Paul Pillar

The Unappreciated Americans

In speaking Sunday at Herat University, departing U.S Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry—who has served more than five years in Afghanistan as both a military commander and a diplomat—followed his prepared remarks with some words he said were “spoken from my heart.” Referring implicitly to recent critical comments from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Eikenberry's words probably also reflected what is in the hearts of many other Americans:

I must tell you that I find occasional comments from some of your leaders hurtful and inappropriate. When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost – in terms of lives and treasure – hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest, and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people … they are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here. Mothers and fathers of fallen soldiers, spouses of soldiers who have lost arms and legs, children of those who lost their lives in your country – they ask themselves about the meaning of their loved one’s sacrifice. When I hear some of your leaders call us occupiers, I cannot look at these mourning parents, spouses, and children in the eye and give them a comforting reply.

Bravo, Mr. Ambassador.

Eikenberry surely had no expectation that most members of his Afghan audience would respond by saying, or even thinking, “Gee, sorry you feel that way. We really do appreciate what you're doing for us.” Nor do many other populations in other countries where Americans have expended blood and treasure. Such ingratitude comes with the territory, if “the territory” is understood to be the rest of the world, any far-flung part of which might become the focus of a U.S. military intervention.

Decisions regarding interventions are not generally based on expectations of gratitude, nor should they be. But the expectation often seems to be there. (Remember promoters of the Iraq War expressing confidence that American forces would be “greeted as liberators”?) Sometimes the expectations are met, most often in the case of Westerners who share many values with Americans—such as Europeans whom allied forces liberated in World War II. When in the vicinity of Arlington National Cemetery you may have heard the bells of the Netherlands Carillon, which was a gift from the people of the Netherlands to the people of the United States in gratitude for what was done in World War II.

Don't expect Afghans or Iraqis (or Libyans, or most others) to erect any similar symbols of gratitude in Washington. In most of the sorts of places America has sent its forces in recent years, one can assume that American motives will be seen as more selfish and less noble than Americans themselves see their motives, and that the negative side of U.S. operations will be disproportionately, and probably unfairly, emphasized at the expense of the positive side. Such perceptions have political consequences, which ought to be part of the decision-making that enters into any interventions abroad.