Of Jedi Knights, Death Stars, and Afghanistan

The U.S. military strategy of the moment in Afghanistan is counterinsurgency, or COIN. It involves winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people by protecting them, as well as by offering them hope, primarily in the form of billions of dollars in aid. It involves moving our troops in closer contact with the locals, of partnering with them in ways that are attuned to their culture and priorities. It's an approach tailor-made for our Special Ops forces: the equivalent of our Jedi Knights, who travel lightly and who have a knack for knowing the right tactic (often nonviolent rather than "kinetic") to adopt at the right moment.

At the same time, however, the U.S. has adopted a different, far more aggressive and massive, approach to "winning" in Afghanistan. Call it the imperial or "Death Star" approach. Here, we build huge embassies and bases, changing the very face of the Afghan countryside, as Nick Turse so stunningly reveals at TomDispatch.com. We then heavily garrison our bases and largely isolate them from the Afghan people (in the name of "Force Protection"). We even equip them with Burger Kings, Popeye Chicken restaurants, and other reminders of America: hence they become, in a way, "Little Americas."

Amazingly, few people seem to sense the tensions -- indeed, the contradiction -- inherent in these approaches. Can one truly be both Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, both cunning and courteous Jedi Knight and Dark Lord of imperial power projection?

The answer, I believe, is "no." By its nature, a large, heavy imperial boot print effaces the low-impact, softer COIN foot print. You can't have it both ways. You can't expect the good deeds and skills of your Jedi to erase the looming presence of imperial Death Stars in the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

If the strategy is to fight austere and carefully calculated COIN operations, let's do that. But let's not be weak-minded and fool ourselves that our ever-expanding and truly foreign imperial bases in Afghanistan are consistent with this strategy.