Waris Husain: Happiness through Experiences: Lessons Learned from Recessions and Insurgencies

Opinion Editorial Published: Pakistan Post

A recent article in the New York Times cited new studies that show the effect of the recession on the American consumer: we now value positive experiences, like family vacations, over material goods like cars and TVs. Just as the recession has been an integral event in the nation’s modern history, so have the counterinsurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, the same change in mentality has not occurred in the White House which now struggles to “sell” a costly Afghan War to a public who is growingly weary of spending and lacks belief that the Taliban truly can be totally defeated. Thus, there is a need to change the U.S. paradigm away from “materialist” goal of eliminating the Taliban and Al-Queda, to validating the war in Afghanistan as an “experience” to preserve and maintain the human rights of Afghans.

America’s economic boom period promised untold wealth to citizens, who could mysteriously use their homes as an ATM without regard to the massive debt they were accumulating in pursuit of happiness through material wealth. Similarly, after the Cold War, the U.S.’s rise to military supremacy fostered ideas that the nation’s happiness could be achieved by military dominance. Yet, we now know that an ideology is far more powerful in this age of insurgencies than the power of a gun. In fact, the rise of Taliban proves that with an ideologically indoctrinated group one can bleed out a massive super-power equipped with billions of dollars of high-tech military equipment and procedure.

The Obama administration must realize that its focus on Afghanistan only in terms of the defeat of the Taliban sets up an unachievable expectation in the mind of the public. This contributes to possible international pull-out from Afghanistan due to growing of domestic weariness: simply because the objective laid out didn’t take into account the necessary change in mentality required to fight a counterinsurgency.

            To say that we should be in Afghanistan merely to help the populace will be scoffed at by most pragmatists who say that the American public is unwilling to provide assistance based only on broad principles of “human rights”. They will say that the recession and the increased domestic spending at home, makes the public even less likely to buy such an argument.

            However, the problem with this argument is that there are several examples which point to the truly unselfish motives for the U.S. Army, government, and non-governmental groups in their action in Afghanistan. The motivations of U.S. NGOs are not easily decipherable; however it is easy to say that many parties are there exclusively to help the people, without thought of the Taliban’s threat to the U.S.

The work of Tom Little who was recently assassinated by the Taliban, is a worthy example of the spirit that exists in the American public. He left his optometry practice in the U.S. to ride on horseback through Afghanistan’s most dangerous terrains to deliver eyeglasses to children, disregarding his own safety for the well-being of those less fortunate.

General Petraeus is the greatest example of how the emerging leadership’s perception of engagement has blurred the line between state-building, security stabilization, and human rights enhancement. Since counterinsurgencies are “wars of perception,” they require not only military force but providing incentives (like schools and hospitals) for locals to join the U.S. The U.S. has already heavily invested in the “building blocks of life” throughout Afghanistan setting up hospitals, girls schools, roads, and counseling the new government. Though the goals may be security-based now, the U.S. knows the resurgence of the Taliban can happen anytime after exiting, if the nation is not correctly protecting the human rights of its citizens.

Unlike the recession, where individuals introspectively learned to appreciate experiences over material wealth, the change required here must be from the government. The current exclusive focus on defeating the Taliban is much like an unemployed worker in the recession continuing the spending practices from the time when he was working in the boom. The good news is that downturn of the economy brought on “an emotional rebirth” as retail analyst Wendly Liebmann points out, which included people, “talking about the desire not to lose that connection, the moment, the family, the experience.”

The insurgency phenomena is similarly influential in that it shows us the limitations of our large military power being constantly under threat from small suicide guerilla forces. Thus in light of the long road ahead to truly eradicate the Taliban for good, we must adjust “what makes us happy” much like the recession stricken unemployed worker. The Administration should enhance the public’s focus on the role of the U.S. in helping to rebuild a torn society and enhancing the Afghan’s daily lives. Until we replace the rhetoric on the war surrounding “material” objectives with a new focus on the human rights “experience,” the populace will continue to be disillusioned and clamor for a devastating premature exit.

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