Friday, June 06, 2014

Seeing eye to eye on Afghanistan: Bowe Bergdahl and Robert Gates

Five days before his disappearance, Bowe Bergdahl poured out his disillusionment with the US effort in Afghanistan in a long email to his parents, quoted at length in Michael Hastings' June 2012 profile. It included this indictment:
In the second-to-last paragraph of the e-mail, Bowe wrote about his broader disgust with America's approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the "hearts and minds" of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists. "I am sorry for everything here," Bowe told his parents. "These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live." He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP. "We don't even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks... We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them."
Does that sound harsh? Compare Robert Gates' account in Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War of how he saw the U.S. war effort at just about exactly the same point, the summer of 2009:

As I thought about the tipping point, it seemed to me we had several vulnerabilities with the Afghan population. One was civilian casualties; every incident was a strategic defeat, often caused and always manipulated by the Taliban and then magnified by Karzai. Another was our thoughtless treatment of the Afghans in routine encounters, including U.S. and coalition military vehicles barreling down the roads scattering animals and scaring people. We often disrespected their culture or Islam and failed to cultivate their elders. We collaborated with Afghan officials who were ripping off ordinary citizens. In Kabul and all over the country, we and our coalition partners, as well as nongovernmental organizations, far too routinely decided what development projects to undertake without consulting the Afghans, much less working with or through them on what they wanted and needed. Was it any wonder that Karzai and others complained they had no authority in their own country? Or that even reasonably honest and competent Afghan officials got no respect from their fellow citizens? (Kindle locations 6511-6517)
Gates may have felt that the prisoner exchange just effected, already on the table while he was still Secretary of Defense, was not in the national interest. But given his vaunted empathy for U.S. soldiers in the war zones, I imagine he can empathize fully with Bergdahl's trauma and anguish.

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