July 31, 2010
Much has been published in recent weeks regarding what our strategy might be in the longest war of American History. Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations and former official in the recent Bush administration has made more sense to me than anyone else thus far. Writing in Newsweek (July 26, 2010) he explores various options including ‘staying the course’, immediate withdrawal, ‘reconciliation’, ‘partition’ and ‘decentralization’. Haas sees many potential advantages of this last option which involves the US providing arms and training to local leaders who resist Al Qaida. It works with the Afghani tradition of a weak center and strong periphery and would allow the majority of US troops to return home. He describes this more as a ‘patchwork quilt’ than a partition’. He is not naïve about the challenges of any policy but believes that we are closer to achieving the goals of preventing Al Qaida from finding safe haven in Afghanistan and making sure that Afghanistan does not undermine the (relative) stability of Pakistan.
There is clearly a divide among people of both major parties in Washington about how best to proceed that ironically seems to achieve a certain number of potentially bi-partisan alliances.
In the background of all this, we must remember what we are doing to the young men and women who are fighting this war. Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm) has written War, a compilation of his thoughts and experiences during a sustained number of visits to Afghanistan war zones as an embedded reporter. He is particularly good in reminding us that we cannot view this war or our troops through the lens of Vietnam. In this war our troops are volunteers and, for the most part, proud to be serving their country. At the same time Junger addresses some of what makes war so intense: everything matters to everyone on the most mundane level. Smelly urine points to dehydration and that soldier is likely to fade out in a firefight. An unlaced shoe is a danger to everyone and so on. This kind of community and intensity are part of what makes return to life without war so very challenging. It sounded to me akin to why some practitioners of the twelve steps of AA and its offshoots find that community so much more helpful than church. In AA there is a certain level on which drinking or not is a matter of life or death. Salvation is literal and specific to the task of not drinking alcohol. A real sense of community can develop to the extent that people can look as if they are substituting a kind of ‘addiction’ to AA itself in some extreme cases.
Our solders are not inclined to philosophy or the life of the mind as Junger observes them on the front lines. Every instinct is being honed toward killing and not being killed to the extent that too long without a fight can lead to the creation of violence in the camp itself.
We know that our troops are being asked to serve longer and more frequent foreign tours than at any point in the past. We know that Afghanistan is a quagmire of corruption and we know that every nation and empire that has attempted to subdue it has failed. Mr. Haas gives me hope that there is a sensible way forward that takes seriously our security interests in the region, works with the tides of history in that part of the world rather than attempting to force a new direction and holds hope of bringing many of our young men and women home before we further damage them by making it ever more difficult to re-enter a society that is not living on the front lines of a war minute by minute.