Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Does Anybody Get It Yet? Afghanistan = Vietnam (Except for the Geography)

The real tragedy of Vietnam is not that the United States lost, but that it became involved in the first place. It pains me to say this as someone who served in the American military from 1965 to 1975, but the anti-war movement was right: It did not matter to U.S. security whether North Vietnam conquered the south and unified that country under communist rule. More than 58,000 American soldiers and more than 2 million Vietnamese died in an unnecessary and foolish war.

A similar logic applies today with regard to Afghanistan. The Republicans and General McChrystal claim that it is absolutely necessary to win the war in Afghanistan for the simple reason that a Taliban victory will allow al Qaeda to re-establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan. And we all know what happened the last time Osama bin Laden was free to scheme and plot against the United States from Afghanistan: September 11. The fatal flaw in this argument is that al Qaeda has a sanctuary next door in Pakistan from which it has been operating since it was driven out of Afghanistan in Dec. 2001. It does not need a sanctuary in Afghanistan. Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who helped General McChrystal formulate his strategy for Afghanistan, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Pakistan is "superior in important ways to Afghanistan" because it is "richer and far better connected to the outside world than is primitive, land-locked Afghanistan with its minimal communications and transportation systems."

But what if the Pakistani army eliminates al Qaeda's sanctuary in western Pakistan? Isn't its current offensive in South Waziristan a major step toward that end? Unfortunately, no. Pakistan has no intention of rolling up al Qaeda, in good part because it does not have the capability to police those areas where the terrorists are hiding. The offensive in South Waziristan is not even aimed at the Afghan Taliban, much less at al Qaeda. This means that al Qaeda will have a sanctuary in Pakistan no matter what happens in Afghanistan, which means that the American military cannot win a meaningful victory there.

In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, it simply does not matter whether the United States wins or loses. It makes no sense for the Obama administration to expend more blood and treasure to vanquish the Taliban. The United States should accept defeat and immediately begin to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan.

From Foreign Policy we understand all too well from John Mearsheimer, a West Point graduate and a political science professor at the University of Chicago, that even if the U.S. achieved a victory in Afghanistan, it would only be hollow. Oh, and that Pakistan is hardly an ally (as if we have any (other than the bought-and-paid-for) in that blood-stained part of the world), but we've figured out that one way ahead of our leaders now haven't we? So let's keep patriotically spilling the blood - at least until the new superstructure of control is built across the pipeline destination (by the Halliburton contract-laden constructors of the next brave new world). Heck, it will probably only take 10 -20,000 soldiers to defend it for the next 50 years. And everything leading up to this Golden Age has just been crass electoral politics anyway (which you would think by this late date that we had figured out some type of better way by which to achieve our country's sacred goals (whatever they are projected to be at any particular point in time)). (Emphasis marks added - Ed.)

Hollow Victory

According to the Republicans, the United States is once again at the crossroads of losing another critical war because of feckless Democrats. Only this time it's Afghanistan.

. . . The conventional wisdom among most Republicans is that while the United States had serious difficulty in Vietnam during the early years, by the early 1970s things were turning around, and victory was on the verge. Unfortunately, the craven Democrats in Congress bowed to widespread anti-war sentiment and forced the Ford administration to end almost all support to South Vietnam, allowing the North Vietnamese to win the war in 1975. In the GOP version of the story, this decision was a disastrous mistake.

There has been a lot of talk lately about what the Vietnam War tells us about Afghanistan. According to the Republicans, the United States is once again at the crossroads of losing another critical war because of feckless Democrats, only this time in Afghanistan. They contend that while, yes, the United States has mismanaged the war over the past eight years, Washington has now found a formidable military leader in General Stanley McChrystal. He knows how to defeat the Taliban and keep al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. However, the major obstacle he faces isn't in Afghanistan, it's here at home: the American public is war-weary and the Democrats - who control both Congress and the White House - have no enthusiasm for the greater sacrifices that General McChrystal recommends.

