Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Lobbin' Bombs

I'm starting to feel real despair about this country's chances of dealing effectively and sensibly with the threat of global terror. The latest straw on this camel's sagging back comes from Bajaur, a Pakistani village near the Afghan border.

So, by now everybody who pays any attention to the news has heard that US missile strikes launched from Afghanistan killed 18 people in Bajaur. The strikes reportedly targeted--and missed--al-Qaeda's number two commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Locals are saying the strikes hit innocent civilians. Locals are furious. Pakistani government officials are furious too, or at least they're pretending to be furious because most of their "citizens" (subjects) are furious and because those citizens already didn't like the dictatorial, pro-US government.

Now, it's possible that Pakistan's Prime Minister (dictator) did secretly authorize that particular strike or such strikes in general but now can't admit it because his citizens would try to kill him even more often than they already do. And it's possible that the strike did hit some sort of al-Qaeda facility even if it didn't get al-Zawahiri. The locals probably wouldn't admit it if we had. So maybe those killed weren't innocent civilians.

But they probably were, at least some of them. You don't blow up buildings in a village without at least a risk--if not a likelihood--of civilian casualties.

Some people will say, okay, that's a bummer, but that's war. Yes, that is war. But the struggle against terror is not a war, at least not what we understand as war. For millennia war has involved a group of people living in a geographic region engaged in deadly conflict with another group of people living in another geographic region. That's not what we have here, not really. There's only been one place in which al-Qaeda has had a real physical presence and a strongly cooperative relationship with a nation. That was Afghanistan. We took care of that.

So now Al-Qaeda is exclusively a shadowy presence distributed across a number of nations, almost universally illegal even in those places where some of the populace sympthizes with it. Pakistan is one of those places, and its dubiously legitimate government is our ally in the struggle against terror. So we're not at war with Pakistan. What gives us the right to launch strikes against it without its official consent? (And this one wasn't the first--there had already been several in recent months.)

Let's imagine ourselves on the other end of this. A huge problem in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua these days is the growth of gangs. Those gangs are organized and led in large part by young men who went illegally to the US, joined gangs there, got arrested, got jailed, and then got deported back to their home countries. Back home, these trained, hardened, and almost unassimilable criminals pose a real and growing threat to law and order, maybe even to government rule. Let's say, then, that the struggling proto-democracy of Guatemala--still shaky after a bloody and recently ended civil war--were to decide that the gangs have become too violent to contain via normal police action. The Guatemalan government already understands the gangs for what they are--international criminal and terrorist organizations with no real allegiance to any one nation. So let's say that Guatemala's government decided that the best way to fight terror at home would be to fight it abroad. How would Americans feel if Guatemala started selectively bombing Los Angeles in pursuit of the gang leaders? Especially if those bombings started killing non-gangbangers? And if we found out that the US government had secretly authorized the bombings, how would feel about our government?

We'd be pissed, that's how we'd feel. In any and all of those cases, we'd be enraged. Almost nobody in America supports those gangs, which wreak havoc here as well. Almost everybody would like to see them put out of business. But even so we'd be furious if somebody else bombed us to get at the gangs. We'd feel that no matter what the gangs had done in Guatemala, the Guatemalan government still didn't have the damn right to bomb our cities. More than a few Congresspeople would want to declare war. President Bush probably wouldn't even wait for that declaration before calling in airstrikes on Guatemala City.

So why on earth would we assume that the Pakistanis--many of whom for whatever reasons see al-Qaeda as way more legitimate organization than we see these international gangs--will tolerate our bombing their country? How long will Pakistan remain our ostensible ally if we keep this craziness up? Do we dare find out? If Pakistan stops being our ally, it'll almost certainly be because fundamenalist Islamist anti-government forces depose Prime Minister Musharraf and set up their own government. And, you'll remember, Pakistan has nukes. Now, I ain't no expert, but it seems like maybe it's a bad idea to fight Islamist extremism by pursuing a strategy that greatly enhances the likelihood of Islamic extremists taking control of a country with 160 million grumpy people and an arsenal of nukes.

