Expediency, Faithfulness and “Winning” in Iraq and Afghanistan

Posted: September 10, 2008 in Uncategorized
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What are you willing to do to win in a contest that may decide whether you live or die?

Very few of us would say, “anything,” but I suspect more of us would think it than would admit it. But even that amoral thought is held in a vaccuum, before we’ve thought it through. Would you be willing to, say, kill a random mother and her child? Perhaps I have too much faith in human nature, but I’d say probably not. We tend to feel that breaking every moral compunction in order to save our own life isn’t “winning” at all. Faithfulness to something – a moral code, an idea about oneself, a religious idea, etc. – is more important than expediency.

Even if one does not believe, as I do, as Tertullian did, that when “Christ disarmed Peter, he disarmed every Christian,” almost all of us still recognize some constraint on our actions that we would hope would remain in place even when our lives are at stake. Those of us who call ourselves Christians, the “Christ-like,” at least pretend to allow these constraints to be shaped around the life and example of Jesus. And nothing marks out Jesus’ unique approach to these kinds of contests than love of enemies, love that reflects the nature of God “who sends rain on the evil and the good.” So, a pertinent question for a “Christian” strategy for dealing with a deadly conflict might be, “Do our methods distinguish between friends and enemies?” If the answer is yes, it cannot be a “Christian” strategy. This thread – holding an equal, sacred value for friends and enemies alike – must be incorporated into one’s moral constraints in times of deadly conflict if one seeks to call oneself “Christ-like,” a Christian.

I raise this point to counter a persistent theme with regard to the U.S.’s methods in Iraq and Afghanistan, that of effectiveness. When Senator Barack Obama sat down for an interview with FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly, a good portion of the interview focused on whether the senator would admit that the “surge worked.” In a larger context, coverage of the war in Iraq (which, by the way, has fallen precipitously) focuses in large part on whether we’re winning or losing, and the reasons for either conclusion. These sorts of analyses are lacking the depth we desperately need, as Americans and as Christians specifically, in discussing not whether we are “winning” the deadly contest, but whether, in winning said contest, we are remaining faithful to the constraints we want to believe we’ve imposed on our actions.

CNN, discussing “why violence in Iraq is down:”

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The dramatic drop in violence in Iraq is due in large part to a secret program the U.S. military has used to kill terrorists, according to a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward.

The program — which Woodward compares to the World War II era Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb — must remain secret for now or it would “get people killed,” Woodward said Monday on CNN’s Larry King Live.

“If you were a member of al Qaeda or the resistance or some extremist militia, you would be wise to get your rear end out of town,” Woodward said. “It is very dangerous.”

Note that in our drive to end the violence, we’re killing people, “terrorists.” Does that fit, for you, in the criteria described above?  Very clearly, the U.S.’s methods to “win” make very clear distinctions between the sacred value of the lives and persons of friends and enemies. We kill our enemies to “save” ourselves.

From The Washington Post:

U.S. intelligence and defense officials credit the operation and its unusual tactics — involving small, hybrid teams of special forces and intelligence officers — with the capture of hundreds of suspected terrorists and their supporters in recent months.

The “fusion cells” are being described as a major factor behind the declining violence in Iraq in recent months. Defense officials say they have been particularly effective against AQI, which has lost 10 senior commanders since June in Baghdad alone, including Uthman.

Aiding the U.S. effort, the officials say, is the increasing antipathy toward AQI among many ordinary Iraqis, who quickly report new terrorist safe houses as soon as they’re established. Fresh tips are channeled to fast-reaction teams that move aggressively against reported terrorist targets — often multiple times in a single night.

“Wherever they go, they cannot hide,” said a senior U.S. defense official familiar with counterterrorism operations in Iraq. “They don’t have safe houses anymore.”

The rapid strikes are coordinated by the Joint Task Force, a military-led team that includes intelligence and forensic professionals, political analysts, mapping experts, computer specialists piloting unmanned aircraft, and Special Operations troops. After decades of agency rivalries that have undermined coordination on counterterrorism, the task force is enjoying new success in Iraq with its blending of diverse military and intelligence assets to speed up counterterrorism missions.

