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New Wars, New Strategies of Engagement

December 2, 2009

As I listened to President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan last night, I held mixed feelings about the strategy he presented for a troop surge followed by withdrawals beginning in 2011. He spoke strongly to the concerns of people all across the political spectrum but I fear that he will satisfy few. There will be those who say Obama isn’t aggressive enough, that the United States should send even more troops and should not set a withdrawal date. There will be those who say Obama isn’t showing enough resolve to get out of Afghanistan permanently and in a timely manner. The blogosphere is already buzzing with predictions of how Congress will react.

I find myself, however, taking a step back and asking what trajectory the United States will follow in a more historical perspective. Since the end of the Cold War, the nature of war has changed significantly. Rather than one country’s army facing another country’s army, the new wars of the past two decades have been characterized increasingly by non-state actors. Conflicts are increasingly unequal and warfighting tactics have changed.

These changes in the nature of war call for new strategies of engagement on the part of the United States. The days in which the United States sought to serve as the global police may be over, but what will the Obama administration pursue in its place?

Last night, President Obama called for nation-building at home rather than abroad, which is a clear departure from the policies of the previous administration. He spoke of the need to empower the Afghan people to “be responsible for their own country.” However, he also spoke of the ongoing role he envisions for the United States in “the struggle against violent extremism,” which will “involve disorderly regions, failed states, diffuse enemies.”

If the Obama administration truly supports creating a partnership with the Afghan people and discouraging the spread of violent extremism globally, then the focus should be on sustainable development. By supporting peoples’ efforts to improve their livelihoods – through improving access to clean water, food, shelter, health care, and education – the U.S. government can promote stability and productivity. Investments in sustainable and participatory development projects will pay off tenfold down the line by cutting off the channels of despair and desperation that feed extremism.

Let’s invest in literacy, not long drawn-out wars. Let’s create a surge of TB treatments, not troops. Let’s work toward a world in which war is not the answer.

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