Saturday, October 17, 2009

General McChrystal, the gentler gamester

As chronicled in this week's Times Magazine profile, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, is taking the current counterinsurgency imperative to win hearts and minds to a new level:

In his first weeks on the job, McChrystal issued directives instructing his men on how to comport themselves with Afghans (“Think of how you would expect a foreign army to operate in your neighborhood, among your families and your children, and act accordingly”); how to fight (“Think of counterinsurgency as an argument to win the support of the people”); even how to drive (“in ways that respect the safety and well-being of the Afghan people”). At the heart of McChrystal’s strategy are three principles: protect the Afghan people, build an Afghan state and make friends with whomever you can, including insurgents. Killing the Taliban is now among the least important things that are expected of NATO soldiers.

The approach to occupation is not exactly new. Compare Shakespeare's Henry V in the midst of his campaign to assert his sovereignty over France, approving the execution of his former friend Bardolph for stealing a holy tablet:
We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we
give express charge, that in our marches through the
country, there be nothing compelled from the
villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the
French upbraided or abused in disdainful language;
for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the
gentler gamester is the soonest winner (III. vi. 107-113).
Henry did eventually win effective sovereignty over France, though he died before he could be crowned, and his adversary the French-born Charles VII was crowned in 1429 (thanks to the galvanizing tactics of mujahideen Joan of Arc), fourteen years after Henry's first invasion. The Brits were driven out for good in 1453 -- 38 years after this order to win hearts and minds was allegedly delivered in Picardy.

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