This narrative is unconvincing for at least two reasons. First, the United States was not close to victory in Vietnam by the early 1970s, because the South Vietnamese army could not stand on its own. This was manifestly apparent in 1971 when that army invaded Laos and was badly chewed up by North Vietnamese ground forces. To stand any chance of holding off Hanoi's offensives, the South Vietnamese army needed massive amounts of American airpower, which effectively meant that the U.S. military would have to continue fighting in Vietnam indefinitely just to maintain a stalemate. That hardly qualifies as being on "the brink" of victory.

In Afghanistan, there is little reason to think that the United States can decisively defeat the Taliban, mainly because they can melt into the countryside or go to Pakistan whenever they are outgunned, returning to fight another day (just as they did after the initial U.S. victory in 2001). Furthermore, the Karzai regime, corrupt and incompetent, stands little chance of ever truly being able to rule the country and keep the Taliban at bay, which means that the American military will have to stay there to do the job for many years to come.

But even if success was at hand in Vietnam and the United States could in the near future win quickly in Afghanistan, there is a second and more important flaw in the Republican narrative: Victory is inconsequential.

The United States suffered a clear defeat when South Vietnam collapsed in 1975, but it hardly affected America's position in the global balance of power. The domino theory proved unfounded; instead, communist Vietnam invaded communist Cambodia in 1978 and one year later Hanoi was at war with communist China. More importantly, losing in Vietnam had no adverse effects on America's competition with the Soviet Union. Indeed, 14 years after Saigon fell, the Cold War ended and the United States emerged as the most powerful state on the planet.

The real tragedy of Vietnam is not that the United States lost, but that it became involved in the first place. It pains me to say this as someone who served in the American military from 1965 to 1975, but the anti-war movement was right: It did not matter to U.S. security whether North Vietnam conquered the south and unified that country under communist rule. More than 58,000 American soldiers and more than 2 million Vietnamese died in an unnecessary and foolish war.

A similar logic applies today with regard to Afghanistan. The Republicans and General McChrystal claim that it is absolutely necessary to win the war in Afghanistan for the simple reason that a Taliban victory will allow al Qaeda to re-establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan. And we all know what happened the last time Osama bin Laden was free to scheme and plot against the United States from Afghanistan: September 11. The fatal flaw in this argument is that al Qaeda has a sanctuary next door in Pakistan from which it has been operating since it was driven out of Afghanistan in Dec. 2001. It does not need a sanctuary in Afghanistan.

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who helped General McChrystal formulate his strategy for Afghanistan, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Pakistan is "superior in important ways to Afghanistan" because it is "richer and far better connected to the outside world than is primitive, land-locked Afghanistan with its minimal communications and transportation systems." But what if the Pakistani army eliminates al Qaeda's sanctuary in western Pakistan? Isn't its current offensive in South Waziristan a major step toward that end?

Unfortunately, no. Pakistan has no intention of rolling up al Qaeda, in good part because it does not have the capability to police those areas where the terrorists are hiding. The offensive in South Waziristan is not even aimed at the Afghan Taliban, much less at al Qaeda. This means that al Qaeda will have a sanctuary in Pakistan no matter what happens in Afghanistan, which means that the American military cannot win a meaningful victory there.In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, it simply does not matter whether the United States wins or loses.

It makes no sense for the Obama administration to expend more blood and treasure to vanquish the Taliban. The United States should accept defeat and immediately begin to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan.

Of course, President Obama will never do such a thing. Instead, he will increase the American commitment to Afghanistan, just as Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam in 1965. The driving force in both cases is domestic politics. Johnson felt that he had to escalate the fight in Vietnam because otherwise the Republicans would lambaste him for "losing Vietnam," the same way they accused President Harry Truman of "losing China" in the late 1940s. Obama and his fellow Democrats know full well that if the United States walks away from Afghanistan now, the Republicans will accuse them of capitulating to terrorism and undermining our security. And this charge will be leveled at them for decades to come, harming Democrats at the polls come election time. The Democrats have no intention of letting that happen.The United States is in Afghanistan for the long haul. As was the case in Vietnam, more American soldiers and many more civilians are going to die in Afghanistan. And for no good reason.

