Thursday, July 4, 2013

Stealing a child’s future

OF all the forms of education, war is the costliest. Children may or may not learn their lessons; nations never do. In that sense, history as a teacher has failed.
No better example can be found than the battleground known as Afghanistan — that harsh, inhospitable country which offers its own nationals (or any foreign invader) nothing better than what Winston Churchill offered in another context, “blood, toil, tears and sweat”.
No one understood the futility of war more keenly than Churchill’s wartime ally the American general Dwight D. Eisenhower. A five-star general, he had served as the supreme Allied commander during the Second World War before making the transition from military command to civilian democracy. By becoming the 34th president of the United States, Eisenhower unwittingly provided a role model for a platoon of ambitious Third World military chiefs who saw military rule and civilian government simply as opposite sides of the same convertible coin of governance.
Eisenhower’s unimpeachable war record gave him the authority to admit what few military leaders would ever have dared question in public — the justifiability of war. Speaking in 1946, while still in uniform, he confessed to a Canadian audience: “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
Perhaps it was Eisenhower’s expression of saddened humanism that inspired the Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson. When, a decade later, Pearson received the Nobel Peace Prize, he included in his acceptance speech the admission: “The grim fact is that we prepare for war like precocious giants and for peace like retarded pygmies.”
Putting aside the morality of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to institutions whose job it is to maintain peace (UN and its agencies, 2001, 1981, 1988, etc), or to persons who pursued war with misplaced virility (Henry Kissinger, 1973) or who have never brokered a peace (Barack Obama, 2009), Pearson’s observation described pithily the brash arrogance with which countries start wars and then the sterile penitence with which they seek to end them.
The recent visit of the British prime minister David Cameron to Afghanistan and to Pakistan brought to the fore misgivings many persons actively responsible for waging such a war have nurtured, and now felt impelled to express.
For example, Gen Nick Carter, deputy commander of the Nato-led coalition forces, said publicly that an opportunity to bring peace in Afghanistan had been lost in 1992: “At that stage, if we had been prescient, we might have spotted that a final political solution ... would have involved getting all Afghans to sit at the table and talk about their future.” In his opinion, Afghanistan’s problems were political issues that could only be resolved “by people talking to each other”.
It is a sign of the times that Gen Carter was permitted the freedom not only to make such a candid disclosure but to retain his command despite it. Less than two years ago, in November 2011, a senior US commander Gen Peter Fuller was relieved summarily of his duties for criticising President Hamid Karzai. He accused him and other Afghan leaders of being “isolated from reality”. Carter was particularly irked at Karzai’s ingratitude after Karzai suggested that if Pakistan went to war with the US, Afghanistan (after swallowing and digesting over $12 billion of aid) would side with Pakistan.
A year from now, give or take a few blood-sodden months and countless uncounted deaths, the Western forces in Afghanistan will have withdrawn. However, the war in Afghanistan will not have ended. There will be no consequential peace in Afghanistan in the conventional sense. It will simply have entered into a new phase. Like some simmering Irish stew in which fresh ingredients are added from time to time, there will simply be a change in the mix, a darkening of the faces and complexion of the combatants.
For the Nato forces driven by a US engine, the withdrawal will come 11 years too late and at the cost of too many casualties. For the Russians, it will be sweet, overdue revenge for their defeat in the same battleground. For the Afghans, it will provide an opportunity for a political free-for-all, where the winner takes all — and more. For Pakistan, the portents are ominous. Until now, we have been the conduit for conveying fuel to foreign forces fighting in Afghanistan. We can now expect the combustion to be shipped in the opposite direction.
If there is any lesson history has taught nations, it is that no country can afford to wage war and simultaneously work towards the economic well-being of its citizens. It certainly cannot, what we are doing, wage war against its own citizens.
Gradually, we seem to be sinking deeper into a mire of our own indecision, into a morass of failed intentions. National dreams degenerate into private regrets; national priorities remain the dry Plimsoll line of aspirations that will never be reached.
If the past is another country, the future is an uncharted continent, an unmapped world populated by today’s youth and tomorrow’s unborn. It is their cause that Gen Eisenhower, by then president, advocated: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”


Post a Comment