The American way of war —Shahzad Chaudhry

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For stability in Pakistan, conditions in Afghanistan must be improved through a pragmatic, realistic and inclusive political process, one that helps the moderate Afghan Taliban become part of the mainstream socio-political processes

Russell F Weigley’s The American Way of War is a historical record of all American wars till Vietnam, detailing the evolution of America’s strategy of war. Perhaps the most telling account of this evolution is the centrality of the ‘Strategy of Annihilation’ that Ulysses Grant’s General Sherman practiced in the civil war against General Robert Lee’s forces; terms like ‘torching’, ‘scorching’, and ‘smoking’ the earth and the countryside became part of the American military lexicon.

In recent times, former President Bush reminded us all that the US military will “smoke ‘em out”. We need to understand that this isn’t simple bravado, the American military actually believes in it.

The US military’s ‘Roboman’ is programmed into various modes of functioning; thus when applied in the role of initial employment, he is in the burn, break, kill, destroy mode — simply ‘kicking ass’.

After dominating the military scene begins the ‘Win the Hearts and Minds’ mode, and when in this form, trust him to actually believe in it: he shall build hospitals, schools and roads, cradle babies, and, of course, distribute cookies and chocolates.

Because of this combination of America’s dominating military presence and the accompanying development projects, the vanquished acquiesce to almost a submission. Relative peace ensues; the American military having conquered yet another piece of real estate.

Soon after, dissent among the populace begins to emerge, with the American mind entirely unable to understand what else a people could hope for. To cement gains and to ensure that the natives continue to live free from tyranny and evil, democracy as the ultimate antidote is put in place. Mostly an ‘out of station’ individual with significant American schooling is traced, briefed and enthroned to continue the American saga. The Americans beat retreat; a fast-food solution to another global irritant.

It is amazing how quickly the experiment fails, and another enigma, surreal to the American mind, haunts it: why does the world hate America?

Many find fault with the primitive, oriental mind and its lack of understanding of what the West offers in terms of freedom. That is also when missions have to be curtailed, and untimely exits executed. The follow-up has never been tasteful for the US: those that they wanted to win over intensified their hostility. Issues that endangered American interests in the first place returned with even greater ferocity.

Compare this to the British approach: they set their minds and their foot to a land, and ruled for centuries, leaving behind an enriched society, culture, systems of governance, infrastructure, and some astounding railways. They assiduously avoided the ‘break’, ‘burn’ and ‘kill’ syndrome at the outset, and travelled the route with patience, assimilating the local trends, culture, politics and ways, before formalising their presence in any shape. That in itself is instructive.

Imperialism in any shape and form cannot be condoned, but the above is to illustrate the monumental difference in approaches to imperialism by two global powers.

Fast-forward to Afghanistan and the American dilemma. A news report states that President Obama has suspended the transfer of more troops till the defence chiefs can state clearly the end-game that US is planning to achieve.

Perhaps the calculus will include American interests in Central Asia where the ‘stans’ are the arena for the current Great Game. The US, China and Russia are striving to establish their control over the political and economic potential of the region.

To further complicate the situation, India too has moved in with a base in Tajikistan, with the ability to support its agenda in Afghanistan. For the moment, such Indian presence complements American interests. Both are, however, riding the wrong horse: they tend to show faith in the Persian and Tajik belt, leaving out the much larger Pakhtun population out. This is a recipe for further instability.

Another American interest is to remain in the vicinity of the Sistan-Baluchistan province of Iran and continue to exert pressure on Iran. This will be enabled by the planned increase in military presence in southern Afghanistan.

But that will only be an intermediate objective for the US. This will have to be coupled with a parallel and expeditious determination of how the US wants to handle Iran in the future. It is thus likely that a mini-surge in Afghanistan will accompany a more sustained diplomatic engagement with Iran.

As this new Great Game unfolds, it becomes instructive to see how Pakistan is placed. Its stability will be a priority higher even than the pursuit of Al Qaeda. However, for the moment, Pakistan shall lie outside the grand American strategic design; their immediate objectives being the elimination of Al Qaeda and continued security of Pakistani nuclear assets.

For stability in Pakistan, conditions in Afghanistan must be improved through a pragmatic, realistic and inclusive political process, one that helps the moderate Afghan Taliban become part of the mainstream socio-political processes. A Pakhtun-dominated disposition in Afghanistan will encourage the Taliban to sever their linkages with Al Qaeda, and find a more promising existence. This will be key to any significant success in the American policy to pursue their longer term interests in West and Central Asia. By implication, one strategic correction in American policy will placate the Pakhtuns in the Pakistani tribal areas, who, with socio-economic support from Pakistan and the US, can find succour from their misery.

The American mind shall have to learn the British art of engagement with the native, permitting the majority Pakhtuns to run their government without imposing any novelties such as Jeffersonian democracy.

Freedom to the Afghan is precious — on that the Americans need not consternate; their only serious concern should be to learn to coexist with the Afghan disposition without overt interference and with discreet presence.

Pak-Afghan stability is also linked to bit part players like India to closing shop in Afghanistan. Given all else is achieved, this may remain as the only irritant.

A ‘Strategy of Intelligent Engagement’ may be the newest way America needs to fight her future wars. It is time to revise the American way of war.

The writer is a retired air vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and a former ambassador. He can be contacted at

Reproduced by permission of DT\02\16\story_16-2-2009_pg3_5


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