Perhaps the most illuminating moments in Eroll Morris’s documentary The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is when Mr. McNamara begins to offer his explanation for why the war in Vietnam went so terribly wrong.
Aside for the detailed discussions about the escalation of the conflict due to domestic political issues, he makes the following statement which I believe best captures why nations, any nation, can find itself mired in a conflict and unable to resolve it.
Let me quote Robert S. McNamara himself
“Let me go back one moment. In the Cuban Missile Crisis at the end I think we did put ourselves in the skin of the Soviets. In the case of Vietnam we did not know them well enough to empathize. There was total misunderstanding as a result.
They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interest, which was absolutely absurd. And we…we saw Vietnam as an element of the cold war and not what they saw as…a civil war.”
Robert S. McNamara then discusses how he later met with his ‘former enemy’ – on a trip to Vietnam in 1995 he meets with the former foreign minister of Vietnam, Tran Van Lam, and quickly getting into a heated argument which went a something like this (as told by Mr. McNamara in the film):
TVL: ‘You were totally wrong! We were fighting for our independence, you were fighting to enslave us!
RSM: Do you mean to say that it was not a tragedy for you when you lost 3, 400,000 of Vietnamese…killed…what did you accomplish?
You did not get anything more than we were willing to give you at the beginning of the war!
TVL: Mr. McNamara, you must have never read a history book! If you had you would have known that we were not pawns of the Chinese or the Russians….did you not know that?
Don’t you know that we have been fighting the Chinese for over 1000 years?
We were fighting for our independence!
And we would fight to the last man and we were determined to do so! And no amount of bombing or US pressure would have ever stopped us!
President Barack Obama is about to escalate a war in Afghanistan that I fear will prove once again to be the wrong war.
He and his administration have, without blinking an eye, adopted the language and rhetoric of the discredited Bush administration about the reasons and goals of the conflict in Southern Afghanistan. President Barack Obama, much like his predecessor, claims to be fighting ‘the war against terror’ and supposedly ‘Al-Qaeda’ forces in Afghanistan, when in fact what he faces is a large scale Pushtun nationalist insurgency against the US-backed minority kleptocracy that current sits in Kabul.
Since 2001 the Bush administration and its allies in Kabul have attempted to convince us that the ongoing conflict in the country is against Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces, most of which are finding safe havens in Pakistan. This has been the public face of America’s policies in the country, though it is evident to many who travel and work there, that it hides as much as it reveals.
Under US tutelage Afghanistan has become one of the world’s largest narco-state, with crime and criminality the principal means of business, law and life.
With few if any reporters working independetly in the Southern Afghanistan region, it has been impossible to get voices outside of the official American/NATO ones. However, one individual who has spent considerable time in the country, as both a reporter and a social worker, is Sarah Chayes. She was a correspondent for National Public Radio from 1997 to 2002 and later founded an agribusiness cooperative in the country. Her stark and honest assessment of the situation in the country comes from direct experience in the region where the insurgency is most extreme.
Here is what she had to say in a piece she wrote for The Boston Review called ‘Days of Lies and Roses: Selling Out Afghanistan’
Our first error was to subordinate every other concern to a cowboys-and-Indians-style hunt for al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership-a hunt that has thus far proved singularly fruitless. We collected a posse of former anti-Soviet commanders who had been repudiated by the Afghan population for their rapacious and bloody-minded behavior after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. Because we believed them essential to our hunt, we installed these thugs in positions of local power, bolstered them with the priceless weight of our partnership-made unmistakable to ordinary folk by the uniforms we issued to their militiamen, the guns we armed them with, and the bricks of cash we delivered to their homes and offices.
And she a few lines later adds the devastating conclusion that:
But in my view it is precisely this decision to ignore good governance and cultivate criminality that has led to the disastrous security conditions in the Afghan south. The independent-minded Afghans relinquish sovereignty to a state apparatus reluctantly, and only for as long as the state can either cow them or be seen to be acting in their practical interests. The current Afghan government is doing neither. The only obvious alternative-or beneficiary of a protest vote-is the Taliban.
The Obama administration is walking in to the wrong war. Rather than recognize that nearly 7 years of rape and pillage of the lives, livlihood and welfare of the people of the Pushtun people of the South by a group of once anti-Soviet warlords is fueling a rebellion, they prefer to sink their heads in the quicksand of ‘the war against terror’.
Nothing that Mr. Gates has recently said, or President Obama parroted, acknowledges the complexity of the situation on the ground in the country. There is talk of sending more troops, or the continuation of the bombing campaigns in the Southern provinces and Pakistan that are killing many, many civilians, and many other mind numbing regurgitations of ‘terror networks’ and ‘havens’ and ‘flushing out’ Al Qaeda and what not.
Even the Swat rebellion of local militants against the Pakistani government and the heavy handed presence/response of the Army is lumped into the broader ‘Taliban/Al-Qaeda’ collective.
There is a collective silence about the situation in Southern Afghanistan, and its fall out in Pakistan. Writers, journalists, intellectuals and others seem oblivious to the fact that a people live in these areas, and that their voices need to be heard and engaged.
Instead, there is a determined effort or ignorance that insists that the entire region is ‘infested’ with terrorists that deserve little more than more American bombs and more troops. We insist on seeing the entire region and its people only through the prism of American foreign policy myopia’s – as we did in Vietnam, and refuse to see how the locals see the war.
In an extensive piece in the New Left Review called ‘Afghanistan: Mirage of a Good War’ writer Tariq Ali had this to say:
The argument that more NATO troops are the solution is equally unsustainable. All the evidence suggests that the brutality of the occupying forces has been one of the main sources of recruits for the Taliban. American air power…is far from paternal when it comes to targeting Pashtun villages. There is widespread fury among Afghans at the number of civilian casualties, many of them children. There have been numerous incidents of rape and rough treatment of women by ISAF soldiers, as well as indiscriminate bombing of villages and house-to-house search-and-arrest missions.’
The Afghans, particularly the Pushtuns, have been resisting imperial occupation of their lands for centuries. This current insurgency may have more modern day causes, but it is a direct lineage of a battle for autonomy and independence from foreign invaders that the Pushtuns have fought repeatedly and are fighting again.
The Americans think that this is one of the many battles in ‘the war against terror’.
The Pushtuns however are not fighting this war.
There is a Pushtun nationalist insurgency in the works. It is being actively supported by Pushtun communities residing in Pakistan. It has been fuelled by the rapacious and criminal regime that currently sits in Kabul and has used its position to not only pillage the country, but enrich a few, and carry out ethnically defined pogroms and acts of revenge for the last 7 years.
And the USA has been funding this.
The war begins in Afghanistan and not in the ‘havens’ of Pakistan.
And it can only end there.
President Obama is stepping into his first quagmire.
We are about to once again fight the wrong war.