Military or moral failure? —Rafia Zakaria

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Even if the United States is able to define military and political victories in achievable terms, its failure to respond to the moral questions imposed on them could ultimately be what determines this war’s outcome

This past week, General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO Commander in Afghanistan, submitted his strategic report on the war in Afghanistan to President Obama. The report, expectedly dismal, laid out the challenges that America, a continuing if shaky superpower, faces in Afghanistan. The bleak forecast offered by Gen McChrystal’s report follows in the footsteps of the Afghan elections, whose contested results gave NATO little to celebrate in terms of Afghanistan’s progress toward self sufficiency.

Much has been said about the new American strategy in Afghanistan. Indeed, ever since President Obama has taken office, pundits have been furiously recasting the Afghan war as Obama’s war; the real conflict borne out of America’s genuine security interests as opposed to Bush’s imperialist agenda in Iraq.

Yet for all the much touted revamping, only a few visible changes have appeared in the US strategy in the region. Notable among these has been a re-application of the “surge” strategy, under which thousands more soldiers are being sent to the south of Afghanistan to aid in the fighting. Other new aspects of the strategy announced by Gen McChyrstal in a directive issued to US troops in the region include “protecting the Afghan people rather than killing and capturing insurgents, build up the Afghan forces, improve the legitimacy of the Government in Kabul and improve the delivery of foreign aid.”

The recasting of the Afghan plan is undoubtedly politically necessary. President Obama faces increasingly dismal economic conditions at home and several polls preceding the Afghan elections have shown decreasing support for the war among the American people. A Washington Post poll released in the last week of August showed that a majority of Americans, fifty-one percent, now believe that the war is “not worth fighting”. Only forty-two percent of Americans now believe that the United States is actually winning the war in Afghanistan with nearly thirty-six percent saying that they think the US is losing.

Commentators have, especially in light of the bungled elections, begun to liken the situation with Vietnam where a similar conglomeration of political constraints and military failures coalesced to produce a debilitating failure for US forces.

The news of American failures in Afghanistan is not surprising in South Asia. Many commentators had made similar pronouncements months and even years ago at the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom. Yet most of these discussions, both in South Asia and more recently in the United States, have focused on the political, military and regional constraints that make the conflict untenable and perhaps unwinnable. These include the inability of US forces to withstand large numbers of military casualties based on their negative impact on support for the war at home, the resource costs of having a large military presence in Afghanistan, and the idealism (recently exposed) of reconstructing Afghanistan into a functioning polity with at least semi-modern institutions. The counter insurgency strategy of protecting the Afghan people, while easy to roll of the tongue, comes again at the cost of vast resource commitments of soldiers and equipment which in turn impose their own losses in terms of long term expenditure.

Yet for all the discussion of the political, military and even spatial challenges facing NATO and American forces in the region, few questions have focused on the material realities of the two countries fighting this war and their impact on the moral estimation of each. Simply put, America is the richest country in the world and Afghanistan undoubtedly one of the poorest. The average American citizen eats too much and the average Afghan citizen cannot find enough to eat. I present these comparisons to highlight not the structural differences between the two sides but rather draw attention to how these structural differences impact the moral estimation of this war.

In a post-colonial world where the ravages of imperialism have been exposed as having been at the root of much of the world’s inequity, what moral stature can a super-power enjoying an admittedly unfair share of the world’s resources amass to fight a conflict against the world’s poorest people? Indeed, it is these very moral dimensions of the conflict, that have been so diabolically exploited by groups like Al Qaeda in painting themselves as valorous avengers of the dispossessed.

This moral dynamic of dispossession and poverty versus affluence and excess colours the moral landscape of the war against terror in a manner that has been unknown in earlier conflicts. Groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been able to hijack the moral veneration afforded to poverty and suffering and use it to fight a war where their own moral turpitude and cruelty is being shrouded by the poverty of the Afghans.

This complexity, of the fact that the Afghans are a third party whose destitution is being appropriated by a transnational group with a global agenda, is often lost amid the rhetoric. In the limited attention spans of the global public, notably those in the global south, the war increasingly appears as a war fought by the rich unwilling to give up their resources and parochially expounding the value of their own way of life while mercilessly pounding the Afghans with bombs in the effort to gain their own security.

It is this central belief found among vast swathes of the non-Western world that morally devalues the efforts of NATO troops in the area even when they may be achieving security or military gains. It is this idea, borne of the post-colonial experience that has gone unaddressed even as the War on Terror enters its eighth year.

It is because of this unaddressed moral dilemma that questions arise about the ethics of a war that is so disparate in terms of resources, it pins the United States in a military and political pigeonhole. Using the kind of force needed to actually defeat the Taliban would lead to a further annihilation of US moral stature. The effort to destroy them is thus couched in an effort to build Afghanistan even while the political commitment for providing the resources to build such structures is not present.

This conundrum posits therefore that even if the United States is able to define military and political victories in achievable terms, its failure to respond to the moral questions imposed on them could ultimately be what determines this war’s outcome.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

Article originally published in Daily Times and reproduced by permission of DT and the Author.\09\05\story_5-9-2009_pg3_3

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