As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, July 06, 2009

McNamara And Afghanistan

If any situation in the world right now shows in stark relief the failure to learn the lessons of Robert McNamara it's the escalating war in Afghanistan. Six more troops died in clashes today, and with both the increased numbers as well as a continuing offensive in Helmand Province in the south, we can expect more. This Reuters report gives a good sense of the difficulties with the current strategy:

The mullah's message was blunt. We don't trust you and if you don't earn our trust, our first meeting will be our last.

With that, he stood abruptly and walked out of his first "shura," or council meeting, with U.S. Marines.

U.S. forces who have moved deep into formerly Taliban-controlled territory in southern Afghanistan this week say they are here to stay and will not leave until they have improved the lives of ordinary people [...]

The elders listened, clicking their prayer beads. Then Mullah Zainuddin, the village's religious leader, listed their demands.

They want the provincial authorities to allocate more water for their irrigation system. They want a health clinic, and they want a school. Produce these things or leave us alone, he said.

"I do not trust you. There have been international forces that have come through the village and promised schools, promised clinics. When you are already (delivering) that, then I will trust you," he said.

"We are out of patience here. If you do not do these things and solve these problems, we will leave this village. We will fight: every man, woman and child, we do not fear death."

"This is our last speech, and if you can't solve these problems, we will not have another shura. We will not sit like this again and talk with you," he said. He then got up and walked away, leaving the Marines to finish the shura without him.

Suddenly, a Marine could be heard up the road shouting "stop!" and pointing his rifle at a man driving a motorcycle with two women hidden in burqas sitting behind him on the bike.

The Marine summoned an interpreter. Afghan police searched the driver and allowed the motorcycle to drive on. The village elders and the other Marines holding their shura watched the tense incident in quiet.

"I know you think you are here for our security. But you have come here to disturb us," said one of the elders, Hajji Baluch. "The women on the motorcycle were on their way to a clinic."

I can jut tick off the McNamara lessons and apply them here. We have exaggerated the dangers of a largely local Taliban insurgency, which cannot harm the United States if we use proper law enforcement and intelligence methods. We seem to lack an understanding of the desires of the Afghan people, weary from decades of war and distrustful of foreign presence that has brought them nothing of substance. "We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values," a direct quote from McNamara. We use high-powered military equipment to blast our way to a victory on paper but fail to recognize the limitations of that approach. We have not hashed out a debate on the merits of escalation in public and with the support of the Congress. We have changed course into a high-intensity counter-insurgency mission after explaining that the goal of the war was to deny Al Qaeda safe havens, and the two are only tangentially related. We have not yet recognized the limits of American involvement to bring peace and security to Afghanistan. And,

We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgment of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or as we choose.

Afghanistan is maddeningly complex. Its relations internally among the ethnically diverse factions and with its neighbors across borders are not well-understood. And after seven-plus years of failed promises and millions of tons of ordnance, we must understand that our skills and abilities as a superpower cannot solve every problem. Nor does every problem want to be solved. Such is the conundrum in Afghanistan.

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