Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Peacebuilding

I was kind of mystified by the tone of Aaron C. Davis's article in the Washington Post this morning, which seemed to suggest that American troops, their intellects no longer challenged with the tasks of violence, are overcome with boredom by the dull prospect of peacemaking.

To wit: "Assassinations, bombings and gun attacks have killed scores of Iraqi police, civilians and government officials since the beginning of the year. U.S. forces have not been asked to assist in any of them. Rather, from behind concrete blast walls, in security bubbles that can seem deceptively safe, the end of the Iraq war has for most U.S. soldiers become a monotonous farewell mission of goodwill, a last good deed, impression or chance to set things right." (Emphasis mine.)

Davis dismisses the army's soft power excursions as chats over tea and coffee, and the opportunity to teach Iraqis a "nifty" American-style "trick,"although he does acknowledge that they occasionally have strategic advantages. Perhaps Davis has been influenced by the attitudes of the American troops stationed in Iraq, one of whom he quotes as saying "My job is still needed [in Afghanistan]; my job doesn't exist here anymore."

The U.S. armed forces are well trained and incredibly skilled, but work that does not provide an immediate outlet for those skills should not be dismissed as boring or unnecessary. It is true that members of the U.S. military have unique skills which would be of great value in Afghanistan, but it's not fair to say that troops in Afghanistan are doing more to serve the country than troops in Iraq. They're not fighting a better war, they're fighting a different war, at a different stage, with different tools and objectives. The military has an important role to play in public diplomacy, and in regions like Iraq they are better prepared to play it than many private sector or NGO representatives. There is still work to be done in Iraq, work which could provide challenging opportunities for creative solutions--but only for those who are willing to recognize it.

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