Hearts and Minds: Tale of 2 generals in Afghanistan

The following article by Akbar Ahmed was first published on the Washington Post “On Faith” website.

With the rumors of secret meetings between Gen.l Kayani, commander of Pakistan’s armed forces, Gen. Pasha, the head of the Pakistani ISI, Afghan president Hamid Karzi, and prominent Taliban commander Haqqani, it seems that a post-American scenario in Afghanistan is taking shape.

The fact that Haqqani was in the company of the President of Afghanistan is a hint of the shape of things to come as the major players in the region plan for an eventual withdrawal of US forces.

Perhaps the catalyst for these meetings was the dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Fortunately for America, he is being replaced by one of the country’s best military men, Gen. David Petraeus.

Despite President Obama’s contention that U.S. policy in Afghanistan remain the same despite the change of commanders, the reality is the differences between the two men will ensure a different approach. Although both field commanders have been successful in establishing a rapport with Afghans, McChrystal tends to rely on his heart, Petraeus falls back on his mind. The former understands and plays on emotion, the latter intellect.

But McChrystal and Petraeus are rare birds. Few Americans see the world as they do.

I have spent the past two years trying to understand American society through a research project which looked at the identity of America through the lens of the Muslim community which culminated in the recently released book, “Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam” (Brookings, July 2010). Before conducting this “Journey into America”, perhaps I would not have been able to make much sense of the difference between these two generals. Now I think I can. I believe that understanding American society has helped me understand U.S. relations with the Muslim world in a more nuanced and sophisticated way.

Gen. McChrystal is reflecting an atavistic tradition which perhaps comes from his background in the Scots-Irish American culture.

This Scots-Irish influence is apparent in everything we see and hear about McChrystal–from his legendary toughness to his fierce loyalty to both his soldiers and the United States, which included his willingness to fight alongside the ordinary soldier. A suspicion and defiance of authority, another Scots-Irish trait deriving from their centuries of struggle with the English, would lead to McChrystal’s undoing.

The Scots who immigrated to America, mostly via Ulster in Northern Ireland, were profoundly tribal, fiercely independent, and adhered to codes of honor, revenge, and clan loyalty. Arriving in America, they sought to maintain their independence while adopting American identity as their new “tribe.”

The Scots were deeply mistrustful of authority especially heeding the dictates of “out of touch” governments be they run by English monarchs or American Federal officials who they deemed to be lacking in honor.

Who better way to define the Scottish code of honor than the famed eighteenth-century Scotsman Rob Roy, explaining it to his son in the 1995 film Rob Roy:

Son: Father, will the MacGregors ever be kings again?
Rob Roy: All men with honor are kings–but not all kings have honor.
Son: What is honor?
Rob Roy: Honor is what no man can give you, and no one can take it away. Honor is a man’s gift to himself.
Son: Do women have it?
Rob Roy: Women are the heart of honor–and we cherish and protect them. You must never mistreat a woman, or malign a man. Or stand by and see another do so.
Son: How do you know if you have it?
Rob Roy: Never worry in the getting of it. It grows in you and speaks to you. All you need to do is listen.

This culture has much in common with that of the Pashtun tribesmen that I grew to know so well in my days in charge of Waziristan. I found that the more you respect their culture and show them honor, the more they will respect you. US policy for the last nine years has not done this effectively. But McChrystal changed the paradigm and honored the tribesmen, he was emphatic that they be shown “dignity” and “respect.” In doing so, he began to attract them away from the Taliban.

In contrast, Gen. Petraeus has a Dutch background and has struggled hard to identify with and now live the American dream. He has a PhD from Princeton and would be as comfortable at the Brookings Institution or London’s Chatham House as he is in the dusty plains and remote mountains of Afghanistan. He is that rare breed–a top-notch academic and soldier.

Both have a great rapport where it matters in Kabul and Islamabad. In an unprecedented show of support, President Karzai publicly requested that President Obama let Gen. McChrystal stay on in Afghanistan–until he heard of McChrystal’s replacement.

In terms of the end game in Afghanistan, who is the more relevant commander? It has to be Petraeus because he is, above all, an intellectual who sees clearly the Great Game–the rivalry of superpowers in the region–and knows how to play it. America is fortunate to have Petraeus available and willing to take what is technically a demotion.

Petraeus’ head for grand strategy, the role and importance of allies, and local Afghan culture, will serve him well. But in order to truly succeed he will need McChrystal’s heart in reaching out and honoring the Afghan tribes and their religion.

The genius of McChrystal and Petraeus is that they are both anthropologists without having studied the discipline. They understand Muslim culture with its myriad sects, ethnicities and leadership patterns and above all the importance it gives to notions of dignity and respect. That is precisely what turned the tide in Iraq and may just pull off the impossible in Afghanistan by doing the same there.

The understanding of culture is a cornerstone of COIN–the Counter Insurgency strategy that these two helped implement. But impatience and wanting results immediately are also characteristics of American society. And it seems these are running out as far as Afghanistan is concerned. Both generals are aware that while Americans are not a patient people and they are losing whatever little remains, the Taliban are both patient and know time is on their side.

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