Sunday, May 3, 2009

Barack Obama, Warlord

Didn't think that Winston Churchill and Barack Obama had anything in common? Well, you'd be wrong there. As it happens, for both men, their first military command of troops comes very close to the same spot on our troubled globe.

Obama has committed some 22,000 new soldiers to southern Afghanistan making it his first deployment of troops as commander in chief. For Obama, Afghanistan is the "right" war, not the "distraction" that Iraq is. I doubt this distinction makes much difference to the U.S. soldiers deployed there or Al Quaeda in Iraq trying to kill them, but I digress. This new commitment of troops is supposed to stabilize a shaky regime in Kabul and give them time to organize an army, a police force, judicial system etc . . . The broad scope and large numbers of troops are much different from the deployment of a brash young Lieutenant W.L.S. Churchill. While Obama is understandably much more cautious about continuing a war by a man his followers revile, Churchill was rushing to meet his ambition. The revolt of the Mullah of Swat in, yes, the recently turbulent Swat Valley, signaled a golden opportunity for young Churchill or so he thought. War in Pakistan was a means to a very personal end: a political career.

For Obama, ambition is also extremely important. War has been a very profitable means to an end for him. His opposition to the Iraq War aided greatly his drive for the Democratic nomination. While Churchill's youthful glory seeking made obvious the downside to his ambition, the dark side of Obama's is rather more complex. Having now tied himself to this war, will he see it through? Or will he cut and run for political gain just before the election in 2012? The answer is not clear.

This is a man who denied the success of the surge in Iraq and then admitting it's success still held it was the wrong thing to do in the first place. Obama's implied message that it is better to lose a war than win it is chilling. That an officer, general or commander in chief would rather lose a conflict than win it shows a massive cynical canyon between the leader and those who must follow orders. The grunts who serve become nothing more than push pins on a map somewhere. One hopes Obama could grow to understand what is necessary in war, so lives aren't thrown away recklessly. Obama has bragged about his perseverance. That is about to be tested. As Alexander Hamilton stated, "War, like most other things is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perseverance, by time, and by practice." The advantage here is that the force Obama will command has had much practice, as Hamilton would call it, in the last six years. The troops are tested as their commander in chief is not, much like Churchill arriving at the hot dusty HQ in the Malakand Pass.

Churchill left his unit in India to join the Malakand Field Force commanded by Sir Bindon Blood. This action during the summer of 1897 consisted of a British force of "about two thousand men, mostly Indian army troops commanded by white officers, matched against some twelve thousand Pathans." The goal of relieving forts in jeopardy and dispatching any hostiles was to lead to restoration of control by the British.

This assertion of control in Malakand started uneventfully, but duly escalated into a nineteenth century version of search and destroy. As Churchill wrote, "we proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation." Not too surprisingly, the fiercely independent tribesman (a description that applies today) struck back. As Churchill's unit became spread out over a large valley floor, a roiling Pathan assault issued from the hills. Forced to retreat and to abandon their wounded, which the Pathans promptly hacked to pieces, Churchill's unit found a defensible position to repel the attack. Churchill himself used a rifle and wrote " . . . I think I hit 4 men. At any rate they fell."

The glory seeker had a new perspective to view armed struggle. It's doubtful Barack Obama will get this view. However, with the modern communications revolution, the savagery of war may not be as far away as it once was for those who command from afar. Churchill sensed this gap in perception between those who fought and those far from the killing. Writing to his grandmother, he reflected " I wonder if people in England have any idea of the warfare that is being carried on here . . . no quarter is ever asked or given. The tribesmen torture the wounded & mutilate the dead. The troops never spare a man who falls into their hands-whether he be wounded or not . . . I wish I could come to the conclusion that all this barbarity-all these loses-all this expenditure-had resulted in a permanent settlement being obtained, I do not think however that anything has been done-that will not have to be done again."

In this light, what is the path to victory in Afghanistan? Notice how victory is not mentioned in this war. If no victory, then what is the timetable for withdrawal? What are the benchmarks of success, Mr. President?

Afghanistan is barely mentioned. You'd think with neighboring nuclear Pakistan teetering on the brink of disintegration and the deployment of 22,000 troops next door, a major speech by the President would be in the offing, to set goals, chart a course and bolster a flagging ally, but none seems forthcoming. When it comes to war, Barack Obama seems to prefer to lead in silence. He can fly to Iraq and bask in glow of security largely provide by his predecessor, Bush, but he seems to have little to offer when it comes to Afghanistan. Whether he's experienced or not, the warlord Obama must make his case or else "all these loses" will serve no purpose and may in fact have to be "done again."

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