Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Military Might -- and its Limits

Military Might -- and its Limits

We are confronting once again the paradox of being the militarily most powerful nation in the world and being defeated by barefoot fighters with primitive weapons. That happened in Vietnam. It seems to be happening again in Afghanistan. All the bravery of American and NATO troops equipped with an arsenal of incredible technical sophistication seems to be as useless in Afghanistan as it was 40 years ago in Vietnam.

This modern weaponry serves the ancient goal of killing enemies in order to conquer territory. The Spaniards accomplished this when they conquered Mexico. Similarly, at the end of the Mexican American war we took large portions of Mexican territory, from Texas to California, and incorporated it into the United States.

Violence, however, does not always aim at the annexation of territory. Often it serves to control a population through terror. Violence here serves to intimidate people, as did the mob violence in the US during Prohibition, or the secret police, sudden arrests, and killings perpetrated by dictatorial regimes. The violent ones, by instilling fear, can get whatever they want. But in order to maintain that power, violence must continue. When the secret police gets lazy, and the torturers lose interest in their work, the dictator will soon lose power.

Clearly terrorism uses that technique of intimidating populations. According to recent newspaper reports, the US is using terrorist techniques more frequently in Afghanistan. We target the Taliban leadership for assassination and thereby discourage lower level leaders from moving up in the ranks. Instead, fear of the assassination squads or the drone airplanes may move them to sit down at the negotiating table.

But violence and the threat of it may also serve to bring peace and security to a population. Our own police are armed and occasionally use their weapons to keep the peace. The local policeman on the block who unsnarls traffic jams or accompanies school children across the street is not the enemy. If we see what looks like a burglar entering a neighbor’s house, we call the police. When there is a traffic accident or an assault, we call the police. In functioning societies, police violence is narrowly focused on a small class of deviants. Most citizens have nothing more serious to fear from the police than the occasional parking or speeding ticket. The police--the purveyors of violence--are allied with the vast majority of citizens in order to keep those in check who would disrupt civil peace. Most citizens are safe from police violence because citizens and police are allied.

The power of the police does not come from their sophisticated armaments but because the citizens trust them not to use their violence against the innocent and to keep the level of violence very low. Cases of police brutality do serious damage because they threaten the support of police by ordinary citizens.

What is our mission in Afghanistan? We do not want to annex the land of the Afghans. We do not want to dominate their population for years to come by maintaining a regime of military terror. Instead we want to pacify Afghanistan so that their own military and police can keep the peace and we can return home. As President Obama formulated our goal “Don’t allow terrorists to operate from this region. Don’t allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks against the US homeland with impunity,’’

We want to play the same role in Afghanistan that the police plays in a tough urban neighborhood at home. But that works only if we make friends with the population. Back in the US the cop on the beat speaks English. He may have grown up in the neighborhood, he may have gone to school with some of us, or with some of our relatives. He lives the same life we lead. He is one of us--except for the gun on his hip and the shield on his uniform. He can be our friend, more or less, as long as he uses his gun sparingly, if ever.

But in Afghanistan we are strangers from far away. We are heavily armed and we use our weapons daily. As foreigners, who do not know the language, the country or the people, we do not always know whether we target wrong-doers with our violence. Many innocent civilians die. Reports released by WikiLeaks suggest that many more innocent civilians die than we have been told. The Afghan population rightly does not trust us.

What would happen to the alliance between police and citizens in an American city if the police arrived in combat gear, with helicopter gun ships, armored vehicles with powerful weapons, night goggles and all?

The heavy equipment, the armor, the deadly weapons are counterproductive when you want to gain the trust of a population. Our super sophisticated weaponry works against us in Afghanistan. What we would need instead we cannot have--the ability to speak the local languages, personal ties to members of different communities because we have known each other since infancy.

Lacking that, our role in Afghanistan will vacillate between that of the neighborhood cop at home and that of the mob with its protection racket or of the terrorists. You cannot “win the hearts and minds” of the population, as Gen. Petraeus is trying to do, with drones, assassination teams, fighter bombers and other heavy military equipment.

Our mission is bound to fail.