Radicalizing a Generation

26 Oct

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, noting the 10th anniversary of the fall of Slobodan Milosevic and the 15th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords, meeting with Serb President Boris Tadic, and holding a townhall meeting with Bosnian students in Sarajevo. Clinton wanted to send a message of openness and outreach, pushing Bosnia to join the EU and NATO, and further meld with Europe. The message she got in return, however, was different. Bosnian students fear for the fractured nature of their state, as the new head of Republika Srpska (the Serbian piece of Bosnia) calls his larger state “absurd,” and ethnic tensions, never eradicated, are growing again. Meanwhile, a generation is growing up in Serbia removed from the larger world, and resenting it more with each year. The impetus for the next war is sown in the treatment of the losing side in the previous. A pariah nation for over fifteen years, young Serbians know no other world than an isolated one. Mein Kampf was written in such circumstances, and in Europe, the West is (should be) working hard to avoid that fate a second time.

Not so in other parts of the world. When, as part of my paying job, I teach Counter-Insurgency Theory to the US Army as a government contractor, I like to find the youngest member of the class and ask them what they were doing on 9/11. A typical response: sitting in math class in fifth grade. Meanwhile, another eleven year old may have been starving in Kabul due to food shortages in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Or attending a madrassa in Pakistan where the only reading they were allowed to do was from the Koran. Or running AK-47 magazines to their older cousin, fighting the Northern Alliance near Mazar-i-Sharif. Whatever the history, now those two people will meet, in the Hindu Kush: the fifth grader in math class in Dallas, Texas and the Koran student from Pakistan. And while the American has been spending his time playing XBox, sneaking beers behind the high school football stadium and worrying about the senior prom, that Afghani or Pakistani eleven year old has endured nothing but war for nine years. 

Image courtesy The Boston Globe

A generation can not grow up under constant threat, or isolated from and punished by the larger world, and not become radicalized, ideologically and/or violently. The only way to do the least long term damage to a country’s people is to minimize the amount of time killing, and maximize the amount of time healing and rebuilding. Note the failure of three successive administrations to do that in Afghanistan.

Eastern Afghanistan has been the subject of American attacks since August 1998. Very soon after the ground invasion in October of 2001, the American government and military prided itself on having learned the lessons of the Soviet experience: small footprint, pinpointed attacks, small amount of collateral damage. 90% of any success we had in that war we had in the first 90 days, with the Taliban routed and Al Qaeda demoralized and ostracized as “camels” by the Afghan people. Since the Spring of 2002, however, we have steadily undone that success with each subsequent action we take to consolidate gains. Now we look at Afghanistan through an intellectual fun house mirror: success will be measured by adding additional troops, for a specific (longer) period of time, to accomplish an undetermined goal. At that point, in 2011 or 2012, prior to the American Presidential election and after a longer occupation than the Soviets implemented in the 1980’s, we will leave the same way our Russian counterparts did: after a declaration of victory, in our wake will remain an unpopular, feckless, puppet government, a radicalized generation, and the seeds for the next conflict. The mythos is complete; substitute Predators and Reapers as our Hind helicopters, and IEDs from Iran and Iraq for our Stinger missiles.

President Obama is fighting for the midterm elections, fighting to reintroduce his healthcare legislation, and fighting Republicans on income taxes, but he is not fighting the Afghan War with any regularity, public interest, or discernable strategic end state in mind. A new report on war is not positive, to put it mildly. If I may be so bold, the President has taken his eye off the ball.

Warned of the threat of Al Qaeda, and in an effort to distract from the Monica Lewinski scandal, President Clinton thought a couple cruise missiles would fix both his Afghanistan problem and political troubles. Representing an angry nation, President Bush came closest to a reasonably short and decisive end state, but frittered it away in a Wall Street Bank-esque attempt to leverage his gains. President Obama won an election on opposition to one war, but with few plans for this one, he spent his political capital elsewhere. President Obama is now down to a strategy of drones and timelines, and is relying on voter apathy for ultimate political success. Obama’s policy is as ineffectual as Clinton’s, but the constant harassment is fertilizing the seed of retaliatory violence in an already radicalized generation.

