Ultimately, the United States can succeed in Afghanistan (whatever that means) if, and only if, we are able to convince the Afghan people that the outcome we favor is one that they support as well. That is the gist of the battle for the hearts and minds of men as it applies to the Afghan war. If our goals and theirs are different, the war will go on indefinitely until the will of one side or the other is exhausted. Afghan history tells us elegantly which side is likely to say “uncle” first (hint: it is not the Afghans).
Three things happened in the last week in Afghanistan to suggest that this aspect of the war is not going so well as hoped by American officialdom. First, the United States announced that it was going to abandon an outpost in the hinterlands that it had occupied for nearly a year, because the security situation had not improved there. Translated, that means the locals were not converted to supporting our mission and the prospects that conversion would occur anytime soon was minimal or non-existent. Not good.
Second, the next target of the surge, Kandahar, had the kind of incident that undermines the process of conversion: the machine-gunning of a civilian bus in the city that the American troops who attacked it believed might be hostile. Four people were killed, and more injured. These things happen in war, of course, but they are intolerable in counterinsurgency, because they breed hatred and distrust for whoever commits these kinds of acts (in this case, us). Kandahar is, of course, Hamid Karzai’s home town, and he had already said he would not approve an American operation there unless he had the approval of the residents of the city. The incident did not improve the likelihood that residents would welcome the Americans.
General Stanley McChrystal, the ISAF commander, appropriately went ballistic when he learned of the attack and issued the ultimate punishment to the troops: forcing them to listen to a briefing on proper protocol in these kinds of situations (anyone who has ever involuntarily been forced to sit through one of these knows what I mean by calling it ultimate punishment). The point, of course, is that the orientation needed in these kinds of situations has not really permeated the troops. Soldiers, after all, are trained to kill people and break things; learning how to be political persuaders is not a reason most soldiers sign up. The question this raises is whether we are constitutionally capable of doing this kind of work.
The third incident was actually part of the general refrain of corruption within the Karzai government. The United States has hitched its star to Karzai (I was personally amused by Fareed Zakaria’s defense of him in this week’s Newsweek: the alternatives are likely worse). It is clear that a sizable part of the population views the current regime as a bunch of crooks (quite perceptive on their parts). If the better state of the peace favored by the United States means embracing a kleptocracy, what should we believe the Afghans will agree with us?
All this, of course, is really just part of the larger, more fundamental problem the United States has in Afghanistan (or similar circumstances). We are, like to say it or not, foreign occupiers, and whatever our other virtues, some people will not like us and will resist us–violently–for that reason alone. There is no evidence of which I am aware that outsiders ever win the battle for the hearts and minds of an occupied people. Even trying to do so is almost certainly a fool’s errand. When you screw up along the way, you only make matters worse.
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations and national security topics. This essay was originally published at his blog What After Iraq? Photo credit: Getty Images.