Saturday, August 18, 2007

The myth of winning hearts and minds

Last week, in a Boston Globe op/ed, Karl F. Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state, wrote that the battle for Afghan "hearts and minds" is in danger of being lost because of rising civilian casualties and war damage.” The key to winning the people’s support he claims “is reconstruction and development (jobs, roads, water, and electricity), rather than military power alone.”

Inderfurth based much of his analysis on a British report published last month. As if the British army itself was directly reinforcing his case, the day after his op/ed appeared NY Times reporter Carlotta Gall claimed that a unnamed senior British commander in Afghanistan “had asked that American Special Forces leave his area of operations because the high level of civilian casualties they had caused was making it difficult to win over local people.”

Another of their commanders, Maj. Dominic Biddick, “has a $5,000 good-will fund and hands out cash to victims he comes across” and “has $10,000 a month to spend on community assistance programs.” He told Gall “If you are genuinely caring, you can win friends.”

Obviously the US and British military are in a struggle is to keep the civilian in population Afghanistan (and Iraq) from becoming supportive of those who have chosen to resist the occupation. It is in this light that “winning the hearts and minds” has become the oft stated military strategy focused on humane goals.

A lot has been written about the mistakes made early in the Iraq war as US forces failed to consider this as primary strategy for winning the peace there. The opportune time was supposed to have been soon after Saddam’s regime had collapsed and our troops took control of Baghdad. But in Afghanistan we had much more time before the “insurgency” there gained any strength, so what went wrong? Perhaps it’s not the delay of tactics, but that the tactical is not compatible with the heart.

Inderfurth’s notion of building friendships is drastically different than the British officers. He is not on the ground, and the abstract idea is based on visions from his life history, of which there is no military experience to speak from. This is not to belittle his credentials in international relations. Intellectually are seeds of genuine concern, but they're not rooted in any real bonds fostered between human hearts.

The first evidence of something more amiss though comes from the suggestion that military power has any role at all in building friendship among people in another country. This drift reveals a statesman overly sensitized to his own persona, one where speaking truth is secondary to supporting government policy, which all too often has hidden agendas.

Turning to the British for advice might seem sensible, especially in the context of addressing civilian casualties. But even here the building of bonds between human beings is immediately compromised by his use of the word “minimize”, quietly qualifying the common rhetoric of “collateral damage” as a necessary fact that some “hearts and minds” don’t matter.

The British officers in Afghanistan are intimately closer to the trauma felt by Afghan survivors. The empathy they feel may well have origins in their own heart. The question remains as to how close are they to touching the soul of these innocent victims. What does a commander like Biddick do after he hands out the cash?

The military role of policing the neighborhood is not remotely similar to victim advocates who spend hours and days counseling the unfortunate. Neither country is winning friends. Instead our troops will leave behind a nation of PTSD victims who have far less resources to cope with the long term emotional trauma than the inadequate programs available to our returning vets.

Withdrawing from the scene as the troops eventually will we find ourselves back to Inderfurth and eventually at the policy makers in Washington DC. Here in our own country we often complain that politicians are out of touch with the common working American. This gulf must swell wider when reaching across the seas to a Muslim land accustomed to a socialist economy.

Inderfurth’s intellectual conviction exemplifies a hubris similar to the White House’s certainty that our military might is invincible. Both are germs carried in the wind of a collective ego of American exceptionalism.

The best relations are founded in trust and respect, which begin with genuine listening. In Afghanistan and Iraq, as long as our airstrikes, big guns and house to house raids continue, it ought to be clear that our forces cannot hear the hopes and dreams of a people whose culture we don’t honestly understand. Their voices are downing under the flood of deceit, delivered as orders from politicians in far away places.

Severing the word “winning” from “hearts and minds” is essential to seeing through the rhetoric. Conquest shows no affection to friendship.

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by Rich in Juneau