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December 9, 2009

Obama's strategy in Afghanistan - ignorance is bliss

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Guerrilla warfare is nothing new.

Goths, Celts and others used it against the Roman Empire. The Spanish used it against France during the Napoleonic wars. American revolutionaries used it against the British. Vietnamese used it against the Americans.

Guerrilla warfare is also the natural military response of any nation to an occupation army, which has superior killing technology. Guerrilla forces avoid direct engagements, and instead use ambushes and skirmishes to sap the enemy’s power.

Eventually, the armies withdraw and negotiate a political solution, but never admit defeat.

Now, guerrilla warfare is being used by the Taliban against the 140,000 American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

If this is a textbook case of an army fighting a guerrilla force, why did Barack Obama not withdraw his forces, instead of sending in more?

“The 30,000 additional troops that I am announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010, at the fastest pace possible, so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centres,” he said on December 1.

What will the extra 30,000 troops do that the 70,000 on the ground could not during the last eight years? Here’s what Obama wants us to believe:

“They will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011 [while] taking into account conditions on the ground.”

Obama went on: “It will be clear to the Afghan government—and, more importantly, to the Afghan people—that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country... I want the Afghan people to understand—America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country.”

The president also asked for more troops from other NATO countries, and that includes Canada, I suppose.

Unlike previous wars against guerrilla forces, however, we know next to nothing about the Afghan people. Just as knowing an individual requires knowing his or her upbringing, career etc, to know a people you must know its history, values and dreams.

Out of 3,773 Canadian federally funded political science research projects over the last 10 years, only nine were about Afghanistan and none about the Taliban.

Moreover, there is no academic research about the Taliban as a political student movement, its guerrilla operations, or its ranks, and there is no government encouragement in the U.S. or Canada to conduct any.

In the case of Vietnam, the situation was different.

The guerrillas and their war against the U.S. were both the subjects of intensive social science studies. About Afghanistan, all we hear is political propaganda and superficial media reports of how they hate the West and oppress women.

Ignorance is bliss. I guess Western governments, including Canada’s, believe that what we don’t know won’t hurt us.

It’s easy to give Obama’s strategy a chance and see what will happen in the next 18 months.

But the sad story is this: more Afghans will be killed in undeclared numbers during this time including women and children along with young soldiers from Western countries who will never know whom they have killed.

Dr Mohamed Elmasry is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at  

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