“The capabilities for high-end special joint operations that exist now only existed in Hollywood in 2001,” said David Kilcullen, a terrorism expert and adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

By omission, the article masks a choice made by the U.S. military: speed over discrimination. Rapid military movements mean less focused killing power and more needless death. As an example, consider a recent Human Rights Watch report concerning civilian casualties caused by NATO and U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Note the similarity between the “good” strategy in Iraq and the bad strategy in Afghanistan:

“Rapid response airstrikes have meant higher civilian casualties, while every bomb dropped in populated areas amplifies the chance of a mistake,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Mistakes by the US and NATO have dramatically decreased public support for the Afghan government and the presence of international forces providing security to Afghans.”  …most cases of civilian deaths from airstrikes occurred during the fluid, rapid-response strikes mostly carried out in support of “troops in contact”…Such unplanned strikes included situations where US special forces units – normally small in number and lightly armed – came under insurgent attack; in US/NATO attacks in pursuit of insurgent forces who had retreated to populated villages;

To “win,” the U.S. forces are adopting means that violate moral constraints they claim to hold to: limits on deaths to civilians. Expediency, not faithfulness to their principles, rules the day. They would kill the mother and the child, and I can say that because they do.

In Monday’s drone attack, several missiles were fired at an Islamic madrassa (seminary) and the house of powerful Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani in Dandi Darpa Khail in the North Waziristan tribal area near the border with Afghanistan.

Jalaluddin, the spiritual leader of the Haqqani network and legendary figure in the Afghan mujahideen in the fight against the Soviets in the 1980s, and his son, Sirajuddin, the operational head of the most powerful component of the present Afghan resistance, had left the area. Most of those killed were woman and children from the families of the Haqqanis.

If you are a Christian, are you comfortable with that? Does that jive with your understanding of Christ’s teachings and example?

These choices are all the worse because had Christians taken seriously the constraints Christ put on those who would be his disciples, feasible options present themselves. Everywhere, one can see the potential for active nonviolence:

The shift also is tacitly acknowledged inside al-Qaeda’s base on the Afghan-Pakistan border, as Osama bin Laden has begun retooling his propaganda campaign to emphasize the conflict in Afghanistan instead of the failing effort in Iraq, the officials said. While there is little evidence that al-Qaeda is attempting to move fighters and resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, the Iraq conflict is no longer driving recruitment and donations for al-Qaeda as it did as recently as nine months ago, they said.

Even before the “surge,” the much-celebrated Anbar Awakening movement signaled a rift between tribal leaders of Iraq’s Sunni minority and AQI. Since 2006, defense officials have described a deepening revolt by Sunnis repelled by al-Qaeda’s brutal attacks against civilians and forced imposition of sharia, or Islamic law. Sunni leaders also objected to AQI’s takeover of smuggling routes and black-market enterprises long controlled by local chiefs.

These dynamics point to the working of political forces in the Iraq conflict that lend themselves to nonviolent action. (I blogged about this earlier; take a look.)

This is a good God’s good creation, despite our fallen nature. Our evil is not “necessary,” despite our inability to conceive of good solutions to our problems. And events have a way of showing us that violations of our faithfulness for the sake of expediency often weren’t expeditious at all:

In point of fact, hardly had the Pentagon commenced its second move, its invasion of Iraq, when the entire strategy began to unravel. In Iraq, President Bush’s vision of regional transformation did die, much as Kagan and Kristol had feared. No amount of CPR credited to the so-called surge will revive it. Even if tomorrow Iraq were to achieve stability and become a responsible member of the international community, no sensible person could suggest that Operation Iraqi Freedom provides a model to apply elsewhere. Sen. John McCain says that he’ll keep U.S. combat troops in Iraq for as long as it takes. Yet even he does not propose “solving” any problems posed by Syria or Iran (much less Pakistan) by employing the methods that the Bush administration used to “solve” the problem posed by Iraq. The Bush Doctrine of preventive war may remain nominally on the books. But, as a practical matter, it is defunct.

Presidential candidates and pundits can talk about “winning” in Iraq or Afghanistan until they are blue in the face. The simple fact is that by choosing the methods we’ve chosen in Iraq and Afghanistan to participate in a deadly conflict, we lost. We forgot that there are ways to “win” that cost us our soul. When considering the choice whether to be faithful to the nonviolent, self-sacrificing teachings and life of Christ, this is something we Christians might do well to remember.

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