Last week, the Olympics opened with a dynamic performance honoring the native tribes of western Canada followed by the parade of participating nations. The athletes looked excited to be there, the center of the world’s attention for 16 days, the support of their country behind them. I’ve always enjoyed watching the Olympics. While onlookers can apply political undertones to the games, they are still just games. The athletes compete for personal victory. Their victory becomes a source of national victory in the overall score. It is friendly, well-meaning competition-the best of national pride and international cooperation.
China even lets Taiwan compete as its own team under the name Chinese Taipei. Every two years, the Olympic Games fill us with warm, happy feelings of good sportsmanship and common goals across all nations.
One would think there is nothing wrong in the world for 16 days.
On the same day as the opening ceremony, approximately 15,000 troops took the Afghan city of Marja-the largest offensive since the beginning of the war.
Some declared it the D-Day of this war, though it involved less troops and much less American attention. The men and women competing there are not seeking personal triumphs but personal survival. The Americans want Afghan stability, the Taliban want to keep control of the people and resources, and the Afghans want to be left alone. There is no mutual sportsmanship here.
Marja is a Taliban stronghold and a large drug trading post. By controlling Marja, the U.S. can better control the course of the war and give Afghans their Taliban-free, American-free country. To do that, the American military will have to set up a stable Afghan government in a city with no municipal building, win over the local population with handouts worth more than opium money, and rid the city of insurgents laying low until the U.S. finally decides to leave. If successful, the military will deserve at least a silver medal.
To go for gold, so to speak, Afghanistan will have to step up, proving itself strong enough and willing enough to be self-sufficient and prevent fundamentalist hotbeds from forming there. The local population discussed the troops moving into Marja long before it actually happened. Being prepared for the offensive will hopefully mean being prepared for when the offensive ends and Taliban leaders seek to reestablish what our military is trying so valiantly to quash.
Trying to rank and tally how the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan is difficult. Political, religious and personal feelings get in the way of looking objectively, and a rising body count makes the attempt more somber and more desperate.
It’s going to be many more months before allied troops leave, and we see how strong the U.S. is. It’s going to be even longer before the U.S. leaves, and we see the final result of years spent working and building there. It’s going to be even more years before we see if Afghanistan will change into a freestanding democracy or go back to the status quo.
It’s a grueling, sometimes heart wrenching and guilt inducing, but important process. Not only Afghanistan, but also the U.S., will be shaped by how this plays out. And it will take much longer than 16 days. But it is worth the time, attention and patience we give it.
In the meantime, I’m going to watch some curling and pretend we live in the cooperative place the Olympic Games aim for the world to be.