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Trying Harder in Pakistan and Afghanistan

Trying Harder in Pakistan and Afghanistan

by Steve Weissman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

"Master, how long will it take for me to reach enlightenment?" the eager student asked. "Perhaps ten years," the teacher answered. "But what if I try extra hard?" the student asked. "How long will it take then?" The teacher thought for a moment and smiled. "Then," he said, "it will take twenty years."

Anyone who has studied Eastern philosophy or martial arts will have heard the story in one form or another, but it has special application to President Barack Obama's escalating intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The harder he tries to win a military confrontation in the two countries or to engage in a major effort to reform them, the longer and deeper he will find himself sucked into unwinnable wars and inescapable quagmires.

The reason should be obvious. The presence of American troops, aircraft and pilotless drones - or too much American money and too many American aid workers - will turn increasing numbers of Afghans, Pakistanis and their fellow Muslims from around the world against us and against those who appear to do our bidding.

Nationalistic and religious reaction is the one unchanging lesson of foreign intervention, especially in countries that have a history of having fought against the British, French or other colonial powers. Yet, the Pentagon never learned the lesson from Vietnam and refuses to learn it from Iraq, where top generals still speak of staying at least another ten years. Nor have Obama's White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress gotten the message, believing they can soften any anti-American reaction by adding several billions of dollars more in non-military foreign aid.

In other words, we will try harder, work smarter and do more. It's a can-do American response, neatly repackaged under brand Obama, as if his apparent decency and good intentions will be enough to change the way average Afghans and Pakistanis - and the Pakistani officer corps - will respond to what looks like unending foreign intervention.

Even those who should know better are swallowing the bait. Only three senators - Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), Bernie Sanders (Independent-Vermont) and Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) - voted against the supplemental appropriations to escalate American military intervention in Afghanistan. Leaders of the formerly antiwar MoveOn also gave their blessing to Obama's wars, while well-intentioned feminists and defenders of human rights are urging the State Department to use American intervention as a wonderful opportunity to remake foreign cultures in America's image, as if anyone knows a good way to do that.

Almost no one in the narrow debate talks of Washington's long-standing struggle to dominate the oil and gas resources of Central Asia and the pipelines to bring them to market. Everyone talks of the very real need to safeguard Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, without ever raising similar and inter-related concerns about Indian and Israeli nukes. And early calls for an exit strategy from either Afghanistan or Pakistan have been replaced by plans to build a monumental new American embassy in Islamabad. Our folly knows no limits.

We're in for the long haul, and those of us who have seen the movie too many times before can only try to explain the drama as it develops. For starters, let me suggest a first reading or rereading of Graham Greene's "The Quiet American," in which he describes the similar overlay of innocence and naiveté that led up to America's massive intervention in Southeast Asia. One of his key characters is a truly idealistic CIA man who blows up women and children, all for a good cause. "Innocence," warned Greene, "is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm."

Think about those words as you hear President Obama's eagerly awaited speech this week in Cairo. He will undoubtedly embody our good intentions and fundamental decency as Americans. But, for all our self-deluding innocence and naiveté, we will remain Graham Greene's leper, and the harder we try in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the more our actions will sound as a warning bell and an anti-American recruiting call to Muslims all over the world.

The Soviets learned that lesson in Afghanistan and the Chinese seem to be avoiding similar pitfalls in most of their global interventions. But we are Americans, and we try harder.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.

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