The Peace Prize in a Time of War: 10 Questions   (October 13, 2009)

In a time of war, the Nobel peace Prize is already old news. Perhaps that is more significant than the prize itself. Here are 10 questions.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize has already been parsed by pundits of all stripes and is thus now "old news" as the hot war in Afghanistan fades to "background news."

The disconnect between the awarding of the Nobel peace Prize to a U.S. president leading two hot wars is painfully obvious, and so pundits of all political stripes have been scurrying for meaningful context.

For instance, here is Peggy Noonan's rather predictable take: A Wicked and Ignorant Award (Love your balanced polemic, Peg-baby!)

Dimitry Orlov checked in with a stimulating analysis suggesting the prize marks Obama as America's Gorbachev: Obama Wins Gorbachev's Peace Prize (courtesy of correspondent Craig M.)

It seems evident that the committee members were seeking a "big" political "message" with their prize--after all, what impact will a "big prestigious prize" have if it goes to a complete unknown?--and the global political establishment very badly wanted to disavow the Bush era's claim to the U.S. right to unilateral pre-emptive war.

Sadly for the committee, every high-profile candidate who worked diligently for years promoting some peace project has already received the prize, so the committee settled on President Obama as an excellent symbol of a new American resolve to pursue diplomacy.

Unfortunately, the committee forgot that war is merely diplomacy by other means. Or as Carl von Clausewitz so famously noted, "war is merely the continuation of politics (or policy) by other means."

On the same day that headlines blared the surprise Nobel Peace Prize, lesser headlines announced contingency plans to send 40,000 to 60,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

The irony of these headlines sharing the same page is nearly beyond measure.

So President Obama's campaign rhetoric about the value of diplomacy and working with our allies and enemies alike (blah blah blah) is rewarded by the global establishment even as the actual policies of the administration are a continuation of unilateral pre-emptive military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I don't fault the administration's "proceed cautiously" policy in pursuing both hot wars; caution is well warranted when situations are volatile and complex. But on the other hand, I certainly don't want to see our friend in the Marine Corps shipped to some dicey posting in Afganistan. If he were killed, his wife widowed and his two kids left fatherless, was the "global war on terror" being played out in Afganistan worth it?

Some will say yes, because the forces of terror might once again use Afghanistan as a base for a deadly strike on the U.S. mainland.

But let's stipulate that this sort of speculation is extremely easy as long as it's not your family member being shipped into harm's way.

I have a few questions to pose on the GWOT (global war on terrorism) premise for the U.S. engaging in a hot war for control of Afghanistan:

1. Is Afghanistan even a country by the usual definition, or it is a polyglot assembly of tribal areas arbitrarily labeled a "nation" for simplicity's sake?

2. Do "nation-building" and national elections make any sort of sense in Afghanistan from a cultural (anthropological/historical) perspective?

3. If we're spending $100 billion+ a year in intelligence collection and black-ops combatting global terror, then do we need a full-fledged hot war to do the same task?

4. Since the Taliban leadership is non-Afghan (i.e. Arab), exactly what is the nature of the Taliban's Afghan support (if any)?

5. Who funds the Taliban, and can the money sources be disrupted via asymmetric means?

6. Since Iran is burdened with 1+ million Afghan refugees, do they have a motivation to seek a stable Afghanistan? If so, what is their idea of achieving that goal?

7. What do the C.I.A. operatives who worked in Afghanistan throughout the late 1970s Soviet incursion see as the U.S. stake, and what strategy/tactics do they see as being most likely to protect U.S. interests (if any)?

8. What do the C.I.A. operatives and Special Forces leaders (the on-the-ground officers) who have served in Afghanistan for the past eight years see as the U.S. stake, and what strategy/tactics do they see as being most likely to protect U.S. interests (if any)?

9. Rather than attempt a Vietnam-like "clear and hold" strategy, are there effective asymmetric-warfare ways to disrupt the Taliban's command and control of its own "secure" regions using Afghan Resistance forces?

I am wary of Afghan-Vietnam parallels for many reasons--revisionist histories are remarkably easy to construct--but here is a good overview of one such parallel currently being drawn: The Real Afghan Lessons From Vietnam: The 'clear and hold' strategy of Gen. Creighton Abrams was working in South Vietnam. Then Congress pulled the plug on funding.

10. Since Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran all have "interests" in a stable or unstable Afghanistan, what are their motivations, incentives and views? Do they prefer an unstable Afghanistan? If so, why? If they prefer a stable Afghanistan, what skin are they willing to put in the geopolitical "game"?

If we collectively had some answers (even partial, incomplete ones riven by dissent from knowledgeable, experienced people) to these ten questions, we might be better placed to decide if we as a nation have any interests in maintaining a full Army in Afghanistan and if the lives of our soldiers are being risked for not just a good cause but an absolutely essential one.

"Peace" is a cheap word, easily tossed around. Global War on Terror is a phrase that covers threats real and imagined alike. "National interest" hides all sorts of hidden agendas behind the velvet cloak of patriotism.

As for the Nobel peace prize, perhaps it should have gone to Sir Paul McCartney for his contributions to the longstanding campaign to ban landmines. Yes, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines received the Nobel peace Prize in 1997, but if the committee wanted to award the prize to a celebrity then perhaps Sir Paul is as deserving as a newly minted U.S. President engaged in two hot wars.

But that wouldn't have accomplished the same "repudiating war without actually repudiating war" message, would it?

Here are some relevant books to consider:

7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century

First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan

When Giants Fall: An Economic Roadmap for the End of the American Era

On Vietnam:

Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington

About Face/the Odyssey of an American Warrior


Prisoner of War: Six Years in Hanoi

On Iraq:

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey by V.S. Naipaul

What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis

A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin

Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America by Michael Scheuer

The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace by Ali A. Allawi

Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (American Empire Project) by Chalmers Johnson

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks

Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War by Michael Isikoff and David Corn

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror by Robert Young Pelton

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror by Michael Scheuer

State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward

On War:

The Rhythm of War by Terence Parker

Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson

The Art Of War by Sun Tzu

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