By LaReina Montoya
One of the hotly contested issues that has arisen in the past thirteen years is US military action in the Middle East. It is one of the complex topics we address in the senior capstone course, The West and the World of Islam after 9/11, at American University. This course, taught by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam by the BBC, aims to understand the change in geo-politics after 9/11 by looking at the historical, social, and cultural basis of the War on Terror. Every week there is usually a speaker who always sparks conversation and creates controversial debate. That is one of the reasons I joined the class, because I believe you never learn more than when your viewpoints are challenged.
This week we had the opportunity to learn more about this issue by hearing from Major Joe Evans, a South Asian Foreign Area Officer of the United States Army with infantry experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan . It was an honor and unique experience to be able to speak with an American military officer who was in service during the war. Maj. Evans started his speech with some information about himself such as a summary of his tours which involved all three of the nations mentioned before and his accomplishments such as attending the Pakistan Staff College.
He then quickly moved on to the pre-9/11 military situation starting with the end of the Cold War. There were two main things to remember: the end of the Cold War left the US military without a known enemy for the first time in forty years and the Pressler Sanctions against Pakistan. The first event resulted in a drastic downsizing of the military and confusion about what to do with NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The latter adds some insight in understanding present Pakistani and US relations. Pakistanis were enraged at the hypocrisy of nuclear weapons development when the United States created the Civil Nuke Deal with India while at the same time imposing sanctions against Pakistan. Adding insult to injury Pakistan was an ally of the United States during the Cold War while India leaned more towards the Soviet Union.
The disappearance of an enemy seemed to be responsible for the aggressive stance taken by the United States after 9/11. For the first time it faced a foreign attack on its home soil, however the attack was not sanctioned by any nation. One of the questions left after 9/11 was how do you hold those who committed this act responsible? In the days pre-9/11 it was acceptable to just wage war on whichever country attacked but a terrorist attack brought a whole new set of issues. The United States decided to just plunge right in with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stating other countries were either “with us or against us”. This demonstration of hard power, including handpicking NATO allies, combined with the absence of a long term attack led us to the current situation we’re facing now.
The second part of Maj. Evans of speech involved his ground experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He worked us through the evolution of military action from one of kinetic, hard power in Iraq to a more soft power approach in Afghanistan. In Iraq he stated that the military “looked like an invading army and acted like it”. Infantry was dressed in full body armor, carried guns, and seemed like Maj. Evans stated an invading force. There was also no attention to cultural nuances and it was very security focused with emphasis on overwhelming force. Following his mission in Iraq, from 2003-2004, he was stationed in Waigul, Afghanistan from 2006-2007. There was a drastic change in his military interaction with Afghani civilians; the main focus in this assignment was building relationships and working with the villagers and the government. They lived in the village and dropped the body armor and the weapons they wore in Iraq. After 18 months of creating development projects and bettering the villages there was no contact with the enemy. This was put in context with the other military base in Korengal which followed the same hard power approach taken in Iraq where at the end of 18 months still had frequent enemy contact.
Another example of the effectiveness of dialogue and creating relations is Maj. Evans’ story about meeting the Imam of his village. While working in the village Maj. Evans heard rumors that the imam of the village mosque was warning people to stay away from the Americans and not to interact with them. Upon asking advice from his superiors he was told to get rid of the problem by getting rid of the imam. Unsatisfied with this answer, Maj. Evans decided to talk with the imam and figure why he was frightening the villagers. They talked for three hours and during that discussion Maj. Evans realized that there was a misperception in the imam’s message, he wasn’t telling people to stay away from the Americans because they were bad people but rather because bad people were going after the Americans and he didn’t want them to get hurt in the crossfire. The imam cared deeply about his village and only wanted the best, through their discussion the imam realized that Maj. Evans wanted the same things. From that day onward the imam was Maj. Evans’ biggest advocate and essential in helping the village development projects.
Some of the major points that resonated with me after Maj. Evans' speech were his emphasis on development programs, misperceptions, and the importance of maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan. At the start of this semester I was absolutely against keeping the military on the ground in Afghanistan. I felt this war turned into a disaster and achieved almost nothing we sought out to accomplish except more enemies. Yet after listening to Maj. Evans and the other guest speakers I was forced to reassess my opinion. We should focus more on developing relations and improving the community; not every military reaction has to be a negative one. And I guess that is the point of this class, to challenge your perspectives and to view issues from multiple angles. (LaReina Montoya is a student at American University and Research Assistant to Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University)