Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Afghanistan: 9 Years and Counting--Part I Good Morning Vietnam! Good Afternoon Cambodia! Restrepo!

Archetypes of the Vietnam War, jungle green and helicopters

As noted in the post, Ann Coulter, Islamophobia, American Freedom of Speech, Canada's Right to Exist and Cancellation at the University of Ottawa--Relevance to Saudi?, Canada sent no troops to Vietnam, although we had sent them to Korea. We have been in Afghanistan since the very beginning, but not Iraq. The difference in the latter case is the UN. Canada, as a leader in creating the UN Peace Keeping Forces, tends to go along with the UN, even when the Prime Minister is a Liberal and French Canadian, the least likely it seems to follow the US into battle.

When the Afghanistan War--this one, rather than all the other unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan, from Alexander the Great. through Genghis Khan (who did have a modest albeit ruthless success)  forward through the Brits, and the Soviets--began, my sister was discussing it with a friend, who seemingly began to cry. My sister asked, "Are you crying?. "...sobbing...". "Are you worried about your son?". "...SOBBING..." As the friend's son was 9 at the time, this seemed just rather touchingly over anxious. Except that was in late 2001, so now he is 18, and will be 20 by the time Canada officially pulls out their combat troops, except maybe we won't pull them all out, because we are leaving troops in a training capacity, and the US, the UK, and others really want us to stay in... In retrospect, this mother's worry was better placed than it seemed at the time. Luckily for her, there is no draft, and her son is very small physically, a computer nerd, and a loner, so less likely to volunteer.

I was discussing the Afghanistan War recently with a Russian friend. She was cautious at first until I mentioned how so many other highly respected armies had gone down to defeat there, whereupon she made a wry smile, and spoke about how the US tends to dismiss the Soviet experience instead of learning from it. I agreed, and remarked that the Soviet Army was undoubtedly highly trained and well equipped. Then she said, "Of course!" and elaborated. She also had talked to returned Soviet soldiers, who seemed to be shaking their heads and grumbling about the folly to the extent that one could. She is married now to a far right wing American. I suspect they don't discuss the Afghanistan War.

General McChrystal and General Petraeus at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, October 20, 2009.
Photograph by Staff Sgt. Bradley A. Lail, U.S. Air Force/DoD

Afghanistan has been back in the forefront of the news a few weeks ago, as a result of an article in Rolling Stone, The Runaway General Stanley McChrystal, Obama's top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House. If the subtitle didn't say it all, the article does. Its veracity is proven by McChrystal apologizing rather than denying; and, by Obama firing rather than placating. These two actions, apologizing and firing, are not always proofs of "truth", both are too political in any situation, but in this case other factors support this interpretation. Those factors include prior aggressive defensiveness by McChrystal, placating by Obama, and the actual war trajectory since Obama appointed McChrystal. The article is well worth reading in full, for what it says from a variety of perspectives and sources, about the flaws in the current Afghanistan war strategy, and indeed in any war strategy in that country (contemporary sensibilities don't allow for the Genghis Khan "decimate, and have everyone, who can, flee" strategy, at least not overtly).

The article makes clear that the Afghan escalation was part of Obama's focus pre-presidency, and yet he is both backing a surge and setting a short time span before a drawn down of troops. He is also careful never to speak of victory. I would add a reminder that escalating the conflict in Pakistan was also part of Obama's pre-nomination campaign, one he toned down considerably after an extremely negative reaction to it, in an early debate. Still, there is an undeclared war going on now in Pakistan under his command, and he even made a joke at the White House Press Correspondents' Dinner about "predator drones"--not so funny to the civilians killed by these robot bombers in the sky.

The article ends convincingly on a lose/lose proposition in Afghanistan--calling it the new Vietnam. I would add that Pakistan is the new Cambodia--the unofficial war, to cut off insurgent movements and supplies, so unofficial Cambodia was still being denied by the neo-Nixons in the 2004 presidential campaign.

As the New York Times article, With Shift in Afghanistan, Talk Turns to Exit By Peter Baker, makes clear, the shift to Petraeus is also a shift in overt strategy to an exit plan. The current Kabul Conference reinforces that, and also sees President Karzai asking for more control over both the Western troop presences and Western funded aid. That possibility will be the subject of the next post, "Afghanistan: 9 Years and Counting--Part II Is it worth it? The Doha Debates Chez Chiara".

What galls me most about any reference to the Afghanistan War--including by the many Afghani-Canadians of all ages and immigration vintages with whom I have spoken and who are delighted to have the US oust the Taliban and the opium growers--is that it seems so totally unnecessary, more than most wars, and more than even the "just wars". After the Bush administration threatened to bomb Afghanistan back to the stone age, the Afghani government did agree to hand over Osama bin Laden (the initial impetus for the war), on the condition that he be tried by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The Bush administration preferred to declare war. It is hard to know how much the general US denigration of international consultation and collaboration with institutions like the UN, and the ICC played a part (it was also a winning point for Bush over Kerry in 2004 that he wouldn't be such a pansy as to consult other countries). It is particularly hard as Afghanistan, which seems to be little more than a country unfortunately sitting at a geo-strategic crossroads, hence the history of invasions, also seems to be sitting on a major oil pipeline route, making it attractive to the US, the Chinese, and the Russians.

