Winners Lose

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

The situation in Afghanistan is serious. We’re getting “out-governed” by an enemy so ruthless it’s bringing services to a desperate people ignored by the legitimate government we installed.

But our eight-year quagmire . . . excuse me, war . . . can still be won, says Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in that country, who recently completed a review of the situation: “Success,” he commented, “is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort.”

Before I salute crisply and shout “yes, sir!” I’d like to quote from an essay by Robert E. Draper called “Keys to Real Success — Going Beyond ‘Winning’ and ‘Losing’ in Business With a Positive Attitude.” I’m stuck, see, on the concept of “winning” this war, because human intelligence has mostly moved beyond this concept in every area of life except international relations, which remains a multi-trillion-dollar global bastion of Bronze Age thinking.

“It is important,” writes Draper, “to first realize that success, as most businesspeople know it, is always trailed by the shadow of the fear of failure and, therefore, is not real success at all. That’s because real success cannot be found in a ‘winning’ that includes a potential for loss. . . .

“To succeed at work requires adopting the mindset . . . of good card players,” he goes on. “Like them, you play not for occasional fits of excitement, but to survive. This requires that you give long-range thinking priority in your mind, and that you never perceive a current gain that will be trailed by a long-term loss to be acceptable or even attractive.”

OK, let’s jump now to a refugee camp in Kabul, where journalist Norman Solomon introduces us to a 7-year-old girl named Guljumma Khan, who lost her arm in a U.S. bombing raid, and whose father has gotten nowhere trying to get redress or the least support from the United States, the United Nations or the Afghan government to obtain medical assistance for her or take care of his family.

Furthermore, Solomon writes, “Basics like food arrive at the camp only sporadically.” The girl’s father “pointed to a plastic bag containing a few pounds of rice. It was his responsibility to divide the rice for the 100 families” in the refugee camp.

“Is the U.S. government willing to really help Guljumma, who now lives each day and night in the squalor of a refugee camp?” asks Solomon. “Is the government willing to spend the equivalent of the cost of a single warhead to assist her?”

Morally speaking, what to do is remarkably obvious, graspable by virtually every human being on the planet, even, I believe, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. When pressed by reporters following news of the McChrystal report’s completion, Gates said, according to Reuters, that “any recommendation for more forces would have to address his concerns that the foreign military presence in Afghanistan could become too large and be seen by Afghans as a hostile occupying force.”

There are 103,000 U.S./NATO troops in Afghanistan now; the country has been bombed (15,000 tons and counting) and occupied for eight years, with maybe 8,000 civilians killed in the process (God knows how many wedding parties bombed and strafed), many more injured and displaced — and the U.S. secretary of defense feels we’re pushing the limits of Afghan tolerance. Up the troop ante and they’ll think we’re a hostile presence.

Well, Team Bush never equivocated in its Bronze Age ferocity. Maybe, I initially thought, Gates’ flicker of intelligent uncertainty — his feint in the direction of sanity — can be counted as progress, not by the desperate and starving Afghans, perhaps, but by the Obama voting base. So far, this is the extent of the “change” and “hope” we’ve gotten from his administration in the ongoing, disastrous wars of choice he inherited.

Because the Taliban, with a counter-agenda to advance, is incorporating a hearts-and-minds approach into its strategy for victory, the U.S. and NATO are grasping that they have to do likewise. So, on second thought, it’s probably not moral progress at all, just further evidence that anonymous geocorporate interests control international relations.

When our leaders, even those who promise peace, sit in the driver’s seat of war, they surrender their ordinary humanity — their consciences — and assume the mindset and agenda of those anonymous interests. In Afghanistan, this agenda includes regional dominance, the flow of oil (the pipeline) and, as with every war, the stoking of the military economy. This is what “winning” in Afghanistan really means — armless 7-year-olds be damned — and McChrystal is right. It’s still possible. Even probable.

War commands debate on its own terms. Read or listen to the mainstream coverage: It conveys the details of war in a context devoid of moral intelligence. Yet for ordinary humanity, wars can never be “won.” They can only be ended and, ultimately, transcended.