Terra Incognita: Failure is not an option in Afghanistan

At the heart of the problem are disputes within the US defense establishment about waging the war.

mullen speaks 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
mullen speaks 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The threat of a US failure in Afghanistan is becoming all too real with recent reports of a fraudulent election and a controversial German air strike. At the heart of the problem, however, are disputes within the US defense establishment about waging the war. A recent article published in Joint Force Quarterly by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent shock waves through the media and the defense establishment. Mullen argued that US policy was failing in Afghanistan because the US was not getting its message across and lacked credibility. He was seen as "blasting" the US military - a military of which he himself is in charge. So why did he go to the press with his complaints when he could change the "strategic communication" policy he derides? It turns out that his failure to implement the policy he recommends is but the tip of the iceberg of the contradictory condemnation of US policy. Mullen stressed that "there is no doubt that Abu Ghraib was a stain on our national character, and it reminded us yet again of the power of our actions. The incidents there likely inspired many young men and women to fight against us." He apparently forgot, like many have, that the main inspiration for Islamism and al-Qaida is not Iraq, that the Iraq war came after 9/11 and that al-Qaida's extremism cannot always be traced to US actions. Any inspiration for young men to fight against the US emanating from Abu Ghraib was only on top of a wellspring that had provided young men to "fight against us" for years. MULLEN ACKNOWLEDGED that "communication is a very big issue for all of us because the enemy is not constrained by the truth; I mean, it's much easier to get your word out first when you can lie about it." However, according to Mullen, foremost among the problems with the American message is that US actions do not dovetail with US statements. According to Mullen this was best illustrated by the deaths of civilians; "when they [civilian casualties] do occur, we have got to recognize it right up front and try to rapidly make amends, and we need to do so in a very public way." He condemned the US for not delivering on its "promises." He claimed that the US shouldn't rely on opinion polls; "we shouldn't care if people don't like us. That isn't the goal. The goal is credibility. And we earn that over time." But he also seemed to be enslaved to the idea that America must change the "narrative" that the local Muslim community receives: "Only through a shared appreciation of the people's culture, needs and hopes for the future can we hope ourselves to supplant the extremist narrative." But it appears to be the Mullen narrative that is most problematic. For instance The New York Times pointed out that on a recent visit to Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, US President Barack Obama's special envoy, was informed that America was "despised" because it was seen as obsessed with finding Osama bin Laden. Mullen would have the US "listen" to the Pakistanis who despise the US for a policy they themselves helped begat through their own support of Islamism and Bin Laden. Perhaps rather than listening to the Pakistanis, the US should encourage the government of Pakistan to change the narrative of victimization that it feeds to its people? MULLEN LIKES to stress US efforts to rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II as examples of success, arguing that they should be models for US work in the Muslim world. He claimed that only through "a shared appreciation of the people's culture, needs and hopes for the future can we hope to supplant the extremist narrative." But did the US appreciate the German culture that produced Nazism in order to pacify Germany after the war? Did the US worry that civilian casualties would turn local Germans and Japanese against its policy? Hardly. Many more German and Japanese civilians died in the last months of the war than in Afghanistan or Iraq. The US didn't worry about delivering on its "promises" after World War II because it didn't feel it owed the Germans and Japanese anything. The US did very little listening to the Germans and Japanese because listening to the Nazi narrative or the Japanese imperialist narrative would have perpetuated the problems that led to the war. Instead the US used overwhelming force and power to supplant the local narrative completely. Resistance brought more force. Mullen wrote that the Muslim world "is a subtle world we don't fully - and don't always attempt to - understand." The German and Japanese world was full of subtleties as well in 1945, and the US didn't send German and Japanese experts to learn more about that world. In fact the Marshall Plan, which Mullen lauds, did not have a component of cultural understanding or "listening" to it. Mullen's outburst in JFQ is full of hypocrisy, contradictions and misreading of history, both the history of World War II, its aftermath and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He would do well to study that history and implement policies based on it, rather than trying to gain attention by joining the critics. The writer is reading for a PhD in geography at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog.