Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Day in the Life...

Obama's War

When I initially thought about the topic I wanted to focus on for my blog post, I realized that one of the things I had little knowledge of was the strategies that have been proposed in order to win the war in Afghanistan. In the book In The Graveyard of Empires we have been reading about what Afghanistan looks like-- a mountainous region, but I was interested to know what it looked like from inside the military; the inner-workings and reasoning behind occupying the country. Another reason I chose the topic of looking at soldiers in Afghanistan is that as I write this blog post, my brother-in-law is being shipped out to the Middle East to serve in the Air Force.

The Frontline Story, called Obama's War, gave me the opportunity to see into the occupation, including views of both soldiers and those they take direction from. However, the story focused both on giving context to the fighting taking place, as well as the counterinsurgency strategies the military employs to "win" in Afghanistan. Experts believe that clearing the Taliban from provinces has proved fruitless because as an area has been cleared of Taliban control in the past, the military leaves shortly thereafter and never actually holds the territory, allowing the Taliban take over again. In the book In the Graveyard of Empires, we also see that in the 70s, the US similarly pulled out of Afghanistan as soon as Russia pulled out, rather than helping set up an infrastructure to prevent "extremist" groups from taking over.

Throughout the story, loaded phrases were thrown around, mostly by those interviewed, which included military men and strategists. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, interviewed about the production of opium states that, "drug dealers, criminals, and extremists" survive off of the poppy production by paying and intimidating the farmers. Rather than allowing for the possibility of producing opium in order to survive, Mullen implies that all men growing must be under the influence of "extremists." However, the piece goes on to prove that it was actually Westerners who allowed for poppy production to grow rapidly because years ago, the same men who created the Hoover Dam created similar dams in the Helmand province, allowing for better control of flooding and, thus, rich and fertile grounds. Drug trade, however, is not the focus of military strategy, so for the time being, the opium is largely ignored.

What the military is instead attempting to do is forge relationships with the people in Afghanistan in order to make the population feel secure enough to participate in political discourse. Strategists state that unlike previous missions, the marines plan to stay in Afghanistan this time around to work with the people in order to separate them from the Taliban. The three main strategies include protecting the population, maximizing the effects of the civilian insurgency, and improving the government, fighting corruption, and building infrastructure. Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and prominent Middle Eastern studies scholar shown in this piece for his expertise, writes a blog called Abu Muqawama (Arabic for "father or expert of the Resistance) about counterinsurgency, which can be read here.

In listening to these strategies, it was hard for me to grasp the reality of success in Afghanistan. The report juxtaposes the possibility of relationships by showing soldiers "talking" with Afghan people, but getting frustrated because the people wouldn't help. One Afghan man promptly responded, somewhat aghast at the lack of understanding, "What can we do to help you? You have planes, tanks, and guns. We are simple people with nothing." Though it must be frustrating for the marines to speak to a group of people from a different culture, the soldiers were less friendly to them than one would expect. Although soldiers must be on their guard at all times in order to protect themselves, when walking up to a group of men outside a building one marine said, "Tell your people don't run and don't start stuffing stuff in your pockets- that looks suspicious." Though the troops are sent to Afghanistan to protect the people, at times it feels more like the troops are controlling them.

Even in the first 30 minutes of the segment, it is possible to grasp the type of guerilla fighting that takes place overseas; soldiers are never really sure where their enemies come from and thus are wary of any Afghan people. The report was a bit lengthy, given that it covered an hour-long time slot, but gave great insight into soldier's day-to-day experiences and the thoughts of officers that soldiers report to. On the side of the screen next to the segment are posted links to other articles and interviews relating to Afghanistan and the counterinsurgency efforts, like this one. This allows for even more context and background than the initial report gives.

I think it was important that the report included Afghanistan people talking about their fear of the Taliban, while also including interviews with important figures within the US military. For once, a report did not glorify the actions of the American soldiers, but rather gave a more objective view of how both Americans and Afghanistan people view them. I would encourage reporters to further explore the connection between soldiers and Afghanistan people as they continue to report on the war- an important aspect of the strategy for which soldiers hope to drive out the Taliban: by forming relationships with the people in order to work with them.

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