Sunday, August 24, 2008

Oops, again

The Afghan government is protesting again that a U.S. airstrike has killed a large number of civilians. The U.S. military says the strike in Azizabad in Shindand district took out 30 Taliban fighters and a long-sought commander; local villagers claim that more than 70 civilians were killed. The military says it is investigating and that “All allegations of civilian casualties are taken very seriously.”

Not seriously enough to consider changing our approach, apparently. This report could be a Xerox of numerous previous incidents; I wrote about this a year ago. Again and again we have killed civilians in airstrikes aimed at the Taliban, provoking protests among the people we are supposedly trying to protect. Now, I am aware that we are at war and that a certain amount of collateral damage is unavoidable. But damage remains collateral only as long as it is accepted by the population supposedly being protected. As long as there is a consensus that deaths are accidental and part of the price paid for the benefits of military action, the term “collateral damage” can be used with a straight face. When that damage reaches the point where the population rises in protest against it, it’s not collateral any more. It’s indistinguishable from hostile action. And the Afghans start to wonder who their real enemy is, undermining everything good we’re trying to do in Afghanistan.

Here’s a thought: maybe airstrikes are not a very good tool in counter-insurgency warfare. Maybe when the enemy is not a massed conventional army but rather an irregular force operating among the population of the country supposedly being liberated, airstrikes can do more harm than good. Counter-insurgency, as the U.S. military is rapidly learning, is a whole different ball game from conventional warfare, requiring a patient approach that gets the population of the country working with us. And reducing a village to a smoking ruin seems a poor way to win the villagers over.

This is a tactical question. I don’t question our goals in Afghanistan. The Taliban need to be defeated so they don’t come back and kill all the Afghan girls who have learned to read. But the Taliban are not considerate enough to operate on clearly demarcated battlefields. They hide in villages. And taking out the whole village only turns the next village over the ridge against us.

Forgoing airstrikes, of course, will mean a certain amount of pain for U.S. troops on the ground. Counter-insurgency is slower, harder and more dangerous to infantry and special forces than the airstrike approach. It’s a tough way to win a war. But in the long run it’s the only way. Look at the successful counter-insurgency campaigns in recent history (e.g. the British effort in Malaya), and there’s no mystery about what works, as laid out in an article by Kalev I. Sepp in the Military Review. Better military minds than mine have looked at this problem.

Somebody in the Pentagon needs to think about this. It’s not too late to save Afghanistan, but if we keep on treating Afghan villagers like furniture, it might be before too long.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, August 10, 2008

This Just In

Somehow the desire to wrestle with Big Ideas evaporated in the summer heat, but I keep on reading the papers. Some random news items and the thoughts they provoke:

Pinocchios in Politics: Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is self-destructing, charged now with 10 felony counts in two separate cases after he allegedly assaulted two sheriff’s deputies trying to serve a subpoena on a friend of his. Kilpatrick had previously been tossed in the clink for violating bond conditions on a perjury rap. I think the pressure’s getting to him.

It’s a sad spectacle any way you look at it. What’s interesting to me is how the whole thing started: with accusations of adultery which emerged in the course of a lawsuit against Kilpatrick brought by a police official he had fired. The suit had nothing to do with Kilpatrick’s love life, but he denied the accusations under oath and was promptly indicted for perjury, starting his death spiral.

Meanwhile, the papers today are full of John Edwards’s confession after repeated denials that he conducted an affair with a staffer while his wife was suffering from cancer. There goes his political career. Maybe he and Kilpatrick can open a hot dog stand together. Then there was Eliot Spitzer. Oh, and the last time a U.S. President was impeached it was all about hanky-panky in the Oval Office, wasn’t it?

The worldly Europeans laugh at us about this. The fact that a political career in the United States can founder on an illicit love affair leaves them shaking their heads. France’s former president Mitterand fathered an illegitimate daughter and lived with his mistress, and the current guy, Nicolas Sarkozy, ditched his wife and hooked up with a fashion model in the middle of his first year in office, all under the glare of the flashbulbs. Nobody’s calling for his resignation, not for that, anyway.

Are we hopeless Puritan boobs in this country? Does a man’s philandering have anything to do with his competence as an administrator, his vision as a statesman? When Georgia and Russia are at war and Pakistan is about to fly into a thousand pieces, is John Edwards really the most important news story? What gives with this?

There’s no question that there’s a strong Puritan strain in our culture; the country was settled by folks who came here because they thought Europe was hopelessly Godless and decadent. There’s no Religious Right anywhere near as strong as ours in Europe. And that’s reflected in our politics.

But there’s more to it than that. Look at what people are actually getting indicted for. Kilpatrick’s original crime was perjury. And Bill Clinton was impeached not for shtuping the help when he should have been attending to matters of state but, again, for lying about it under oath. As for Spitzer, he knew his career was over because he campaigned as a paragon of virtue and then got caught with his pants down.

In other words, Americans don’t like liars and hypocrites. I haven’t heard anyone suggest that JFK was a lousy president because he cheated on Jackie. And Barney Frank is still in Congress despite his dalliance with the head of a male prostitution ring because he admitted everything and threw himself on the mercy of his constituents. At least in Massachusetts, voters can be very forgiving. It’s getting caught and not fessing up that’s fatal.

So if you’re up to no good, whether cheating on your wife or cheating on your taxes (remember, Martha Stewart didn’t go to the Big House because of insider trading but because she lied about it to investigators), whatever you do, just don’t try and deny it. When the snoops kick in the door and catch you with your pants down, you’ll probably be OK if you schedule a press conference the next day, haul your wife in front of the cameras to stand beside you, muster up a few tears and apologize to all and sundry. Americans will forgive just about anything except trying to weasel out of the spanking you know you richly deserve.

Oops: Police in Prince George’s County, Maryland, raided the house of a small-town mayor, shot his two dogs, and kept him in handcuffs for a couple of hours before determining that they had made a mistake in identifying him as a drug dealer. The mayor has been exonerated and received an apology, but the dogs are gone for good.

The War on Drugs keeps producing mistakes like this. When you criminalize actions that are essentially non-predatory, consensual and private, you make everyone’s private life police business. This is a violation of so many American ideals it’s hard to know where to start in listing them. In a country which for the most part does pretty well by world standards at leaving its citizens alone, the drug war is a hideous exception, with Gestapo-like raids, high-handed seizures of property and harsh prison sentences for non-violent actions.

Drugs can do great harm. But drug abuse should be regarded as the user’s problem, like, say, alcohol abuse. Drugs should be regarded as a public health problem rather than a criminal problem. Legalize and regulate, and stop kicking in people’s doors.

Sam Reaves