When the highest-ranking officer in the US armed forces, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admits: “We hurt ourselves more [with Muslim nations] when our words don’t align with our actions… Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises,” it represents a rare but welcome insight from the military about US foreign policy.
“Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are,” Mullen has written in the Joint Forces Quarterly. “We’ve come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect. They are not. Good communication runs both ways. It’s not about telling our story. We must also be better listeners.”
Some Muslims, such as Haroon Moghul of New York University’s Islamic centre, optimistically greeted Mullen’s statement as a remarkable sign of change: “It shows a military that is critically thinking, and empowered to do so by a White House that seeks to develop effective strategies, not ideological categories and uncritical postures.” However, Aziz Poonawalla of Talk Islam, urges: “Fundamentally, the Obama administration needs to articulate a clear set of explicit, achievable goals for our military in [Afghanistan] – with a clear timeline for withdrawal.”
Indeed, a recent poll of Muslim countries revealed that actions speak much louder than President Obama’s eloquent words promising “mutual respect” and “partnership”. Despite Obama’s well-received Cairo address earlier this year, animosity towards the US “continues to run deep and unabated,” according to the Pew poll, especially in Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. The most obvious reasons for such anger include the attacks by predator drones in Pakistan and the recent reinforcement of 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan, which now brings the total number of US soldiers deployed there to 57,000.
Tragically, the US presence in Afghanistan has failed to end the flourishing illegal drug trade that bankrolls and nurtures the Taliban’s existence. Furthermore, corruption and tribal rivalry threaten the Afghan government’s democratic sovereignty, as witnessed by country’s recent election, which are being protested by both leading candidates as being riddled with fraud.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has evolved into a hydra-headed monster in the region. The Afghanistan Taliban, still led by Mullah Omar, uses violence against Nato forces, whom it perceives as imperialists and invaders. The Pakistan Taliban, which commits terrorism against its own government and citizens, continues to thrive in the remote border provinces despite a Predator attack last month that killed its leader, the notorious Baitullah Masood. Without missing a beat, the Taliban’s “shura council” elected a successor. The 53 drone attacks carried out by US since last year have also left nearly 500 people dead, mostly civilians, and served as a convenient Taliban recruiting tool enlisting grieving family members seeking revenge.
Obama’s aggressive rhetoric and military action in Pakistan not only leaves collateral damage in the form of civilian casualties – such as the six Pakistani children killed in a recent drone attack – it also erodes trust and confidence in the US government and its intentions. The overwhelming sentiment of Pakistanis is that the road to Islamabad, their nation’s capital, runs through the White House, with President Asif Ali Zardari as America’s puppet.
As a result of such policies, Mullen conceded the situation in Afghanistan “is serious and it is deteriorating… The Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated, in their tactics.”
America’s image is certainly not helped by revelations from the declassified CIA memos describing torture through interrogation techniques that included soldiers threatening to rape or kill the prisoners’ family. The recent release of Mohammed Jawad, who was detained at the age of 12 in Guantanamo Bay for nearly seven years, reopens wounds in the global psyche traumatised by war. For those who point to Obama’s changes in policy, such as the executive order closing Gitmo or launching an justice department probe into the CIA’s illegal interrogations, the memory of the Bush administration’s violence and bullish selfishness, as well as continued military campaigns, explain why many Muslim communities continue to hold a unfavorable opinion of the US.
However, Obama’s administration should be praised for at least reframing the rhetoric and ideological vision of America’s intentions in the Middle East, away from the archaic and reactionary “us versus them” posturing to a more inclusive, conciliatory partnership fostered by mutual interests.
According to Hofstra University’s Hussein Rashid, Mullen’s comment reflect the possibility: “The military is becoming less a political arm of the White House, and once more a service that seeks to serve American security.” And Mullen’s public acknowledgement of US military actions failing to live up to their policy goals and promises is notable, given recent history in which a US president arrogantly stood in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” from the safety of an aircraft carrier, as thousands continued to fight and die needlessly.
At the very least, America’s military can now acknowledge that its real mission has just begun.
Associate editor Wajahat Ali is a Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America and is premiering in New York City on September 11, 2009. He writes and edits the Goatmilk blog. This article was previously published at the Guardian’s Comment is Free.