The perils of forgetting about Afghanistan
At the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, my high school classmates and I gathered around a computer to watch clip after clip of YouTube-esqe media surrounding this historic decision. One amateur video we found was a seven minute concert of explosions, firepower and destruction all tuned to the musical talent of System of a Down.
The message of the video? Saddam, his Baathist cronies and Iraq in general better duck and cover, because the American military is on its way to burn your terrorist-harboring country into the ground.
In fact, the message was not implicit; it was intermittently flashed on the screen between explosions and missile launches. This clip was in no way endorsed by the federal government or military, and was most likely an artistic creation of “Joe the Plumber” #7472. However, the idea that military might alone can bring countries to their knees is by no means new.
This ideology was employed in Vietnam, and has proven to be ineffective in controlling large expanses of undeveloped, sparsely populated land. After 16 years and tremendous casualty counts on both sides, we decided to turn in our chips and call it a day.
Massive firepower and traditional military strategy could not break the resilient Vietnamese. With every mine we set, with every village we scorched with sulfur, with every field we blanketed in Agent Orange, we filled the ranks of the Vietcong with new recruits.
The Vietnam War is over, but the type of conflict, one that merits a counter-insurgent strategy, is reborn anew four decades later in Afghanistan. Every time we bomb a village or kill innocent civilians we create new Taliban insurgents. We can dehumanize these people and call them evil, inhuman creatures that kill innocents, but Afghanistan is a country pushed to extremes.
With the highest infant mortality rate in the world (163 out 1000), a per capita income of roughly $800, an infrastructure destroyed by Cold War rivalries and an economy based almost entirely on poppy seeds, Afghanistan is no longer the beautiful, vibrant country it was before the Soviet Union invasion of 1979.
If you put a man in desperate circumstances, he is bound to make desperate decisions.
There is an entire sector of psychology dedicated to the study of group violence, with insurgency and terrorism comprising an even smaller branch of this research. Membership in such groups is derived, for example, by a need for national identity, security or social support. These groups often control access to scarce resources. Basic human needs must be satisfied, and often times, extremist groups provide stability in destitute circumstances.
At the risk of sounding like a bleeding-heart liberal, I argue that the key to victory and peace in Afghanistan is a humanitarian-based strategy that puts the safety of civilians before military strategy. Defense Secretary Robert Gates tapped General Stanley McChrystal with this very philosophy in mind.
A brilliant man, well-respected and adored alike, McChrystal has ordered officers to keep civilian casualties low, and has made moves to stop broad-based bombing of sites that could contain innocent men, women and children. The military must go village to village, providing the same security and moral support that extremist groups monopolize. The officer must be both social worker and warrior.
In some cases, caution has allowed insurgents to escape, a strategy referred to by Marines as “tactical patience.” Inevitably, the American military will meet those same insurgents once again. However, if a community member is lost, the next generation will grow up to learn he or she does not have a mother or father because the American military was sloppy.
Many will argue that Afghanis should recognize that we want to build a healthy, peaceful democracy free of extremism and oppression. As a neo-liberal, I do believe that democracy is the ideal form of government which all are entitled to, even if it is a form of representation that does not directly emulate western democratic models. But, let’s be reasonable. How would the average American feel if Norway invaded the United States to establish public universal healthcare?
As evidenced by the Great Wall of Mexico, we don’t like foreigners, and unfortunately, an unsettling percentage of the population believes Barack Obama to be the Antichrist simply because of the color of his skin. We don’t like foreigners, never mind occupiers who kill large amounts of our friends and relatives, so let’s not pretend that we would welcome a militaristic, alien culture of reformers with open arms.
Afghanis don’t simply “hate our freedom.”
So what does the future of Afghanistan look like and what will be the United States’ role in it? We are going to be in Afghanistan for a very long time. It is not a question of eliminating the Taliban, but rebuilding the basics of a functioning society so that the country does not implode soon after the last Marine leaves.
These include rebuilding healthcare, education, electricity, water and sewer, roads and the legal system, as well as economic diversification. As of 2008, 45 percent of the Afghan population is under the age of 15. This means that the world has an amazing opportunity to influence this young political activism down a positive road. If we allow Afghanistan to fall apart, we abandon a new generation to a life of radicalism and poverty.
Meghan Boesch is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.