Whether it’s wise to “never let a crisis go to waste” is up for debate, but turning disadvantage into advantage is an ancient tactic of war. A crisis should never be created to exploit political opportunity. Concurrently, advantage must be sought for every inch of the battlefield.
President Obama has a brief moment, maybe only one shot, to exploit Dasht-i-Leili, the alleged site of a Taliban massacre in 2001. He’s taken the first step by ordering a review of the case, which was never fully investigated, but the harder part will the following through. It’s time to put Rahm Emanuel's philosophy to use.
Obviously Obama would incur a strike in the Muslim world were he to refuse an investigation, more proof that America isn’t really changing. Obama has no room to maneuver after George Bush covered up the incident and stifled an investigation. Doing the same would invite comparisons to Bush, which is why Obama made a U-turn.
Initially Marine Corps Colonel David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, told the AP, “There is no indication that U.S. military forces were there, or involved, or had any knowledge of this. So there was not a full investigation conducted because there was no evidence that there was anything from a DoD (Department of Defense) perspective to investigate.”
But the next day, Obama said in an interview with CNN, “If it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that.”
Obama and his staff realized the feebleness of denying U.S. military involvement; denial is futile. Northern Alliance General Rashid Dostum, who reportedly ordered the massacre, was on the CIA payroll and acting under the name, or at least dollars, of America. Who the CIA pays is America's problem and Obama has a responsibility to fully investigate Dasht-i-Leili, to preserve America’s image and his own.
The results are likely to be disadvantageous, otherwise the incident wouldn't have been covered up. Anticipating this, President Obama must formulate a strategy while the investigation is being carried out.
High media attention should be generated for the investigation’s findings, though this won’t be a problem. Obama will have to be careful not to get carried away because the drawback of exploiting a crisis is appearing too eager. But he can't hide the facts either because they’ll be publicized regardless. Obama can potentially gain respect by admitting to the truth upfront.
Obama must shy away from George Bush’s administration even though it tried to whitewash the incident. Obama shouldn’t elevate himself by pushing Bush down or he’ll appear disingenuous. American errors in Afghanistan are attributed to no single president. Playing politics is a useless game that the Taliban will see through.
Obama should own Dasht-i-Leili, portray it as an American mistake, and vow that America will take every possible measure to prevent future atrocities. Doing so may restore some dignity to the battlefield. War is merciless, lawless, without feeling, but must it be completely devoid of humanity? Codes of honor have been observed between enemies throughout history; sadly Afghanistan appears to lack one.
It’s dangerous for America to get too comfortable with fighting “terrorists,” who have no rights and aren’t protected from assassination by international laws of war. There are no laws when fighting “terrorists.” Anything goes, a corruptible philosophy. While al-Qaeda may deserve such treatment, it’s still questionable whether Taliban militants qualify as “terrorists.”
Skepticism will likely follow a suggestion of dignity and ask what respect the Taliban pays to America, but America has already lost if it wants to fight at the Taliban’s level. America must reassert itself as the bigger person and Dasht-i-Leili could be used to that end.
President Obama must confront Dasht-i-Leili head on and ensure it’s an anomaly. There’s no telling how many militants were discouraged from surrendering because of that massacre; its effects could be pervasive even if it were only a rumor. Obama must make explicitly clear that it’s safe to defect and persistently encourage desertion by offering a viable alternative. Welcome the enemy.
This tactic was especially favored by Julius Caesar, good company for Obama.