Although that seemingly cavalier refusal of what strikes me as a highly legitimate offer to avoid war galls me the most, close behind is the Bush administration's inattention to the war once it was started, with a small coalition, including Canada. Lest anyone forget, the Bush administration rapidly turned its full attention to how to make a war in Iraq, including hypothesizing a Gulf of Tonkin scenario, and in any case managed to justify a war by claiming Iraq was responsible for 9/11 (supposedly the 9/11 perpetrators were Iraqis who crossed the loose Canadian border--not). The propaganda was so convincing that it was only after the 2004 election that Americans seemed to clue in--except for Obama appointee Janet Napolitano who still spouted this nonsense in 2008 in her confusion about the fact that the US has a northern border very different from its southern one. Canada's contribution seems to be routinely forgotten, including in the Rolling Stone article, when not actively denigrated, by Bill Gates, the Secretary of Defense, no less, who subsequently softened his hard line that Canadian troops were taking casualties because they didn't know how to fight, and recognized that they were deployed in the worst area, Kandahar Province, and for the longest.

Directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington in the Korangal Valley during the filming of Restrepo

While preparing this post, I began to wonder what Robert Fisk had to say recently about Afghanistan; and, trusting that he would have an opinion and share it vehemently, I went to his column in the Independent to find the lead article was Robert Fisk: The US film that confronts the truth about Afghanistan Caught on camera. Fisk didn't disappoint. He recounts viewing this documentary at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and its impact on him. He too sees Vietnam--Khe San to be precise:
...[I] was fascinated by Restrepo, a long documentary for which two brave journalists, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, spent 13 months with the US Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korangal Valley, perhaps the deadliest piece of real estate in Afghanistan.
The platoon set up a post called OP Restrepo – named after a much-loved but very dead comrade – and endured a miniature version of Khe San amid the towering snow-fastness of Talibanland. During the movie, another soldier dies – he is shot on patrol and you briefly see his corpse – as bullets zip around the camera. After calling up an air strike on a village "terrorist" target, the platoon moves into the hamlet in which it finds horribly wounded children and civilian corpses.
He, too, is more concerned about Obama than McChrystal, and worried about the non-declared war in Pakistan:
All this was given added piquancy when General Stanley McChrystal fell on his own sword in front of Barack Obama this week. I don't like generals, but I had a smidgen of sympathy for this arrogant man. McChrystal's contempt for the inept Richard Holbrooke – the "Afpak" envoy (what a yuk title) who hourly awaits his own dismissal – at least bears the merit of truth.
What was more instructive, however, was Obama's behaviour. Every month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heaps humiliation and insult upon the impotent and frightened Obama, who responds by clucking his tongue and then swearing further lifelong fidelity to Israel. But the moment his top man in Afghanistan tells a few home truths about his boss, Obama throws a hissy fit and fires him. McChrystal would obviously have done much better in the Israeli army.
Ironically, one of McChrystal's last acts was to pull his men out of the Korangal Valley and close down OP Restrepo. Indeed, al-Jazeera's reporter managed to enter the abandoned outpost a few days ago with a bunch of leering Taliban – who joyfully discovered that the Americans had left them plenty of spare ammo. So much for the sacrifice of the Second Platoon and the far greater suffering of the Afghan villagers whom they blasted away in the interests of the "war on terror".
Restrepo trailer, in HD

Always eager to condemn the brutality of war, and defend its victims, Fisk spares no one, and has long experience as a foreign correspondent (>30 years), particularly in the Middle East, but in many of the conflicts of the last decades from which to draw valid historical comparisons:
Yet Restrepo the film was impressive. Not just because of the fear of the soldiers – and the spectacular real-life battle scenes – but because of the graphic, terrible moments in the bombed village. One little, pain-filled girl stares with such incomprehension at her tormentors that you know that we have lost the war in Afghanistan.
Yet, old enough as I am to have covered the Soviet occupation of this same country 30 years ago, I have to say that no Russian camera crew ever filmed the innocent victims of Brezhnev's mad adventure in Afghanistan. If we as an audience are invited to sympathise with American soldiers, the film doesn't attempt to spare us the truth. No Russian cinemagoer ever saw their own country's Afghan victims, the children maimed by Russian landmines, the families murdered at Russian checkpoints, the villagers cut down in air strikes by the MIGs I used to watch lazily taking off from Jalalabad airport.
Sundance Festival, Meet the Artists interview with filmmakers and war reporters Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, on making the documentary Restrepo

Since then I have had the chance to read the original Vanity Fair article that resulted from the National Geographic sponsored assignment, the  and the New York Times articles on the film, the latter of which includes an excellent slideshow; to view another excellent slideshow at Newsweek, some pictures of which are featured in this post; and finally, to see the film myself.

