Saturday, December 19, 2009

Do the right thing Obama, this is not your war

THIS is going to be Barack Obama's war, which is a pity, considering he didn't start it. In fact, he had very strong views on how President George W. Bush got the Americans entangled into the quagmire called Afghanistan. In his presidential campaign, he even promised to bring back American soldiers.

We have high hopes for Obama. He signifies change. We want him to right the wrongs. We want him to sort out the Palestinian problem that has bedevilled every American president since the end of World War 2. We all know Palestine is the root cause of Muslim discontent the world over.

He could make the difference because he is different. His mantra for "change" catches fire because he is himself a change master. When he started on the incredible journey to the White House, he rewrote the history not only of the presidency but also of America. It is nothing short of a miracle that a black man became the 44th president of the United States.

Never in recent memory has the world invested so much hope in one man. We wanted a new America, led by a new man, who carried no baggage. True, he had to work harder than most to be where he is today. His determination is exemplary, his tenacity unparalleled, his conviction is legendary.

If there is anyone at the helm of the most powerful nation on Planet Earth who can build bridges to cultures, faiths and people, it has to be Obama. We trusted him. We looked upon him not just as the mightiest man alive, but as a man who can make the difference. He has been making the right statements so far, promising hope, charming anyone he touches and positioning an aura last seen during the time of John F. Kennedy.

But why shouldn't he disengage himself from an unwinnable war? The foray into Afghanistan was against every principle he stood for. The Afghans did not kill any Americans before American soldiers set foot on their land. Fighting al-Qaeda is one thing, but not all Afghans are al-Qaeda cronies.
The surge is a bad thing and very un-Obama. To thousands of cadets at the US Military Academy recently, he announced that "if I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow". Brave words, but sadly misplaced. It was not a convincing reason for the Americans to stay. It is as dubious an argument as for the invasion of Afghanistan in the first place.

The US will commit another 30,000 troops as an addition to the more than 68,000 already stationed there. Currently, a 39,000-strong international force helps the Americans. Almost 140,000 soldiers are in a hostile land whose history of fervent antagonism towards invading armies is legendary. The Afghans fought the Russians for 10 years. Civilian casualties were high. But the toll of displacement was incredible. Millions of Afghans are living in refugee camps outside the country.

They have endured hardships of all kinds. They have to live with warring factions, notorious warlords, civil wars, the Taliban, you name it. They survived. Hardship is their middle name. They have not known peace for 30 years now. The ragtag army sent the mighty Russians back home. Of course, the Americans are not like the Russians. The Americans in fact are learning from the Russians in more ways than one. But there is one lesson that the Russians had taught the Americans, but is largely being ignored: "Leave Afghanistan. You can never win there."

Most of us find it perplexing that Obama of all people could allow the surge. An addition of 30,000 soldiers will not turn the tide in Afghanistan. Not even 100,000 more. They are dealing with a different nemesis altogether, not the type they have encountered before. The "bad guys" were rather clear-cut in World War 1 or 2 or in Vietnam. In Afghanistan, the very people eulogised by the Americans as freedom fighters and holy warriors are now "illegal combatants" or supporters of al-Qaeda. In the line drawn by Bush, they are all enemies of the US. In Afghanistan today, other than Hamid Karzai and his cabinet, and probably a few thousand paid individuals to police Kabul and to provide security, everyone else is suspect. That translates into farmers, traders and beggars.

Obama must learn the history of Afghanistan. At least Bush watched Kandahar, a movie about a young woman's journey into Taliban-land directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Obama should watch The Two-Legged Horse, a riveting film directed by Mohsen's daughter Samira. Or at least read the novels by Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Or read Ann Jones' harrowing encounter with Afghan women in Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace In Afghanistan.

Didn't they say that to understand a culture one needs to study the minds and psyche of the people? That was why the English were relatively more successful as colonialists. They sent scholars, cultural anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and historians to learn the ways of the natives.

Americans can never win the war in Afghanistan with its military supremacy alone. Their enemies there are not digging rat holes to survive or building a Ho Chin Minh Trail to move people and logistics. Afghanistan is hell on earth for any invading army. Its terrain is the least hospitable. No amount of state-of-the-art technology and weaponry could flush out Osama bin Laden or his cohorts, not to mention millions of vengeful Afghans who are not necessarily al-Qaeda supporters.

Afghanistan is not worth fighting for. Period. As someone said, Obama can't be opening too many fronts on the war against terror. He has his home turf to worry about, the health bill, the economic conundrum, to mention two. And he has to worry about Iraq, another of Bush's legacy he has inherited.

Leave Afghanistan alone. Probably the people of Afghanistan want it that way, even if that means they still live in medieval times. At least fewer lives will be lost, and many more American lives can be saved.

Do the right thing, Obama. This is not your war. JOHAN JAAFAR New Straits Times

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