaning” of words.

This disconnect is not confined to the American experience with foreign populations. There exists a divide between the civilians who are charged with maintaining military readiness and many senior uniformed personnel who see their role as completing missions they are given to implement.

What is missing is a redefinition of the armed forces role in U.S. “national defense” coupled with a recognition that the U.S. cannot unilaterally dictate the conditions that other nations must follow. The assumption in the late 20th Century was that Washington had a moral duty to prevent war because it had the power to intervene in armed conflicts between other countries. This is neither sound diplomacy nor useful in justification the dispatch of Marines and other U.S. officials, uniformed and civilian, to “solve” disputes with minimal collateral damage.

What the White House and now Congress finally seem to recognize is that the U.S. citizenry is not as keen about sending the troops to foreign lands as are elected officials. The Afghan population clearly is not waiting for the foreign soldiers to arrive, but they could be helped if the Afghan government could provide security and protect their way of life, their customs, and culture.

For their part, the foreign troops need only to provide the context in which the public will find a way to achieve self-governance on their terms – terms that exclude the Taliban insurgency.


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