Creating a model of compassion
October 04, 2009
Moving beyond war in Afghanistan

The challenge of helping Afghanistan while also serving U.S. security goals includes four aspects: first, U.S. fear of more terrorist attacks mounted from the region; second, fear that other powers, such as Russia or Iran, could assume undue influence; third, the potential use of the territory as a route to move resources such as oil and natural gas; and fourth, U.S. unwillingness to admit that the application of power may not part of the solution at all.

This last fear may be the deepest one, deeper even than our fear of terrorism. The simplifications of “my country, right or wrong” put pressure on our officials to be consistent in the direction of more military force. The minute Mr. Obama asks his generals what number of troops “success” will require, he has boxed himself in to a certain line of action. The generals give him a number, and the president becomes less able to challenge the unexamined assumption that Afghanistan is a military problem.

The reason we are, with obvious variations, repeating the Vietnam pattern in Afghanistan is not that we haven’t learned the tactical lessons. It is that we can’t accept that we are not in charge of the world and we are not comfortable with questioning our own motives at the deepest level. What constitutes victory if the mere presence of the American military, however well intentioned, creates a perception of occupation and the pushback that always results? Who anointed us, with so many challenges at home, to fix the world? If we are so willing in 2009 to repeat what failed in 1969, where will the next place be that we slip into yet another ambiguous regional war?

American soldiers know they are over there because of 9/11 and Al Quaeda, but are they also there to destroy the Taliban? To police the drug trade? To build a nation? To create Western-style political institutions in a tribal context? Are they being set up to fail to preserve the tenuous sense that the U.S. government is doing something constructive to reduce further terrorist attacks?

Conversely, the need to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people is clearly understood by many in the American military who are giving life and limb to create enclaves of security in the region. General Stanley McChrystal on October 1 said: “We don’t win by destroying the Taliban. We don’t win by body count. We don’t win by the number of successful military raids or attacks; we win when the people decide we win.” This is an extraordinary statement—a military leader essentially admitting that war itself is a negligible part of the answer.

Defeat in Vietnam was painful for the United States after the loss of 55,000 soldiers, but the military alternatives had run out. Rather than spinning out a similar future in Afghanistan, it is surely better to accept the need for a change of policy, even if Obama did campaign on the idea that an Afghanistan was a necessary war. In the case of Al Quaeda, the alternative is good intelligence and police work in greater cooperation with other countries including Pakistan if possible. The heroin trade in Afghanistan will not yield to our armies, but it might yield to the possibility that farming less deadly produce also can result in a decent living—and to addressing as best we can the challenge of drug demand in our own country.

We need models that are motivated by compassion and good will rather than just fear of terrorism. One such model is Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that builds schools, mostly for girls, in remote areas of the Af-Pak region. What is it about this particular American that the Afghans trust to the extent that his projects have the enthusiastic support of the villages he serves?

The United States can replicate this model of directly meeting human needs at a tiny fraction of the expense of waging war. Instead of trying to control everything, including the Afghan government itself, we could ask local people what their needs are and try to provide them in such a way that their sense of us as occupiers is minimized. In the long term, because the means are congruent with the ends, this model will lessen support for extremism, increase national cohesion and stability, and keep other regional players at bay. It could accomplish everything we presently think we need to do militarily, and it could do it without the hellish destruction that the Afghans have endured for so long.

Commentary by Winslow Myers, artist/writer
Stowe, VT

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