"President Obama promised President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan that the United States would remain in Afghanistan for the long haul..." -- New York Times May 12, 2010
"Tell a story, always tell a story." This advice, given by a senior attorney at one of the first law firms I worked for, resonates decades later in contemplating how policy is sold in Washington DC. The old attorney insisted that whether speaking to judge or jury, whether or not the case was numbingly procedural or had compelling facts, made no difference. "Get them to buy the story and you'll probably win," he said. Politicians also understand this truth.
Stories hold our attention and guide our emotions. Familiar narrative archetypes--such as boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy ultimately gets girl, or the underdog fights through obstacle after obstacle and finally achieves success--continue to bring tears and cheers in countless movies and TV shows. The human love of narratives is no modern phenomena. Looking back over millennia of narratives from Gilgamesh, the Bible, and Homer it is clear that stories are integral to human consciousness. Stories are not just art and entertainment; they provide us with some of our most enduring personal and collective identities. Family stories, religious liturgies, autobiographical narrative, biographies of our heroes and villains; they orient us to who we are, how we are to live and what we come to believe.
Politicians know that this human predilection for stories can be very helpful; that a familiar, ingrained story can be a useful prism through which policy or a particular view of history can be communicated. More ominously, some know that when they need to win an election or get support for a questionable course of action, projecting a manipulative and inaccurate collective story that fits the objective can be a very effective. When used politically, a narrative can act as a false prism, a kind of mental prison holding the collective mind of the electorate unconsciously captive to a set of misguided policies that otherwise would be rationally rejected as wrongheaded.
The political power of narrative and its ability, in the memorable phrase of PR guru Edward Bernays, to "engineer the consent of the masses" seems lost on the Obama Administration. One of the critical fault lines in the first year of his presidency is a puzzling failure to reject the misleading and dangerous narratives that were foisted on us by his predecessors and thereby truly alter the course of the nation in both foreign and domestic policy. While many such manipulative narratives are currently besieging the body politic, the continuing "war on terror" narrative Obama has accepted and promoted as a justification for the expanded war in Afghanistan may ultimately be the most damaging to his presidency.
THE WAR STORY
It was probably the most important, lost moment in the last presidential election. On July 31, 2008, Rand Corporation, the conservative think tank, produced a new report entitled "How Terrorist Groups End - Lessons for Countering Al Qa'ida." The report studied 648 terrorist groups between 1988 and 2006 and found that military operations against such groups was--by a wide margin--the least effective means of success. The evidence was unmistakable, terrorist groups very rarely cease to exist as the result of being the target of a military campaign. The study concludes that the so-called "war on terrorism" simply would not be successful as it was currently being implemented, and that efforts against terrorist networks should not be characterized as "war" at all. The study demonstrated that terrorism was best defeated by treating it as an international criminal matter, not as "war." The report summarized:
Al Qa'ida consists of a network of individuals who need to be tracked and arrested. This requires careful involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as their cooperation with foreign police and intelligence agencies.
This report went virtually unnoticed during the campaign because the candidates, the media and the public had accepted the "war on terror" political narrative in fighting Al Qa'ida as it had been framed by the Bush/Cheney Administration. What is the "war" narrative that we were manipulated into? Well, for most Americans the war story is steeped in the history and images of World War II recounted in history books and replayed in movies. The story line is familiar: heroic U.S. troops invade a totalitarian country to spread democracy. After tough battles in which several of our soldiers give their lives, the dictator is overthrown and democracy is restored. The US maintains a presence there to protect the new Democracy and help it grow.
The images associated with the war narrative are iconic: statues of the dictators fall, their cities and monuments are destroyed, the leaders placed on trial and perhaps sentenced to die, liberated people rejoice, our soldiers are greeted as saviors with flowers strewn in their path (all accompanied by appropriate, triumphant martial music).
You don't need to be the Rand Corporation to see that this war narrative is anomalous to dealing with any international terrorist network. Terrorists by definition are not bound by any country and can operate anywhere from Frankfurt to Jakarta to Elizabeth, New Jersey. Invade one country, they simply go to another. They can have cells anywhere and communicate via the internet. Obviously, international intelligence and police work are what is required to deal with these networks, not WWII style military operations. Case closed.
But after the tragedy of 9/11, misapplying the "war" narrative to supposedly fight Al Qa'ida was very convenient for the neo-conservatives and the oil lobby who wielded such power in the Bush/Cheney Administration. For the Neocons, using the war narrative to invade Iraq and force regime change there furthered their frankly delusional geopolitical dreams as outlined in the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). For the "oil boys", making old fashioned war on Iraq potentially put the US in charge of the world's largest unexploited oil reserves. By constantly referring to the "war on terror", and invoking the war narrative scenario, they misleadingly conflated their real aims with the supposed goal of ridding the world of the threat of Al Qa'ida.
