A United States Army Special Forces captain with leaders in Amaloul, Niger, one of the nations in an antiterrorism program. Credit Peter Tinti
I read this Headline in today’s NYTimes, U.S. Training Elite Antiterror Troups in Four African Nations, and had a couple of first reactions. It was a good thing in that it represented a major change from the more conventional wars we fought in Iraq and are still fighting in Afghanistan. A good thing in that it meant, if nothing else, that there would be many fewer American boots on the ground. And a good thing in that it did seem to mean that we had learned something from our abject failures, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, to plant and grow democracy among the populations of those two countries, that we had learned to pursue at present what at least seemed to be lesser, more achievable goals (creating elite antiterror groups, for example).
Or had we, I asked, learned anything at all? Wasn’t our new thinking that we could make Rangers, Seals, and Delta Forces of these people who were still living in important respects in the Middle Ages, that we could instill in them our own belief systems, not to mention our culture, our attachment to the rule of law, the absolute protection given to the rights of individual men and woman, even perhaps adherence to the free market, wasn’t this new strategic thinking no less realistic than George Bush’s attempt to make grow there on the dry and harsh ground in Iraq a Western liberal democracy?
In other words, is it that we never seem to learn that things on the ground, things at the bottom, can never be changed from the top, even when our very best people are up there on the top. For there is no question that our Rangers, our Seals, our Delta Forces are extremely good at what they do. They probably are the best. For some reason, I say for some reason, for it has never happened that things have been made better from the top down. It’s always from the bottom up that things grow and become what they were meant to be, and that’s most of all why so many of our efforts in the poorest nations of the world have failed.
We never seem to learn. We go on thinking that we can improve whatever it be, our educational system, our system of healthcare, our 6 million inmate prison system, by changing in hospitals and prisons, administrations, bureaucracies, in schools curricula, class sizes and time in class, while all the time making few or no substantial demands on those whom we would help. For ultimately as the wise men have told us over and over again no one can be helped if he would not help himself. Only the Afghans can free themselves from the terror of the Taliban, only the Iraqis from the Jihadi, from al Qaeda. Wouldn’t it be a great thing if the next article I were to read on the same subject be headlined, US helping people to help themselves, that which may even mean staying away.
Finally, there are even people in Washington who seem to understand all this. But they are not being heard, or listened to enough. Here is one of them, taken from the article mentioned.
Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council, a policy research group in Washington, said the United States must make tough political judgments before investing in ambitious counterterrorism training programs. Mr. Pham cited the lessons of Mali, where American-trained commanders of elite army units defected to Islamic insurgents that seized the north last year. “The host country has to have the political will to fight terrorism, not just the desire to build up an elite force that could be used for regime protection,” Mr. Pham said.