“What I’m really telling people is the greatest risk we can accept is to lose the support of the people here.” So said Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. If that convoluted sentence requires clarity, he provided it as he continued: “If the people are against us, we cannot be successful. If the people view us as occupiers and the enemy, we can’t be successful and our casualties will go up dramatically.”
Has it come to this? General McChrystal didn’t actually say that the U.S. has to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the Afghan people, but he didn’t have to. The implication is there.
It was early on in the war-mongering administration of President George W. Bush that statements about winning the hearts and minds of one or another of his attempted conquests were first heard. No one in the U.S., except perhaps the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, paid much attention to that particular war. After all, the big bad guys who had the temerity to attack the U.S. seemed to be hiding there, or so the beloved-for-the-moment commander-in-chief told them, so bombing them to oblivion seemed a reasonable thing to do. No one cared about their hearts and minds then as long as they were being splattered all over the battlefields, not to mention in their own living rooms.
But then along came Iraq, haplessly minding its own business, but somehow its vast oil supplies drew the attention of Mr. Bush, like a dog to its vomit. Capitalizing on both the terror he’d been able to instill in U.S. citizens following the September 11 attacks, and the spinelessness of the U.S. Congress, it wasn’t difficult for him to launch an invasion. Frightening talk about weapons of mass destruction, hints of missiles flying into U.S. living rooms (similar, one might think, to U.S. missiles flying into Afghanistan living rooms, but, after all, they aren’t Americans so who cares about them anyway?), and suggestions that anyone who questions the president’s dictates is probably a Muslim terrorist, and the next thing one knows, said president has the authority to invade Iraq presented to him in a neat parcel. The self-proclaimed ‘War President’ was busy doing his thing.
Unfortunately for Mr. Bush, two factors went awry. 1) The Iraqi people, despite the predictions of his murderous Vice President, Dick Cheney, did not greet the invading and occupying soldiers with flower-strewn parades. Rather, they continued to kill them. That didn’t daunt Mr. Bush, happily ensconced in his ivory tower; he invited Iraqi freedom fighters to ‘bring them on,’ which they did, killing, to date, over 4,000 U.S. soldiers. 2) U.S. citizens, who are second to none in arrogant, chest-thumping machismo, have a short attention span and very soon tired of this war. As they did so, the astronomically high approval ratings Mr. Bush enjoyed for a brief moment of time following the 9/11 attacks, began to slip, until they ranged around the 30% mark as his clone, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, attempted to succeed him into the White House.
Fortunately for the world, the U.S.’s attention span wasn’t quite so short that the voters wanted four more years of war and ever-increasing poverty. With the scent of change in the air, Illinois Senator Barrack Obama was elected president, and since the start of his term, he has begun winding down the Iraq disaster he inherited from his predecessor. It is being done far too slowly, but at least some light is visible at the end of that particularly bloody tunnel.
Not so in Afghanistan. That war is escalating and Mr. Obama, unbelievably, says that it is central to the war on terror (whatever that means). And now General McChrystal is telling the world that U.S. soldiers must not be seen as occupiers in a nation they are occupying, albeit quite unsuccessfully. The U.S., he warns darkly, must not lose the support of the Afghan people.
One might ask the general why he thinks the U.S. has such support to lose. After an occupation lasting nearly eight years, it might seem clear to even the casual observer that the citizens of the occupied nation might be filled with an intense hatred for their occupiers. ‘Operation Enduring Freedom,’ the bizarre name given to the initial invasion of Afghanistan has, like ‘Operation Iraq Freedom’ in that country, not brought freedom to anyone. First Mr. Bush, and now Mr. Obama, are able to play war without dirtying their own hands, yet the blood of hundreds of thousands stains Mr. Bush’s, and Mr. Obama seems intent on catching up to him.
It is reported that there are currently heated discussions occurring at the White House. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton favors sending additional troops to Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden wants to see a new strategy, with fewer troops and more focus on Al Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan. Perhaps Mrs. Clinton, harking back to her misguided support for the war in Iraq, support that may have cost her the Democratic nomination for president that she so coveted, still holds to a hawkish view. Mr. Biden, who’s son has just safely returned from duty in Iraq, may be far more cautious about sending the U.S.’s future to Afghanistan to die.
And into this mix comes the fairy tale of obtaining the support of the oppressed people by their oppressor. The lessons of Vietnam, where winning the ‘minds and hearts’ of the populace, not to mention of an increasingly skeptical U.S. citizenry, was paramount to the war effort, are quickly forgotten. Indeed, volumes have been written about those forgotten lessons, needing to be relearned again at such a price.
Mr. Obama is at a crossroads. He can either change history by ending wars, or continue on the well-worn and disastrous path of war, one the U.S. has trod too many times in its sullied history. His mandate from the election of 2008 is clear; whether or not he will live up to it remains to be seen.
Robert Fantina is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776–2006.