Wednesday, January 28, 2009

President Obama and the War in Afghanistan

President Obama inherited two ill-fated wars from President Bush. Today, he stands poised to exit Iraq “with honor” and refocus efforts on “winning” the war in Afghanistan. In both cases, Obama has stated that his decisions will be contingent upon the advice he receives from his generals. The underlying assumption here is that these wars are primarily “military events” and that these decisions require “military expertise.” Let’s explore these assumptions. First of all, military generals are loath to lose wars. The military code of honor does not condone losing, and therefore Obama should realize that his generals will not admit that the war cannot be "won" militarily, but they will request more time and more resources, especially troops. The underlying the military perspective is that war resembles a “game,” in fact the lexicon of war is rife with sports metaphors. (war strategy, war games, victory, defeat, etc.) At the root of this vision is the assumption that there are rules of war and that victory is marked by a decisive “final score.” Historically, that final score has always been tabulated based on military criteria: body counts, territorial control, etc. In the end, there is a ceremonial event where the “losers” surrender and sign a peace treaty that acknowledges the “winner.” Throughout human history military generals have always approached war from this “winner-loser” framework. However, this military interpretation is necessarily blind to the fact that war is ultimately a political event, and therefore, “winning” must relate to the realization of political goals. In my view, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been waged based on the pursuit of vague, and unrealistic political goals. In fact, if you look closely at the stated goals of the Bush administration for Iraq you’ll note that they changed over time from eliminating weapons of mass destruction, to removing Saddam Hussein from power, to establishing a democracy, to restoring urban security. Now we can’t blame the military for meandering political goals. Given that the civil war between the three Iraqi religious factions has subsided (thanks to the implementation of a successful military strategy: "the surge"), the most recent political goal (urban security) appears to be within reach. Obama feels as though we can soon leave Iraq “with honor” and pursue victory "with honor" in Afghanistan. What might "victory with honor" in Afghanistan mean? Well... military victory would require a final score based on the realization of military goals, such as killing large numbers of Taliban soldiers (and their sons) and holding territory. In the end, we’d have that ceremony where a Taliban leader admits defeat and signs the proverbial peace treaty. If there is one, single, powerful leader that can sign that treaty I’m sure our politicians know where to find him. A political victory would be marked by the realization of our stated political goals for Afghanistan. What exactly are those goals? Well, again we have that notoriously vague notion of establishing a democracy in a culture that has been dominated by religious authoritarianism. The current “elected” government has been marked by corruption and ineptitude. The assumption is that all Afghanistan really needs to do is militarily defeat the Taliban and elect a new crop of honest and efficient political leaders. But democracy is not a cure-all for all of Afghanistan’s social, political, and economic woes. For centuries it has been one of the poorest nations on earth. Most of its income today is derived from the illegal drug trade and arms dealing. Education in Afghanistan is monopolized by religious leaders. Therefore, their schools do not produce doctors, lawyers, engineers, chemists, or biologists that go to work every day providing goods and services. When there is an election, voters will elect more religious leaders. Women will not go to school and they won’t vote. But they will produce more male children that will attend these religious schools and thus perpetuate the status quo. Therefore, as we move our troops into the Afghan wilderness, Americans must demand clarity in terms of both our military and political goals. What do we really hope to gain for Afghanistan (or the United States) by removing the Taliban from power? How will we know when the war is over? And, most importantly, who will sign the peace treaty? My modest view is that President Obama cannot expect our military generals to answer these questions for him.

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