Unchallenged “War” Frame Wrecking U.S. Efforts in Afghanistan

Posted: October 11, 2008 in Uncategorized
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Noah Shactman’s latest post at his Danger Room blog is titled “How Screwed are We in Afghanistan? Discuss…” and it’s easy to see why he’s upset.  The New York Times reports:

A draft report by American intelligence agencies concludes that Afghanistan is in a “downward spiral” and casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban’s influence there, according to American officials familiar with the document.

The report, a nearly completed version of a National Intelligence Estimate, is set to be finished after the November elections and will be the most comprehensive American assessment in years on the situation in Afghanistan. Its conclusions represent a harsh verdict on decision-making in the Bush administration, which in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made Afghanistan the central focus of a global campaign against terrorism.

Is the U.S. in such a mess in the conflict with terrorist networks? Well, aside from a serious lack of competence, the U.S. has been using all the wrong methods. Via Jeff Huber:

How Terrorist Groups End, a recent Rand Corporation report authored by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki, studied 648 groups that existed between 1968 and 2006 and analyzed how their terror activities terminated.  Only seven percent desisted because of military force applied against them.  83 percent of the success against terror organizations came from policing and political actions.  “Against most terror groups,” the report states, “military force is usually too blunt an instrument.”  It notes that “even precision weapons have been of limited use against terrorist groups,” and that the “use of substantial U.S. military power against terrorist groups also runs a significant risk of turning the local population against the government by killing civilians.”

“Our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism,” Jones and Libicki write.  They also admonish that “Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended: It is often over-used, alienates the local population by its heavy-handed nature, and provides a window of opportunity for terrorist-group recruitment.”

A recent article in Scientific American Mind reinforces this same point:

The psychological rationale of war is to bring the enemy to its knees and to convince it and its support base that terrorism is counterproductive. And yet experience in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ireland, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip suggests that the use of military force does little to “prove” the inefficacy of terrorism. Military strikes against terrorist targets may temporarily interfere with terrorists’ ability to launch their operations, but they do not generally lessen the motivation to engage in violence—and may even boost it as a result of the enmity that foreign occupation typically engenders and of the injustice and excesses of war.

Unfortunately, though:

Both major presidential candidates, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, have called for American troop increases in Afghanistan even beyond those the White House has ordered. [NYT]

Good to know we’re learning our lessons.  Right.

As I’ve noted before, despite the historic nature of this year’s presidential candidate slate, there is no anti-war candidate, and with the war du jour impinging dangerously on the precarious balance between India and Pakistan, it remains to be seen whether the progressive candidate will be a “less war” candidate.   Senator Obama’s early and consistent critique of the Iraq war failed to go deep enough to challenge the basic premises on which the War on Terror ™ was based. The overarching frame of War remains firmly in place. Until this frame is set aside, even should the Democrats take the White House, Senator Obama and his congressional allies will be hamstrung in any attempts to roll back the worst excesses of the Bush Administration. The Scientific American Mind article makes the point eloquently:

President George W. Bush adopted the war construct immediately. On the morning of September 12, 2001, after a meeting of the National Security Council, the president told reporters: “The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror. They were acts of war.”

The war metaphor helps to define the American perception of the threat of terrorism. If terrorism is war, then the national security, indeed the existence, of each side is threatened. The conflict is zero-sum; the outcome will be victory for one side or the other. Being in a state of war also requires national unity, and dissent is easily interpreted as unpatriotic. The solution has to be military. Thus, the Department of Defense must play a lead role in shaping policy, and the president’s duties as commander in chief must take precedence over his other tasks. An expansion of executive power accompanies the war metaphor: measures that would not be acceptable in peacetime, such as restrictions on civil liberties and brutal interrogation practices, are now considered essential.

Thus, as long as the narrative of War remains in place, militarists and political regressives will retain political and rhetorical leverage to keep the most onerous facets of the Bush legacy in place: accelerated military deployments abroad and draconian rights violations at home. Constituents of politicians will continue to clamor for these things for as long as the theme persists in the national dialogue that the United States “is at war with terrorists.”

But even more troubling from a Christian perspective is the pernicious effect that the War frame has on the way we look at others:

The war concept also deafens ears to the underlying troubles of the terrorists—the frustrations and grievances that may have fostered terrorism, as well as the belief systems that lent it ideological sustenance. Meanwhile the metaphor encourages stereotyping and discrimination against members of the broad social categories to which terrorists may belong, such as Muslims, Saudi Arabians or Middle Easterners. [SAM]

In other words, the War frame severely compromises our ability to love our enemies. And because this is the case, we narrow our thinking on the conflict in a way that prevents us from ever taking truly expedient or faithfully Christian actions.  While certainly not an advocate for Christian nonviolence, Registan.net puts it well:

While losing 280 soldiers is indeed tragic, many thousand [Afghan] civilians have died this year—and a not-insignificant number of those have been at U.S. or ISAF hands. …[For] far too many Big Thinkers in DC, it’s all about us—and not them. The “them” is the critical missing piece of the fight, and until we start to learn how we can help “them,” we won’t win.

Those of us who give our loyalty to Christ already have a pretty solid blueprint about how to combat evil while drawing our enemies to us in love (and yes, it really is that simple and that difficult). I’ve written before about the political dynamics that render al-Qaida vulnerable to nonviolent interference and resistance.  If we really want to “win” in Afghanistan, Christians should understand that “victory” will come through Afghan models of programs like Direct Aid Iraq, not guns and bombs. Until we do a better job confronting and discrediting the War frame for the conflict with terrorist groups, though, these measures would face near-insurmountable opposition as policy proposals.

In fact, until the War frame is consigned to the trash bin, those of us who practice Christian love and nonviolence will continue to be considered the real terrorists.

  1. […] ties to AQ. Other experts and research echoed these sentiments and others that support them, many of which I wrote about in other posts. […]

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