At the zenith of wishful thinking we have President Obama’s recent Nobel Peace Prize. (On a side note, word is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, will be awarding this year’s Best Actor Oscar to the President for his superb viewing of “An Education.”) This honor, though, could be one of the great win/win situations in U.S. history if American leaders have the chutzpah to pull it off.
I’m going to assume Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s October 6 admonition against publicly airing advice to President Obama on Afghanistan doesn’t extend to me. His comments came less than a week after General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, publicly expressed his opinion on strategy proposals for the troubled country in advance of a stated strategy from the White House.
McChrystal, or someone near to him, has released a 66 page assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and has laid out several proposals that assign varying degrees of risk to varying levels of troop increases. The least risk comes from increasing the U.S. troop presence by 40,000, up from the current level of 68,000. The primary focus of the debate sparked by his comments has been on resource allocation: should we send more troops to Afghanistan? This debate, however, is obscuring any broader discussion of what it is the troops would be doing.
Afghanistan is an unwinnable conflict using historical U.S. military tactics. As a matter of fact, the traditional model of nation-building undertaken by America has never worked. Not once. At no time have we moved into a troubled region, ousted the government, helped write a constitution, installed a functioning democracy and departed to see the new government grow and prosper. Yet this apparently remains the M.O. of U.S. administrations wishing to engender peaceful stability in other nations reflecting the American democratic experience. It may have been Albert Einstein who said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” but this hardly represents one of Einstein’s more difficult concepts to grasp. Yet here we are.
Doubtless, given the full might of our Armed Forces, the United States can enter any country (including Afghanistan) and fashion any alternate reality the President so desires–but only temporarily. The rubber band will only hold its shape as long as U.S. troops remain to arrest a relapse. The instant the American military lets go, Afghanistan will snap back to its original condition. What’s lost in the palaver over a troop increase is discussion of implementing tactics that transform people not just governments. A look to the creation of our democracy might be relevant.
As a newcomer to northern Virginia, I had not yet been to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s well preserved home near Charlottesville, Virginia. I decided to make the trip last weekend. Autumn’s full embrace of the Virginia countryside was still a few weeks away as I made my way down rural US-29 contemplating the coalescence of events and ideologies that birthed our nation. Any disappointment I had in Mother Nature was immediately vanquished on arrival by the sagacity of this Founding Father.
Touring the grounds, I could not escape Jefferson’s emphasis on the importance of education and knowledge as fundamental building blocks of representative government. His thoughts unlocked the importance of educating citizens in order to invent and secure their own self-government. The wonder of the American genesis is not that it was a successful power grab or coup d’état that, luckily, had a happy ending. America’s creation was the result of radical and progressive ideas held by a few scores of men. These ideals of liberty and self-government, in the face of British oppression, were so powerful that they moved common men to arms. It was not the arms that defeated the British, it was the values that were ingrained in the fabric of the colonists.
Jefferson noted that, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. . . . Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.” For policy-makers looking at Afghanistan, the U.S. strategy behind nation-building must move away from the violent creation of drive-thru democracy and become the intellectual empowerment of the people to be governed.
Once citizens become enlightened to the possibilities of self-rule and are given access to pursue such a course, oppression has no home. Learning the lesson from our own revolution, there can be no more effective weapon against Al Qaeda and radical Taliban than empowering Afghans with information. And in a globalized and interconnected 21st century, this has never been easier. A village given a small array of solar panels, a small wind turbine, a light bulb and a laptop becomes connected to the world in new ways: access to electricity provides access to education, the price of wheat in Jalalabad, the availability of micro-credit programs and tele-medicine programs that can mean the difference between life and death. The phenomenon of the revolutionary spirit we saw in Iran this summer is that the fuel for their discord was information.
Here’s the win/win proposition afforded by Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize: Obama gives McChrystal his 40,000 soldiers but does so to facilitate effective implementation of a new U.S strategy: de-emphasize traditional counterinsurgency tactics in favor of using the military’s distribution network and proximity to literally empower Afghan citizens with village-size renewable energy systems, communications infrastructure, and information sharing.
From many veiled words we might intuit that Obama and McChrystal are on this like a fat boy on a cupcake. But it’s also possible that they are thoughtlessly conspiring to perpetuate a model of nation-building that’s batting .000. Clarity, vision, and decisiveness are required to chart a new course for sharing the wonders of self-government with those living under oppressive regimes. Manifesting those attributes would establish the Nobel Committee’s sobriety and go a long way to securing next year’s Peace Prize for General McChrystal.