The differences between Afghanistan and Bosnia are a matter of scale, not of type. What lesson is Bosnia and Serbia reteaching? You can’t marginalize and isolate the youth of a nation for the sum of its upbringing. The consequences of President Clinton’s decisions are still echoing in Bosnia and Afghanistan, and History, that elusive author, is not done writing the story of his interventions. Serbia now has a lost generation, and we’re still dropping bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 13 years later.

8 Responses to “Radicalizing a Generation”

  1. Alan Bedenko October 26, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    The difference is that Afghanistan hasn’t had a functioning government since 1973.  Milosevic didn’t rise to any sort of national Yugoslav power until 1987.  You’ve got several Afghani generations that have come up in situations ranging from chaos to totalitarian fear, while at most one generation of Serbs or Bosnians has come up since Dayton in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. 

    Among the lessons we learned from Versailles is that you can’t merely punish a vanquished aggressor – you have to offer them an out.  After WWII, we imposed on Germany a constitution that would forever ban Naziism, but we also gave them the Marshall Plan.  Germany was brought to its economic, social, and political knees in 1945.  

    The post-Dayton reintegration of former Yugoslav republics into polite society came with conditions – that accused war criminals be surrendered for prosecution.  Mladic – the worst of the worst – remains at large, rumored to be living quite comfortably and not-too-secretly outside of Belgrade. 

    But your opening makes it seem as if shooting could break out again at any moment in Bosnia, or that Serbian youth are joining right-wing Chetnik paramilitary organizations in record numbers because of Weimar-like economic malaise.  To the contrary, disaffected Serbian youth are simply, like Buffalo’s, leaving town.  They’re going to Switzerland or the EU to find economic freedom.  It’s nothing new – there’s been a Europe-wide Yugoslav diaspora ever since Tito threw the borders open in 1966.  

    You could make the argument that Buffalo has its own lost generation, but not because of any military hangover, but simply economic decline and political mismanagement.  

    The problem with Bosnia goes back centuries.  After all, it is merely a territorial accident – Islamicized Croats and Serbs occupying what had been Ottoman territory until WWI. It all boils down to which Empire happened to plop an arbitrary border down whether you write Cyrillic or Roman; whether you pray to a Pope or towards Mecca.  The idea of Bosnian nationhood, in other words, is a novel one, unlike Croat or Serb, which can be traced back a thousand years.  Like the Swiss consider themselves citizens first of their Canton, Bosnian Croats in Hercegovina identify with Zagreb, Bosnian Serbs identify with Belgrade, and Bosnian Muslims are left wondering whatever happened to brotherhood & unity.  The difference is that the Swiss are Swiss, and people in Bosnia aren’t. There’s no ingrained, centuries-old culture of direct democracy or good government.  Economically, Bosnia was a basketcase even before independence and was dragged into the industrial age kicking and screaming by the communists.

    So, to go back to your original premise about lost generations, I’d submit that every generation in what was in 1990 Yugoslavia has been lost since the country’s creation.  An artificial, Serb-heavy kingdom morphed into a chaotic attempt at democracy morphed into Serb dictatorship then Nazi/Fascist quisling states & war, then Stalinist totalitarianism, then Titoist totalitarianism, then war.  For any kid in Belgrade, Sarajevo, or Zagreb to think that you can undo hundreds of years’ worth of failure in just 15, or in Serbia’s case 10 years, is simply unrealistic.  

    I’m not as worried about Serbia’s youth as I am about Bosnia’s.  If it is to remain in existence as an independent Republic, it’s going to have to get over its petty nationalism and work as a unit or else completely disband. 

    And, in the end, any progress is good progress, and at this point Serbia may be closer to EU accession than Croatia. 

  2. Brian Castner October 26, 2010 at 3:45 pm #

    You start by saying that the main difference between Afghanistan and Yugoslavia is that the latter has had a functioning government much longer and much more recently. Then you lay out 70 years of lost Yugoslavian generations. Which is it? I am not making a point about governmental competence as much as I am about wartime violence, and the unique isolation that comes after. No matter how bad your Communist government is, is it not worse to get bombed?

    The reading I have done indicates that Serbian youth do one of two things: leave, or radicalize. A smaller Serbia filled with the militants remnants that don’t have the wherewithall to go is not a vision of success. Civil war is not breaking out tomorrow, but I am less willing to write off violence in the not too distant future, especially in Bosnia. It is no more of a state than Yugoslavia was. Should it be three states instead? What process will that take?

