"Oriental River" photo by Mike Marcellino, South Vietnam 1968, copyright 1995
Plowshares, not swords
By Mike Marcellino
Vice President Joe Biden has it right. There is another course for America in Afghanistan.
Do I get this right? Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama disagree over the right course in Afghanistan?
Vietnam should show us that we’ll never "defeat" the Taliban unless we are prepared to fight without an end, without victory in sight.
The Taliban is led by Mullah Omar, a peasant fundamentalist Muslim and fierce fighter who lost an eye fighting with the mujahedeen defeating the Soviet forces.
No matter how distasteful we find the strict Muslim laws, and especially harsh treatment of woman and girls, if we send in tens of thousands of more troops we must be prepared for a long winter.
The Taliban traces its origin to the 7th Century. The Taliban with large havens in a bitter, mountainous countryside, in many respects, like the Viet Cong with support from the North Vietnamese regular troops, in remote jungles and highlands of South Vietnam.
The Taliban, a religious fundamentalist movement, will resist modern, Western culture indefinitely. Its leader, Mullah Omar is nearly a prophet. Even if he is killed, as have other fundamentalist leaders, someone will take his place. The war in Afghanistan is a civil war with sharp cultural differences such as the American Civil War.
We look at the conflict and fundamentalism in Afghanistan through a Western view of the way the world should be. Already, elements in America view our actions in the Muslim world as a holy war - good against evil. Somehow I don’t think God created America to wage endless wars.
Omar recently told the Western press that Taliban's oppression against women and girls are misrepresented. We find their practices repulsive. We still have not achieved equality at home and there’s certainly too much abuse against females. The Taliban movement traces its beginnings back to the 7th Century. Forerunners of the Taliban defeated Alexander the Great, Omar points out. Actually, the small nation of Vietnam defeated China in the 14th century.
America should concentrate on rooting out elements actually threatening America's security. Otherwise, we should not send swords but plowshares, builders, not soldiers, tools, supplies and expertise to help Afghanistan rebuild and strengthen their own communities. We might be surprised what reaction we would get from the people. We should also set a good example at home use the money we’ll save from not using military force to rebuild our own communities. The various factions in Afghanistan will have to settle their own differences. They’ve been fighting for quite some time before we came along. Of course the very people we’re fighting now were only a decade or so ago our allies. The support of the people in towns and villages invariably determines the outcome in civil wars. Oppressive regimes fall eventually; decay from within without the support of the people.
I've noticed without relish, an interesting and deadly phenomena (a word used only by poets for 350 years) is going on in Afghanistan and it also goes on in Iraq, and probably a lot of warring states. The Taliban sets off bombs and kills civilians. It works, unfortunately. Then the Afghans don't want American (or NATO) soldiers fighting the Taliban because they think (or know) that if the foreign forces stop fighting to Taliban, the Taliban will stop killing their fellow citizens. Ditto for Iraq, except we sent in an overwhelming number of troops and there are many differences in the nature of things in Afghanistan and Iraq, dah (a word by the way derived from the Russian word for yes, now meaning, "yes, what else," dah.)
Another phenomena going on is what I call the "body count" or "body bag" syndrome (I hate it when certain politicians like former President George Bush junior kept referring to the "Vietnam syndrome" meaning (if he knows) that Vietnam veterans are a bunch of abnormal people, like he's saying to ex-troops, "enough said, you people and our nation just have to get over 'Vietnam syndrome.'" Excuse me George it ain't that simple. Have you ever heard of Agent Orange, George?)
Now, during the last presidential campaign, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and how to get out of them was the hot topic, until US casualties diminished, i. e., fewer dead troops were returning home in body bags (as you recall, the Bush administration didn't want the media to photograph and film these sad events).
So, today, in Afghanistan fewer of our troops are returning in body bags, so the nation has now returned to American Idol and the ageless issue of health care reform, Part X). Noteworthy too is just the other day Americans polled rated Idol host Simon Cowell and an actor as a hero, both rated higher than President Obama. So much for fleeing stardom, Barrack, welcome to fickle America, tick, tick, tick, change, change, change.
You know some people have a theory that wars are necessary to hold down world population growth. I have a theory that dead American troops don't need health care anymore, in fact, dead civilians don't either. So, why isn't ending war our Number 1 Priority? Oh, I got it, if we kill people it will reduce health care costs, right? By the way, to make it “perfectly clear” I do not subscribe to either theory in relations to the benefits of war and killing people.
Now, Vice President Joe Biden, as far as he goes, is right. We need to do constructive, not destructive things in Afghanistan to win the support of the people. Then we can use more military resources to root out the bad guys trying to do in America and the West. The Taliban is a treat to the United States only in any support of terrorism. Use Special Forces and similar units together with precision strikes at real targets. Hey, we might wind up getting help from the Taliban as we did fighting the Soviets and communism in Afghanistan. Our constructive actions, not increased military force gives us a much better chance of winning support of the people, the “hearts and minds.” We should have learned that lesson in the Vietnam War. The will of the people eventually determines the outcome.
We may not like the Taliban and their harsh practices, but we have no choice but to live with them unless we are prepared to spend the lives of thousands of American soldiers and tons of money. If we engage them constructively maybe they change for the better.
In the Vietnam we learned that military power did not bring the outcome we sought. We found an enemy prepared to fight until they achieved their ends.
We could achieve a stalemate in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, but many Americans will die without changing much of anything.
No one seems to talk about Gandhi and Martin Luther King anymore, but their methods worked. Why not use non-violence as a weapon. Setting a better example at home might also help too.
Mr. President, I ask you to take a good, hard look at what your vice president is saying. No one in our government today has more experience in the world than Joe Biden. And, he is one former senator whose son has served in our country’s armed forces.
President Obama, consider another way to demonstrate the power of our democracy - the American experiment to create a level playing field.
The whole world doesn’t have to be a mirror of America.
At times we must use force, but let’s use it with clear purpose and victory in our sights.
Let’s not again put the lives of American troops on the line with our fingers crossed.
Mike Marcellino served in the U. S. Army in the Vietnam War from 1967-68 as a combat correspondent and photojournalist
The War in Afghanistan, Another course, Copyright mike marcellino 2009