The strikes on Bajaur show what's been clear since the neocons starting using terrorism as a pretext for invading Iraq: thinking about the struggle against terror as a war is an inaccurate and counterproductive way to think. To win the struggle, outright military action is only one--and by no means the primary--tool we should be using. In fact, military force is usually a jackhammer when a screwdriver is called for. Yes, we need to have some of our highly trained and dedicated military personnel ready and able to engage in tactical strikes. But, as the Bajaur episode illustrates, we need other things way more urgently. We need reliable intelligence, real international cooperation, and a powerful, expensive involvement in bettering the lives of ordinary Muslims across the globe.

Those three are all interconnected. We'll get better intelligence from other governments if they like us and trust what we'll do with it. (If I were, say, Pakistan, I'm not sure I'd tell the US anything about extremists operating in my borders because I'd know that it would likely lead to more dubiously accurate bombings.) And if we behave responsibly and respectfully, we'll also get better intelligence from the citizens of other countries--and lord knows we need human intelligence; we'd be in much better shape if the mere idea of talking to the CIA (or to local police who talk to the CIA) didn't seem so treasonous and anti-Islamic that only the most opportunistic and unreliable people ever do so. (Think Ahmed Chalabi.) And that sort of attitudal shift will come more more easily and dramatically if Americans were to stop dropping bombs into poor villages and start dropping doctors, food supplies, aid workers, etc. instead.

From a moral point of view, it's always better not to kill people if you can avoid it. From a practical point of view, it makes sense to allocate one's resources with maximal effectiveness. For example, a Tomahawk cruise missile costs anywhere from $0.5 million to $1.2 million (not including the personnel and support costs to maintain firing readiness and targeting capacity). But it only costs $6,000 dollars per year to send a student to Dow Medical College, Pakistan's best (and internationally respected) medical school. So for every Tomahawk missile we toss into rural Pakistan, we could also pay for the full training of at least 25 Pakistani doctors who could go to those same villages. Or 18 doctors and 25 nurses. Or, hell, we could help fund rural schools that taught Math 202, Science 303, and History 404 rather than Death to America 101.

In fact, at those prices, for the $300 billion or so that the war in Iraq (where there was no meaningful al-Qaeda until we destabilized the country and opened the borders to al-Qaeda), we could have paid for the following: fully training 1.15 million doctors, 2.3 million nurses, 40 new medical/nursing schools (at $75 million ea.), the doctors' salaries for 30 years, the nurses' salaries for 30 years, and the new schools' $50 million annual budgets for 30 years. If we'd started doing that that in 2003 rather than invading Iraq, there would already be be thousands of nurses and doctors saving lives and improving health across the Muslim world.

Now, it probably wouldn't make sense--or even be possible--to actually train that many doctors in such a short period of time. Some infrastructure and job training money would probably do as much good. But a combination of meaningful health care, food aid, job training, and infrastucture construction really would help. Consider, for example, that so many people in Latin American countries feel better about Fidel Castro than do most Americans in large part because Cuba trains and exports doctors who work well and cheaply in impoverished areas of Latin America (and beyond).

This country's struggle against terrorism is ultimately a hearts and minds campaign, and bombs are of only very limited use in that kind of campaign. If you discount the blood and sweat in every taxpayer dollar that goes into every weapon used abroad, it's easy enough to bomb people. It's much harder to bomb the right people. And it's preyy much impossible to bomb people until they like you. And we need most of the Islamic world to like, or at least tolerate us, so that they can help us hunt down and jail those who hate us so much they're willing to plan our violent deaths.


For what it's worth, Pakistani officials are now saying that there were probably 4 or 5 "foreign terrorists" among those killed.


At 11:43 PM , Anonymous Blue Cross of California said...

Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system as we are in a major crisis and health insurance is a major aspect to many.


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