Our best buddy on the front lines, Scott Ritter asks the question of the hour:

McChrystal Doesn’t Get It — Does Obama?

There is a curious phenomenon taking place in the American media at the moment: the lionization of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American military commander in Afghanistan.

Although he has taken a few lumps for playing politics with the White House, McChrystal has generally been sold to the American public as a “Zen warrior,” a counterinsurgency genius who, if simply left to his own devices, will be able to radically transform the ongoing debacle that is Afghanistan into a noble victory that will rank as one of the greatest political and military triumphs of modern history.

McChrystal’s resume and persona (a former commander of America’s special operations forces, a tireless athlete and a scholar) have been breathlessly celebrated in several interviews and articles. Reporters depict him as an ascetic soldier who spouts words of wisdom to rival Confucius, Jesus and Muhammad.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent Gen. McChrystal to “fix” the war in Afghanistan in the way that his boss, that earlier military prophet Gen. David Petraeus, “fixed” Iraq. Whether by accident or design, McChrystal’s mission became a cause célèbre of sorts for an American media starved for good news, even if entirely fabricated, coming out of Afghanistan.

One must remember that the general has accomplished little of note during his short tenure to date as the military commander in Afghanistan. His entire reputation is built around the potential to turn things around in Afghanistan. And to do this, McChrystal has said he needs time, and 40,000-plus additional American troops. There are currently around 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. McChrystal’s request would raise that number to around 110,000 troops – the same number as the Soviets had deployed in Afghanistan at the height of their failed military adventure some 20 years ago.

McChrystal, or more accurately, his staff, has authored a not-so-secret report that outlines the reasoning behind this massive increase in American military involvement in Afghanistan. Rightly noting that the American-led effort is currently failing, McChrystal argues that only a massive infusion of U.S. troops, and a corresponding “surge” of American civilians, can achieve the stability necessary to transform Afghanistan from the failed state it is today.

A viable nation capable of self-government, the new Afghanistan could maintain internal security so that terrorist organizations like al-Qaida will not be able to take root, flourish and once again threaten American security from the sanctuary of a lawless land. This concept certainly looks good on paper and plays well in the editorial section.

And why shouldn’t it? It touches on all the romantic notions of America as liberator and defender of the oppressed. The problem is that the assumptions made in the McChrystal report are so far removed from reality as to be ludicrous.

McChrystal operates under the illusion that American military power can provide a shield from behind which Afghanistan can remake itself into a viable modern society. He has deluded himself and others into believing that the people of Afghanistan want to be part of such a grand social experiment, and furthermore that they will tolerate the United States being in charge. The reality of Afghan history, culture and society argue otherwise.

The Taliban, once a defeated entity in the months following the initial American military incursion into Afghanistan, are resurgent and growing stronger every day. The principle source of the Taliban’s popularity is the resentment of the Afghan people toward the American occupation and the corrupt proxy government of Hamid Karzai.

There is nothing an additional 40,000 American troops will be able to do to change that basic equation. The Soviets tried and failed. They deployed 110,000 troops, operating on less restrictive lines of communication and logistical supply than the United States. They built an Afghan army of some 45,000 troops. They operated without the constraints of American rules of engagement. They slaughtered around a million Afghans. And they lost, for the simple reason that the people of Afghanistan did not want them, or their Afghan proxies.

Some pundits and observers make note of the fact that the Afghan people were able to prevail over the Soviets only because of billions of dollars of U.S. aid, which together with similar funding from Saudi Arabia and the logistical support of Pakistan, allowed the Afghan resistance to coalesce, grow and ultimately defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies. They note that there is no equivalent source of empowerment for the Taliban in Afghanistan today.

