Tag Archives: Drones

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.