Good Reads: lighter, messier African conflicts, and burning Qurans

How the post-cold-war era has given birth to smaller, messier conflicts; and how the Quran burning incident in Afghanistan could have been much worse. Seriously.

Sometime well into the first decade of what the Bush administration termed the "war on terror," it became clear that war was going to be the new normal, and it was going to be that way for a very long time. 

President Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described the new war machine in the way that development experts describe a new system of local health clinics, with an emphasis on sustainability. The key in taking on guerrilla movements like the Taliban or those weapons-of-mass-destruction-hiding Iraqi militants was sustainability, according to Mr. Rumsfeld and other Pentagon planners. US fighting forces should be “lighter” and more “agile.” (From here onward, the analogy to health clinics falls apart. US troops needed to be able to project deadly force into hostile territory in the pursuit of US interests. Health clinics? Not so much.)

Nowhere is Rumsfeld's uncluttered vision more clear than in Africa.

In Uganda and the Central African Republic, there is a grand total of 100 US special operations forces assigned with the task of helping the Ugandan military hunt down and apprehend Joseph Kony, the leader of a shadowy rebel group calling itself the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). For African leaders concerned about the world’s last remaining superpower setting up a beachhead on the African continent – similar to its permanent base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba or its long-term basing agreement at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan – having 100 troops running around in the bush is a concern.

But there are worse scenarios.

The problem is that this is the same way many African rebel groups operate. And in a post-cold-war era where there are no real ideologies at stake, African conflicts have become smaller, messier, more personal, and according to a piece by The New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman in The New York Review of Books, perhaps not as deadly as the old-style army conflicts, but certainly more difficult to bring to an end.  

Describing the 2009 scene of a massacre by the LRA in the Congolese town of Niangara, Mr. Gettleman writes,

This is the story of conflict in Africa these days. What we are seeing is the decline of the classic wars by freedom fighters and the proliferation of something else – something wilder, messier, more predatory, and harder to define. The style of warfare has shifted dramatically since the liberation wars of the 1960s and 1970s (Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau), the cold-war wars of the 1980s (Angola, Mozambique), and the large-scale killings of the 1990s (Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Liberia). Today the continent is plagued by countless nasty little wars, which in many ways aren’t really wars at all. There are no front lines, no battlefields, no clear conflict zones, and no distinctions between combatants and civilians, which is why the kind of massacre that happened near Niangara is sadly common.

In Afghanistan, which has hosted tens of thousands of foreign troops for more than a decade, it’s hard to see any sign of a transformation of the old heavy US military to a leaner more agile force. Operation Enduring Freedom leans very much toward the heavy past, with an emphasis on the word “enduring.”

But with the burning of Qurans by US soldiers at Bagram Air Base, Afghans suddenly have a focus for the frustrations they feel both about the heavy US military presence, and for the Karzai government which invited them in.

Still, while an estimated 30 people have died during the past week or so of protests, including US soldiers shot in revenge by the pro-government Afghan soldiers they work alongside, foreign correspondent Martine Van Bijlert writes in Foreign Policy magazine that it could have been a lot worse.

Muslim clerics who could have whipped up crowds of protesters during Friday prayers either appealed for calm or dodged the issue in their sermons. Active antagonists to the US military presence in Afghanistan certainly expressed their anger, but their words were more muted than in the past.

“… the outright majority of the population either stayed inside or went home peacefully after attending Friday prayers. Most demonstrations ended without incident and none of them were massive (the largest seem to have counted a few thousand demonstrators). There was anger, for sure, but there was also a lot of restraint. Across the country people have been calling for calm and patience in their communities, not wanting to see more bloodshed. They did not manage to pre-empt all violence and there were still nasty riots in the days after, but it will be difficult to argue that the rioters were acting on behalf of the whole population.”

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