Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Western Perception: How A Sense Of History Can Improve the U.S. Mission in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on September 4, 2009
The only way counterinsurgency can work is by understanding the customs of the indigeneous population

The only way counterinsurgency can work is by respecting the needs of the indigenous population

When young students often think about western expansion, most assume that Europe and the United States have always been more advanced and prosperous than the rest of the world.  Nation-states in the East are usually viewed as inferior powers, forcing to adapt their economic and political systems in response to the west’s hegemonic aspirations and global power.  This assumption, however common, has a number of flaws that fail to explain the real ascendance of the western community.  Up until the 15th century, Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa were ahead of Western Europe in multiple aspects; technology, education, scholarship, science, and architecture were all dominated by non-western societies.  It took a combination of Eastern stagnation (accompanied by slow economic growth, culture, and authoritarian political systems) and Western discovery to finally turn the tide to a political order that most Americans take for granted today.  In fact, Europe rose to such an unprecedented level that leaders in the non-western world often attempted to impose European-style reforms in their own societies.  Peter the Great of Russia is a perfect example of this phenomenon…a man who modernized the bureaucracy, reorganized the army, and reformed the tax code to make it look (and operate) more like a French, German, and British system.

What is interesting today is how this same transformation is continuing in many parts of the Eastern world.  As Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek accurately notes, “the Western business suit has become the standard attire for Indian businessmen and even many young government officials, which speaks of a new post-colonial phase in India.”  The cultural values that were originally embedded within Western states are now exported to “far-away lands,” quickly destroying the traditional aspects of these very same countries.  In many developing states, a generational gap is widening between the old and the new; members of the younger generation are often unable to understand their cultural traditions, assuming that the western-way of life is the type of system that has always thrived and prospered.  This decay of the indigenous lifestyle is one of the major reasons why terrorism thrives in the Islamic world;  fearing U.S. (and thus western) incursion in the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia, some sheiks, mullah’s, and Islamic fundamentalists feel compelled to use whatever means possible to fight the tide of modernization back.

Unfortunately for traditionalists, the historical connection between wealth and modernity is undermining their efforts severely.  Over 124 countries in the developing world increased their GDP’s from previous levels, doubling and tripling the size of their economic output.  For all of the civil conflict and violence that accompanies African politics, economic growth is starting to finally take hold on the continent.  Turkey, once considered a poor country only a few decades ago, is now teetering with membership in the European Union: the world’s most wealthy entity.  With the wealth-enlightenment-modernity connection threatening to dismantle traditional belief systems, as we are seeing in the Middle East, one has to wonder whether terrorism and anti-western resistance will strengthen in an era of continued globalization.

While Zakaria’s analysis in the Post-American World seems benign to the average reader, understanding the clash between modernity and tradition is essential if Americans wish to resist and eventually defeat Islamic extremism.  Perhaps this lack of transparency is why the U.S. is currently engulfed in a quagmire in Afghanistan.  The fact that most Afghans view American soldiers as defenders of a corrupt and illegitimate regime (with Hamid Karzai at the helm) certainly does not help the coalition’s efforts in taming the Taliban insurgency…not to mention easing Afghan resentment towards the motivations of foreign troops.

There is no question that insurgencies are defeated when a right combination of mlitary and civilian power is implemented.  “Winning the hearts and minds” of the local population is the key to a successful intervention and occupation, whether we are talking about American involvement in Afghanistan or the brief Russian occupation in Georgia.  Thankfully, the United States has already learned this in Iraq, where Sunni tribes and U.S. troops teamed up to battle Al’Qaeda militants in Anbar Province.

Yet, despite the knowledged gained by the  U.S. Government and the U.S. Military with respect to assymetrical warfare, it appears as if the U.S.-NATO coalition is quickly forgetting the Iraq experience.  The U.S. strategy in the “Af-Pak” region is missing a key component: respect and a genuine understanding of traditional Afghan culture.  Perhaps a radical shift of thinking is the one factor that could slowly, but surely, improve the U.S. mission.  An unwillingness to engage in this sort of mindset will result in increased rate of American and Afghan casualties, not to mention a symbolic victory for jihadists around the globe.

President Obama is correct to formulate a new counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan.  What he has neglected to include in this plan is what makes the big difference.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-This blog was based on Fareed Zakaria’s new book, The Post-American World


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