Manipal, India — During the 1960s, the United States had a president who did more for the underclass than most of his predecessors put together. Lyndon Johnson introduced healthcare, civil rights and other measures designed to provide a level playing field for people of different classes and colors among the citizenry.
Instead of acclaim, what he got was unpopularity, forcing him to surrender office after just one term. The reason was an unpopular war, fought the wrong way – through the insertion of greater and greater numbers of troops.
U.S. soldiers marauding through their land converted several hundred thousand South Vietnamese into Viet Cong. As a recent editorial on Afghanistan in the New York Times put it, Americans too would be tempted to violence were a strange-looking bunch of aliens to invade and occupy Oregon.
Those who seek conventional military solutions to problems within other countries forget that the world is very different from what it was during the peak years of European colonialism. Then, mass killings were acceptable. But now, were NATO to repeat in Afghanistan the tactics of European colonial powers in South America, Africa and Asia, their own populations would halt such slaughter.
In the age of worldwide cable television, significant "collateral damage" is unacceptable. This is not a situation that would have endeared itself to Winston Churchill, the wartime British prime minister who once favored the bombing of undefended villages in the Middle East, and looked the other way when more than 6 million Indians died in 1944 of starvation in the single British-ruled province of Bengal.
Given the absence of public support, unless soldiers are given the freedom to impose their version of order on the populace without regard to collateral damage, they will be unable to extinguish local guerrillas, especially when anger at the presence of alien forces creates significant accretions to the resistance.
Most internal conflicts need to be settled by forces native to the particular country, and Afghanistan is no exception. As in Iraq – where the victory over Saddam Hussein should have been followed by a phased withdrawal of coalition troops to the borders within 18 months of the 2003 victory – in Afghanistan NATO forces should concentrate on training and equipping local troops rather than participating in combat, except as backup to local forces.
Should U.S. President Barack Obama view more troops as the answer to military reverses in Afghanistan, exactly as Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam four decades ago, he is likely to follow the same political trajectory as the visionary Texan.
In Iraq, al-Qaida clones have been desperately ramping up operations to ensure that NATO forces remain on the frontlines, thus ensuring a plentiful supply of volunteers to the resistance. Once NATO troops withdraw from active combat in Iraq, the motivation for such enlistment will fall dramatically. One sect no longer dominates the rest, as during the Saddam period, when Sunnis from Tikrit – and Sunnis generally – enjoyed a privileged status.
Interestingly, Western media lays almost all the blame for the present dismal conditions in Iraq at the door of the hapless government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, rather than holding their own governments accountable for the disaster zone that Iraq has become since 2003.
In Afghanistan, Western policymakers and representatives of selected non-governmental organizations have agreed on multiple objectives, few of which are feasible within the local context.
In 2005-06, NGOs retailed several, largely accurate, stories of human rights violations and corruption within the Afghan-Afghan government – as distinct from the NATO-Afghan government. As a consequence, some of those who had fought the Taliban since 1996 were culled. They were replaced by individuals suggested by agencies linked to the Pakistan army – that steadfast ally of both NATO and the Taliban – or by people acceptable to the NGOs but ineffective against the Taliban and its al-Qaida core.
During World War II, Churchill embraced Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, even though he was hardly a friend of the Bolshevik Party. The enemy was Hitler, and to fight him, the British leader was willing to put old prejudices aside.
Sadly, there seem to be few Churchillians in NATO. Policymakers there have separated the populace into a dizzying welter of categories, with differential policies that often change at quick intervals. What is needed is a simple divide between those who are part of or favorable to the Taliban and al-Qaida, and the rest. The latter need to be co-opted as allies.
Tajiks and Hazaras in Afghanistan are generally outside the armed resistance to NATO, as are the overwhelming majority of Uzbeks. However, instead of rewarding them for this, NATO has discriminated against these ethnic groups in its eagerness to "win over" the Pashtuns. Seeing that bad behavior is rewarded and good behavior is ignored, few Pashtuns will be motivated to back NATO against the armed resistance.
Similarly in Iraq, Shiites have been neglected in a bid to win over the Sunnis, a policy that reached its peak when Zalmay Khalilzad was the U.S. envoy in the country. Of course, there has been a Western neglect of the human rights of Shiites throughout the Middle East, for reasons that are not obvious.
Instead of inflaming local resentment by saying, as a British general did recently, that NATO will remain in Afghanistan for 40 years or more, what is needed is a phased transition to Afghan hands. Barack Obama is right in saying that more troops are not the answer in Iraq. Then why has he fallen into Lyndon Johnson's "Vietnam trap" in Afghanistan?
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)