How to Humble an Empire

September 1, 2009

“I hope we (Americans) learn to be more humble, to listen more. Because what we are in the end, or should be, are actions that speak for themselves, that speak for us”,

Says Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Michael Mullen, the highest-ranking officer in the US Armed forces. The statement comes as the United States faces possibly its deadliest few months for the War on Terror in a deteriorating Afghan-Pakistan situation. President Obama says this war is one of “necessity” and searches for ways to amplify US efforts with Admiral Mullen and special envoy Richard Holbrooke weighing in on how best to secure this region.

Holbrooke, the seasoned diplomat and Mullen the military expert agree that more needs to be done to engage the Muslim world but differ significantly on how. At the onset of the War on Terror, Holbrooke advocated the United States enhance communication by

“convincing Muslims that this is not a war against Islam, but a war on terror.

Holbrooke says this is acheivable through a sustained public discussion with key Muslim Intellectuals and must be taken up by the White House because it alone has a capacity to direct activities of State, Defense, Justice, CIA, AID and others toward the Muslim world and can also allocate required resources. President Obama’s troop surge in Operation Enduring Freedom, and Holbrooke’s appointment as special envoy marks a shift to more “strategic communications” as advocated by Holbrooke in Afghanistan and Pakistan and focuses on three goals:

“Redefining our message; connecting to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan on the ground in new ways through cell phones, radio, and other means; and identifying and supporting key communicators who are able, through local narratives, to counter extremists’ propaganda and present a positive alternative. Additional personnel and structures in the Afghan provinces and in Islamabad/Peshawar will be necessary”

However, despite Holbrooke’s diplomatic prescriptions, the situation in Afghanistan/Pakistan is deteriorating and Admiral Mullen last week shifted significantly with the concept of relying on “strategic communications”. Instead, he suggests the problem is not one of communication, rather:

“Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships and we haven’t always delivered on promises. 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 American’s the enemy claims we are”

Admiral Mullen stresses credibility by leading through example and suggests a tangiblity to our efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan are imperative as opposed to just communications. When Holbrooke visitsed Karachi last week and talked about a “major turn with our relationship with Pakistan” and discussed  granting more visas for Pakistani’s, textile trade and preferential access to US markets, he visited underprivilaged schools and met with opposition leaders to give an overall message that “drone attacks and the hunt of Al Qaeda are not he only American foreign policy activities in the country”. But Admiral Mullen might counter that these communicative efforts do little to establish meaningful change in the hearts and minds of Muslims. Because these efforts have in the past remained just that, efforts. Rarely are these discussions translated to tangible results for everyday citizens. Each time a special envoy or diplomat thus engages in progressive talks that do not turn out in actuality, US credibility falters.
But Pakistan and the United States have a long, deep history of cooperation. Much of that cooperation has been macro, diplomatic, and military to military cooperation from as far back as defense agreements like SEATO/CENTCOM or until present day collaboration in the War on Terror. Despite the history though, Pakistani masses have seen their country remain economically underdeveloped and their social and political situation has perpetually deteriorated. That is not to imply Pakistan is reliant on a coperation with the US or any alliance/assistance for that matter, but years of allying at the forefront of the Cold War during the US sponsored Soviet Afghan War and now Operation Enduring Freedom, Pakistani’s do not see or feel any positive results and therefore have an interest in cooperation with us.

Admiral Mullen then is correct: US crediblity must be rooted in leading through examples that enhance US credibility which in turn, wins over hearts and minds. He further suggests that when the US does not deliver tanigble benefits in exchange for cooperation and as promised, militant/extremist groups fill those gaps:

“They deliver. Want to know what happens if somebody violates their view of Sharia law? You don’t have to look very far or very long. Each beheading, each bombing, and each beating sends a powerful message or, rather, is a powerful message”

Mullen explained that this reliance on intimidation works to win hearts and minds and allows such misrepresentations of Islam to be tolerated. So he prescribes a solution oriented approach and suggests drawing from historical American successes. For example, our rebuilding Europe after World War II and increased relieif assistance in response to natural disasters as an effective means to establishing credibility in the Muslim world.

Leaving Pakistan and Afghanistan to recuperate and redevelop without adequate assistance after deeply cooperating in the Soviet Afghan war are exactly the kinds of mistakes that profoundly thwart our interests in winning over civilian hearts and minds

The Soviet Afghan War, and current War on Terror has left Pakistan with an immense refugee problem which created vast security, social and political problems.I think applying Admiral Mullen’s perscriptions to this issue would be a great place to start in winning over Pakistani hearts and minds. Important to note is that Pakistan is currently home to a the second largest Muslim population in the world and continues to grow rapidly. And a deteriorating situation in neighboring Afghanistan we’ve seen has a dangerous spillover effect into Pakistan. Thus, winning hearts and minds in this heavily Muslim populated regoin is certainly in our interest. Pakistani troops and civlians bear immediate, tangible costs in fighting against terrorism in and around their border in our War on Terror. This shared motive, and 60+ year alliance should prompt Washington should focus on establishing viable policies that in serving civlians who truly pay to secure our interests, also establishes credibility in the Muslim world. I think Admiral Mullen describes this hurdle in our dealings in the Muslim world best:

“it’s a subtle world we don’t fully — and don’t always attempt to — understand. Only through a shared appreciation of the people’s culture, needs and hopes for the future can we hope ourselves to supplant the extremist narrative.”




  1. Very insightful article Ms. Jeewanjee, it is difficult to find a balance between the views of someone from the Defense Department and the State Department. Each department has their own interests in mind when dealing with these difficult challenges.

    Well written and a great analysis on this, more needs to be researched on this as there are conflicting interests between these two departments.

    I hope more people will be aware of the two different perspectives. A great article.


  2. Thanks Munzir. When you’re prime minister, do keep me in mind for Foreign Minister heheh


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