As part of this manipulation, they cynically kept tying Saddam Hussein to 9/11 and Al Qa'ida, even though they knew there was no connection. But they needed that to sell their story. And they did. Polls showed that a majority of Americans at the time did believe there actually was a Sadaam-Osama connection, which helped sell the Iraq war story. Though critical of some of the Administration's claims, many in the Democratic Party and the media either failed to see this bait-and-switch and blindly, mostly unconsciously, bought the political narrative of war or secretly supported the deception for political reasons of their own.
As a result, the neo-cons and the oil lobby successfully got the country to buy the misapplied war narrative to the struggle against international terrorist networks; the casualties have been catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis and Afghans have lost their lives. In Iraq there has been a virtual religious cleansing, as more than two million Sunnis and Christians have become refugees. The infrastructure of Iraq is destroyed, and without Iraq as a check, the influence of Iran is being vastly amplified in the region. Tens of thousands of American soldiers are dead or injured, and trillions of dollars have been wasted.
Meanwhile the international activities of Al Qa'ida have increased. And as the war story requires, the U.S. is now in the preposterous position of having to defend and prop up "for the long haul" regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan that are mired in religions strife and corruption.
Obama missed a historic opportunity during the campaign to "bust" the misleading narrative of war when strategizing how to fight terrorist networks. Instead, he claimed that Iraq was the "wrong war" and then stated with passion that the "real war" was in Afghanistan; thus, missing the war narrative problem entirely. He made the same fateful error as president. He spent many months reexamining the U.S. Afghan policy reportedly receiving counsel from all sides, but locked into the prism and prison of the war narrative decided to increase our presence there by tens of thousands of troops and defend the Karzai government--a position he still forcefully adheres to. What was the alternative narrative he should have put forth?
THE "LAW AND ORDER" NARRATIVE
Obama should have embraced the "law and order", or "criminal pursuit" narrative as outlined in the Rand Report. The historical facts are undisputable: criminal pursuit of terrorists is the most effective way of defeating them The narrative of international intelligence agents in criminal pursuit of terrorists is not only empirically based, it is also very familiar. From James Bond to countless books, movies, TV shows and even many satires on the genre, storylines that involve pursuing international bad guys and bringing them to justice (or their "just ends") have been ingrained in the American psyche for decades. The public would readily accept this narrative shift in our efforts to halt the activities and proliferation of international terrorist networks and the common sense understanding of why it is the wise way to proceed.
Obama should have used the 'criminal pursuit" narrative to end our involvement in the civil strife in Afghanistan, which is now almost wholly unrelated to Al Qa'ida and international terrorist networks. It is widely known that Al Qa'ida has left war torn Afghanistan and is operating out of several other international bases. Instead of expanding the war, Obama should have announced a vigorous international police effort coordinated by the CIA, FBI, and the intelligence agencies of our allies around the world, who would be using the most sophisticated surveillance and search-and-destroy technology and personnel to find the terrorists and bring them to justice. When questioned, Obama could have referred to the Rand Report and assured Americans that decades of bi-partisan research on the best way to fight terrorism reveals that this criminal pursuit method is the most effective way to deal with the threat.
Instead, the Obama Administration--mired in the Bush/Cheney prism of the WWII style war narrative--is stuck in a Catch-22 type policy in Afghansitan, which goes something like this: even though Al Qa'ida is no longer in Afghanstan, we have to take sides in a civil war against our former allies, the Taliban, and support the corrupt and dictatorial warlords and their opium industry just in case Al Qa'ida might someday come back to Afghanistan, even though they are not there now and we have no evidence they would ever come back.
The war story leaves us in the embarrassing position of trying to defend the sacrifice of our soldiers and treasure to defend the hopelessly corrupt Karzai government. Trapped in this war narrative, we are using overwhelming military force on the local populations and killing numerous innocent Afghans--as happened to so many Iraqis--and turning the population against the US. Not surprisingly, in April 2010, the Department of Defense assessment of the Afghanistan situation admitted that, despite expanded military efforts over the last year, very little progress was being made and violence had markedly increased.
There is, of course, time to change course and narrative in Afghanistan. We can hope for audacity from this Administration. But so far there are no indications of either the vision or the will to do this. There is an old Chinese proverb that says "unless you change direction, you are likely to end up where you are headed". Where we're headed with the war narrative in Afghanistan is a legacy of years mired in an expensive, pointless and brutal conflict with mounting casualties and increasing international ill will. Meanwhile, the real terrorist threat is not being adequately addressed.
Andrew Kimbrell is an author, attorney and psychologist. He is Executive Director of the International Center for Technology Assessment and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.