For one, he doesn’t belong there. He is seen as a foreign occupant of someone else’s land. His war is after all not a ‘just’ war, because it does not kindle the passion of those fighting on his side. His aims may have been noble but he mustn’t forget that he cannot impose such morality on a people who find themselves occupied by his forces and those of the West.
No, it is not an Islam vs the West thing, something the neo-cons have lived by with biblical belief and conservative obscurantism. It is simply an historic truth that people tend to fight on to liberate their lands from people who have come from afar to usurp territory and dictate a new morality alien to their sensibilities.
Hell, it isn’t even Obama’s war. But in his keenness to show that he was not really an Islamophile, that he had marbles strong enough to dislodge the squeamish image of Democrats, that he will never fail America, he adopted Bush’s war.
But has he dug his grave instead; will he be a one-term wonder?
Answers lie in his sagacity to comprehend the intractability, and perhaps the futility, of the path that he has chosen in fighting someone else’s war. How do Messrs McChrystal and Mullen (where’s Petraeus — anyone noticed?) advise him on the do-ability or otherwise will also be key to his understanding of the prolonged agony that Afghanistan will cause him.
Successful, intelligent leaders in history were always those who judged early and called correctly; and if the going did not seem right, abandoned a bad thought or extricated from a difficult situation. The good ones actually never got into a bad war — at all. The more successful never fight a lost war; they ditch it till they find another opportunity, or fight it through other means. The valiant must by historical precedence be discreet.
What will get him there? Most ironically, history stands in his way; but this in an attempt to make history, not read it. That is where the rub shall lie for him. It seems quite clear that his instincts and his pronouncements are quite the opposite. His pronouncements call it a ‘necessary’ war, while the pendulum has swung among his own people the other way. Europe, the committed pacifist, has never had two opinions on this war; for them it has always been the ‘unnecessary’ war. It is just that the groundswell has just about touched the shores of America. Trust the swell to upscale into a tsunami sooner rather than later. It will be Obama’s test to change direction before his hand is forced.
And again, he may not, given that he is a pioneer in the classic sense, one who broke the ultimate barrier for his people. Would he be seen as the man who conquered foreign frontiers, or one who played his real self, an intelligent, sensitive, visionary leader? This is where most have failed the test of history — the defining moment.
Mr President: a few other considerations.
One key aspect that separates the NATO/ISAF effort in Afghanistan against the Taliban, and the one that the Pakistani military is engaged in, is the element of local support. The Pakistani military is seen to be fighting for real; saving its own land from hordes that are intent to occupy it for their own personal motives, and hence the great unanimity of purpose and intent that emboldens the military’s hand.
Consider the lack of any popular support to the US/NATO mission; and is that a surprise? They may have had some support initially in their own lands — even that has evaporated. The poor souls cannot be expected to have support from within an alien land! A serious reboot is required of the American system of perception about their importance and role in the world. The Americans need to review their global and arrogated responsibility.
Every few years, the Americans will induct a Democratic government; this, one assumes, is because the Democrats are required to correct the collective psychological anomalies and reset the system — reboot — to go back to the real problems that lie within the shores of what periodically is a great nation.
It is essential to understand the importance of local support. American idealism usually shields the truth; also their self-belief as a nation is too strong to judge or expect other than what they set out to achieve. The ‘just war’ or a ‘noble cause’ is what perhaps the entire United States may have believed in; certainly their gung-ho GIs. It reminds them of their’ word’, and that of their forefathers was spread in the lands that they discovered and dominated. It may have never seemed to the Average Joe that there could exist people, barbarous and unkempt in looks, poorly initiated to modern life, uneducated in their form of literacy, and in whose lands, after an eight-year war, and on the wrong side of many billions of dollars, their leadership smells nothing but defeat. What is more, other than Obama, everyone else has begun to call it an ‘unnecessary’ war.
Mr President, the United States has never won a war in Asia; unless you call nuking Japan victory! Much less Iraq, where you let your instincts guide you well, and you made the important about-turn. Somewhere in a concurrent consideration at the time of making those early decisions, you were led by other than your instincts on Afghanistan. As a result you stare into a blind alley. Some of us thought AfPak was a smart re-definition and a possible way out — essentially your calculated move to cause as much damage to Al Qaeda while you recovered from Iraq; and with that done, enough cause to beat a graceful retreat out of Afghanistan. One hopes that still is your aim.
When Bruce Riedel & Co claim there is no alternative to victory in Afghanistan, they don’t really mean that defeat isn’t a possibility. In fact that is exactly how Mullen and McChrystal counter-state the reality. The task at hand is becoming momentous and inching towards unachievable. They may suggest a greater number of troops for a prolonged period till the task gets done. But, pray, what is the task?
Karzai’s house of cards will collapse the day America leaves. Permit him to begin talking to his real brethren so that he can find a stable order. Afghanistan must find its own solution; it simply is not programmed to accept one. That has been re-inscribed in history over and over again.
No, this piece is not a demoralising statement about the world’s greatest military; it simply is a statement of the fact as it gets seen up close. The world at large has great expectations of Obama ‘resetting’ America to a more rational role; one that leaves enough space for others to pursue what seems noble to them, particularly in Afghanistan. One hopes he will answer the call of history for his own good and that of America.
The writer is a retired air vice marshal and a former envoy. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org