LOS ANGELES -- Two months ago, I wrote a column about Afghanistan and the goals of President Obama, ending: "Who are we fighting? Why?"
It seems, after the president's speech last Friday, that I have my answer. I can only begin by saying that the energy and ambition and political courage of this president, or this administration, is truly awesome. As The New York Times put it: "The strategy he endorsed on Friday effectively gives Mr. Obama full ownership of the war just as its violence is spilling back and forth across the border with Pakistan."
I would expand on that. The new president did not wallow in the politics of blaming inherited problems and conundrums on his incompetent predecessor. The Obama strategies, it seems to me, are trying everything at the same time to see what works -- economically at home, militarily and politically abroad.
I hope it works, or perhaps I should say, I hope something works. I suspect Obama will be open to change, even as his congressional opponents call it "flip-flopping," which often means "growth" or "common sense." As Obama said Friday: "After years of mixed results (in Pakistan), we will not provide a blank check ... (nor) blindly stay the course."
The course is enormously tricky, with each of the players attached to conflicting histories and conflicting agendas. Our principal regional "ally," Pakistan, is not as unified as it appears on maps. The Northwest is tribal territory -- in but not of Pakistan.
The same could be said of the Pakistani army and intelligences services. They are, in effect, a separate country within Pakistan, with their own infrastructure, including settlements, schools and roads. That military, the most effective segment of the nation, answers only to itself, seeing its real enemy as India. Military leaders do not trust the United States, which they believe abandons or betrays them when it no longer needs a base to deal with regional conflicts. The intelligence services often consider the United States to be the real enemy.
American strategy is contradictory as well. On the one hand, the president wants to bring more and more civilian aides and advisers into Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Vietnam, we called that winning hearts and minds. But as the president talked that way on the front pages, there was a "Job Fair" advertisement on Page 2 of the Los Angeles Times -- a pretty unusual one in these tough times.
The job fair, up the road in Palmdale, was sponsored by General Atomics Aeronautical and listed 25 separate categories of workers the company needed, from engineers and engineering assistants to UAV pilots.
What is a "UAV"? It is an unmanned aerial vehicle. That is what General Atomics builds -- and that has probably been our most successful weapon against al-Qaida and hostile Taliban leadership. But it is the ultimate anti-hearts-and- minds weapon. We have more than 200 of them. The most lethal, the MQ-9 Reaper -- as in "Grim" -- has a wingspan of 66 feet, costs $15 million per copy and flies at a top speed of almost 300 miles per hour. It is capable of carrying 3,000 pounds of missilery. Thirty of them have fired on targets in Pakistan during the past three months.
The Predators, an earlier model, or "drones," as they are often called, have become our signature weapon in that part of the world, evolving from television eye-in-the-sky "scouts" to "hunter/killers" in military jargon. But they have problems: collateral damage, killing children and women, and mocking Pakistani sovereignty. Pakistanis react predictably at the idea of unmanned killer machines, controlled by operators in Virginia and Nevada, splashing the bodies of their relatives over the rocky ground of the tribal areas.
For Americans, however, the Reapers are perfect. The operator can sit in a Star Trek chair watching television screens, push a button, kill bad guys, we hope, and then go home for dinner. A perfect weapon for people depending on technology and a few volunteers to re-make the world in our image.
So it goes as we try to protect ourselves from terrorists. The final contradiction in all this action -- which obviously did not start with Obama -- is that we were in more danger from bad guys on Wall Street than from religious zealots on both sides of the Khyber Pass.