Like Fisk, I saw hints of Vietnam, and a commendable openness on the part of the US to allow this film to be produced and distributed.

 I also saw a lot of Acute Traumatic Stress Disorder (ATSD), and much more Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Both are features of all wars, though described differently according to time and place. They have been given most prominence in the psychiatric literature as a result of the American experience in and post Vietnam.

From the documentary film Restrepo

Now, as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan, both ATSD and PTSD are getting much more attention from the US Forces, and those of other countries, including Canada. Major efforts are being made to sensitize officers to prevention and response among troops, and to appropriate referral and treatment. PTSD, IED injuries to limbs, and IED injuries resulting in brain damage are the hallmark casualties of both Iraq and Afghanistan.

As one of the soldiers interviewed after the 15 month tour of duty stated, "They don't really know what to do with us guys, no one has seen this much fighting since WWII, and Vietnam". I would add that because there is no longer a draft, there is a "back door draft" whereby tours of duty are longer than normal, and soldiers aren't released when their normal time would be up.

70% of all the ordinance used in Afghanistan to the date of the film was used in the Korangal Valley; 4-5 firefights with the Taliban per day were routine, as were ambushes; and, because of the mountainous terrain, there was a particular difficulty to establish adequate cover, and prevent being shot at from 360 degrees.

From the documentary film Restrepo

The other aspect of the film that particularly struck me was the cultural disconnect, even with cultural sensitization of troops, and Afghani interpreters and cultural consultants as part of the platoon. The weekly Shura Council meetings between the soldiers and the Afghani elders are a study in 2 conflicting agendas: the officer heading the council (disconnect!) wants to enlist co-operation by reinforcing US democracy, schools, hospitals, and economic aid that it will bring to the Korangal. The Afghani elders want to talk about the civilian lives lost, the captured youth who have "disappeared", and the cow that got stuck in the American fencing, was cut free, and eaten by the American troops (disconnect!).

 If watching the officer lose his temper in the first meeting wasn't enough to highlight the cross-purposes and cultural divide, watching the break in negotiations, between elders who arrive at the camp and a different officer, over reparations for the cow is. During the break in the discussion, the Afghani elders pray on the mountainside (for once in a visual, shown standing and bowing rather than prostrate), while the officer talks to his superiors about what is being asked for ($400 US), and what can be offered--ultimately the equivalent in beans and rice of the cow's weight. Needless to say the elders go away unhappy.

As of June 2010, the US war in Afghanistan is officially the longest war in US history--surpassing in length the "unsatisfactory" Vietnam War. As of July 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is still trying to get Pakistan more onside. So, yes, good morning Vietnam, and good afternoon Cambodia!

Good Morning Vietnam, Parts 2-3/17, the whole film is available on Youtube, beginning here.
Why Parts 2-3? For the "Gooooood Moooooorning, Vietnaaaaaam!" (Part 2), the music (Part 3), the jokes (both), and the setup (Part 2). This is just before the Vietnam "police action" was officially escalated to a War

As of the Kabul Conference on July 20, 2010, the UN has given Karzai until 2014 to ensure Afghanis can provide their own security. This extension has other implications. For one, the long established Canadian withdrawal date of  December 2011 now looks premature. Maybe my sister's friend was even more rightfully sobbing. As of July 2014 my nephew will be 15--old enough to join up; not old enough for combat. A lot closer, though, than my sister anticipated in late 2001.

What are your impressions of the current policy on the Afghanistan War?
Is your country involved in combat operations?
Do you know anyone who has served in Afghanistan? What are their impressions?
Do you know anyone who has suffered from PTSD in any war? Were they adequately treated?
Do they have ongoing sequellae?
Have you seen the documentary film Restrepo?
What are your impressions of the documentary film?
How well, or not, do the analogies to Vietnam and Cambodia hold?
One thing not addressed here are charges of abuse of detainees, or knowingly handing detainees over for torture, on the part of both the Canadian and British forces. This may explain further the concerns of the Afghani elders in Restrepo about "disappeared" youth from the villages. Your thoughts?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?

Coming next...Afghanistan: 9 Years and Counting--Part II Is it worth it? The Doha Debates Chez Chiara


Susanne said...

How fitting that I read this post just as I am reading Greg Mortenson's second book where he is talking MUCH about Afghanistan. Such a great work he is doing AND in a culturally-appropriate way. Thanks for this interesting post!

Saudi Jawa said...

Afghanistan has become, to me, something of a black hole. Sucking light from everything. I just can't see any way for things to get better over there.

Chiara said...

Susanne and Saudi Jawa--thank you for your comments and sharing your views here. I will probably "return to Afghanistan" given that so much is happening (and not happening) there! :(
Thanks again to both for your comments! :)


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