    • Alan Bedenko October 26, 2010 at 4:05 pm #

      Yugoslav dysfunction is different from Afghani dysfunction. Afghanistan, as a colonial construct, was doing pretty well until 1973. Yugoslavia was in ok shape for, arguably, the 50s through the 70s, when its anti-Soviet “nonaligned” stance was rewarded handsomely by the US.

      I don’t know enough about Afghanistan to rationally compare its tribalism to that of Yugoslavia’s, except to note that artificial states that more or less ignore nationhood tend to be especially tricky.

      As for Serbia, it got off easy – as in, unscathed, until 1999 when Milosevic overplayed his hand by trying to do to Kosovo what he had just failed to do in Krajina and Bosnia. The international community has, frankly, bent over backwards to persuade Serbia to behave itself, so the fault of any radicalization lies with Belgrade – not NATO. Economic depression and despair will radicalize parts of any population. (See: Party, Tea). Since the breakup, Vojislav Seselj and his ilk have tried to lurch Serbia back to the bad old days of Milosevic’s belligerent mafia, so far with little success.

      I think Bosnia, if it to have any chance of succeeding as a political entity, needs complete political integration without regard to ethnic or religious divides. The stick? Dissolution. The carrot? A Marshall plan-like massive European and American investment in its economy and infrastructure. The problem with Bosnia’s division versus the Republics of Yugoslavia is the ridiculous nature of the RS internal boundaries. If there’s to be a breakup, invest heavily in companies that construct border crossing equipment. And frankly, it’s not even a 3-way issue. Muslims and Croats have coexisted reasonably well in the Federation since its inception. It’s the RS that’s the problem, and there needs to be a second Dayton to resolve the still-open question of Serb nationhood within the Bosnian State.

      Otherwise, you’re looking at the Palestine/Israel of tomorrow with everyone fighting over who has the real claim to Sarajevo.

      (QUICK EDIT: if we’re going to make or impose peace and get indirectly involved in nation-building/rebuilding, then we should be serious about it like we were in 1945. Just stopping the shooting isn’t enough. People need hope and money.)

  3. BobbyCat October 26, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    You guys can debate the balkanization of the Balkans, if you want, but meanwhile hundreds of millions of dollars are buying the American elections. Two of the Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of the Citizens United ruling attended the recent seminar sponsored by the Tea party sponsors – the Koch Brothers. There is no law stopping the world’s richest conglomerates from buying-off and taking control of our democracy. We fought World Wars for less. This is not some theoretical threat. It’s happening now, today. Is anyone listening?

  4. Brian Castner October 26, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

    I know enough about Afghan tribalism – they aren’t remotely the same. At least in the Balkans, Croats are (mostly) just Croats. In Afghanistan, there are many kinds of Pashtuns, not to mention Tajiks, Uzbeks, etc etc.

    So let me reclarify. When I say the issues of the former-Yugoslavia and Afghanistan are alike in type, but not scale, I mean the effects of war and isolation on a generation, not the effects of tribalism, good (or bad) government, etc etc. I think the two are too dissimilar to draw too many other conclusions.

    Your last point is correct, but also so politically untenable as to be merely wishful thinking. There will be no aid package for Bosnia from Europe (read: Germany) because its too busy propping up the PIGS that are, if nothing else, real nations that want to stay that way. Obama has no leverage (or interest, probably) to place Sarajevo over Jerusalem. Clinton made a 10 year late Victory Tour, and I’m sure she’s already forgotten how to spell Srpska. We will wait until shooting starts, and then we will wait some more.

    • Alan Bedenko October 26, 2010 at 5:05 pm #

      Ah, it took 50 years for the unfinished business from WWII to become re-inflamed. Maybe these dummies will get with the program and eschew nationalism when EU accession happens.

      As for Afghanistan, I’m shocked the entire world hasn’t already written it off as beyond help.

  5. Tom Dolina October 26, 2010 at 5:43 pm #

    As long as there’s wealth in the ground of Afghanistan, the rest of the world will have an interest there. Lithium may be worth more than it’s weight in gold there.

  6. Brian Castner October 26, 2010 at 7:03 pm #

    And petro pipelines. I would consider Ahmed Rashid’s “Taliban,” published in the summer of 2001, to be the definitive text.

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