But they are wrong. The Taliban receive millions of dollars from sympathetic sources in the Middle East, in particular from Saudi Arabia, and they operate not only from within Afghanistan, but also out of safe havens inside Pakistan.

Indeed, one of the unique aspects of the Afghan conflict is the degree to which it has expanded into Pakistan, making any military solution in one theater contingent on military victory in the other. But the reality is that the more one employs military force in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, the more one strengthens the cause and resources of the Islamic insurgents in both places.

Pashtunistan, once a fanciful notion built around the concept of a united Pashtun people (the population in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan are primarily drawn from Pashtun tribes), has become a de facto reality. The decision by the British in 1897 to separate the Pashtun through the artificial device of the so-called Durand Line (which today constitutes the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan) has been exposed today as a futile effort to undermine tribal links. No amount of military force can reverse this.

Please read the rest of this fine essay/argument for a sane U.S. foreign policy. Suzan ______________________

5 comments:

Dave Dubya said...

War is sacred to the American power elite. They may as well openly worship Mars and Mammon. Their pretensions to Christainity, while understandable in the overall propaganda context, only make them bigger hypocrites.

War is not a means to an end like freedom, democracy, or security. It is an end in itself. Our military/media/industrial complex embraces war for war's sake. It is good for business and good for ratings, and good for bonding the corporate media with corporate government.

Being pro-war is always politically correct in our media and government, no matter how wrong in reality.

War is as American as Mom, baseball, apple pie, and cluster bombs.

Serving Patriot said...

Thanks Suzan... good articles you've pointed out.

Unfortunately, I do not think those in charge give a dang about repeating -- or not repeating -- our sad history.

SP

Lisa G. said...

Afghanistan is a lost cause - just like Vietnam. Sadly, we don't seem to learn our lesson, over and over again. We aren't winning any hearts and minds with this fruitless, never-ending war. Just burning more blood and treasure, sadly, once again.

darkblack said...

The irony is America's active role in creating and maintaining the Afghan quagmire for the Soviets gave them plenty of foreknowledge regarding just how unwinnable a prolonged conflict in the region would be.
And now there they are, chasing the same petrodreams as the 'Evil Empire'

Suzan said...

Dave! Thanks, buddy.

But I thought they did (proudly) every time we saw them on the TV.

They may as well openly worship Mars and Mammon.

I love your spelling. Prefect!

Their pretensions to Christainity

You're very welcome, SP.

And I (for one) am not gonna quit putting them out here (although that site at Langley that reads me for several hours at a time lately is a bit worrying).

Thanks for the thought, Lisa. Would it were true. However, I don't think the "winning of hearts and minds" has been in the Pentagon's planning since they trotted out that cliche in the early 60's. As I remember (not clearly, of course) there was a line about grabbing them by the short hairs and that their hearts and minds would quickly follow even then.

I wish I could agree with you, DB, but my thoughts are quite a bit darker. When they set up Osama and the Boys on the Afghan bus with all that free-flowing CIA moolah (against the big, bad Soviets) it was waaaayyy too easy to just recall them to active duty and start cutting the checks again when they realized the Taliban weren't easily bribable (or would stay bribed for long) for that upcoming pipeline-istan dream.

I wish I didn't think it was all in the long-term plans, but there is good evidence that this was factored in decades ago as the military spending skyrocketed without any real enemies. Heck, most of them just wanted to be like us (rich!).

The saddest part of our history is how easy it was to fool the 'murricans into believing that enemies were everywhere (already well-practiced in the early 50's by the Red Scare baby McCarthyites), just getting ready to pounce, if we decreased the military budgets even a hair - and then the great 9/11 Pounce (er, Show) was planned and orchestrated perfectly.

Or maybe it's all just a bad dream, eh? (For the lower classes, anyway. Goodbye yellow-brick, middle-class road. Hello, Warren Buffett world! (And if you saw him on Charlie Rose last night you understand my comment perfectly.))

Thanks for the great comments!

S