During a national nightly news broadcast in February 1968, Walter Cronkite questioned the legitimacy of America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War. It was a defining moment. Following the broadcast, President Johnson famously told an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” He was right. American support for the war substantially declined and, soon thereafter, Johnson announced that he was not running for re-election.
On September 1, 2009, conservative columnist George Will published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post entitled, “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan.” Although Will may not rank with Cronkite as “most trusted man in America,” his dissension from the ranks of pro-war sentiment is nevertheless significant and potentially influential. Will is a model of civil discourse, a thoughtful, intelligent, and well-respected commentator who appeals to reason at a time when the news media is filled with shouting pundits and a lack of critical thinking.
Will correctly notes that the United States has been entangled in Afghanistan for eight years – longer than its combined involvements in the two world wars of the Twentieth Century. He contends that our stated policy of “clear, hold, and build” – that is, clear various regions of Taliban control, hold U.S./Afghan control of those areas, and build effective local, district and provincial governments – is doomed to failure; “nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try.” According to the Brookings Institution, only Somalia ranks lower than Afghanistan as a weaker nation state. Will contends that Afghanistan has never had an effective, central government and, citing recent commentary in The Economist, states that the regime of President Hamid Karzai is “so ‘inept, corrupt and predatory’ that people sometimes yearn for restoration of the warlords, ‘who were less venal and less brutal than Mr. Karzai’s lot.’” We presently have 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan (bringing the coalition total to 110,000), and President Obama is considering adding thousands more; yet most experts believe that the counterinsurgency effort needed to protect the population would require “hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more. That is inconceivable.”
Although most Republicans, including the editorialists of Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, continue to support increased military jingoism, Will is not alone on the right in espousing a more cautious approach. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, for one, also advocates withdrawal of U.S. troops: “Bogging down large armies in historically complex, dangerous areas ends in disaster.” Hagel contends that the United States must recognize that every great threat to our country also threatens our global partners, including former adversaries China, Russia, India, and Turkey. “We need a clearly defined strategy that accounts for the interconnectedness and the shared interests of all nations.” Hagel suggests that we should not “view U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan through a lens that sees only ‘winning’ or ‘losing.’ . . . There are too many cultural, ethnic and religious dynamics at play in these regions for any one nation to control.”
Like many Democrats, I have until recently believed that Afghanistan was the “good war” in our fight against global terrorism. Afghanistan is where the attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, were planned and executed. The Taliban forces who supported Osama Bin-laden and provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda were legitimate targets of U.S. military might. I continue to believe that we were right to invade Afghanistan in October 2001, and that we were wrong to invade Iraq, a war which was entered under false pretenses and which diverted our military and security resources in a country that had not attacked us and that posed no direct threat to us. I agreed with President Obama when he asserted during the campaign that U.S. resources should be increased in Afghanistan and decreased in Iraq.
So it is with some reluctance that I express doubts about the President’s strategy and acknowledge the legitimacy of questions raised by George Will, Chuck Hagel, and an increasing number of more liberal commentators. As Bob Herbert wrote in Saturday’s New York Times, “We’re fighting on behalf of an incompetent and hopelessly corrupt government in Afghanistan. If our ultimate goal, as the administration tells us, is a government that can effectively run the country, protect its own population and defeat the Taliban, our troops will be fighting and dying in Afghanistan for many, many years to come.”
Although Vietnam analogies can be tiresome, and while liberals too easily equate all American military incursions with Vietnam, some comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam are indeed apt.
• Like President Johnson during the Vietnam War, President Obama appears eager to demonstrate his toughness by vowing to do what it takes to “win” in Afghanistan – even though what is meant by winning is far from clear. When Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, was asked last month to define “success” in Afghanistan, he replied, “We’ll know it when we see it.”
• As was the case with South Vietnam, Afghanistan is a deeply divided, semi-failed state with an incompetent, corrupt government that is considered illegitimate by a large portion of its population.
• As with Vietnam, in Afghanistan the United States is embroiled in a nation for which we have very little understanding of its culture, history, and language.
• Similar to Vietnam, Afghanistan has an inhospitable geography, with mountainous terrain, snowy winters, and numerous caves and escape routes that provide off-limit sanctuaries across 9,000 miles of borders. It is ideal for indigenous resistance to foreign invaders, providing the Taliban in certain areas with a distinct advantage.
• As with Vietnam’s resistance of French colonialism prior to the arrival of U.S. forces, Afghanistan successfully resisted military incursions by the British and the former Soviet Union.
• As with LBJ and Vietnam in the 1960’s, the conflict in Afghanistan threatens to derail President Obama’s efforts to reshape America at home. A military escalation in Afghanistan can only serve to divert much needed resources away from the President’s attempts to reform a troubled health care industry, revive a broken economy, prevent global warming, and restore America’s standing in the world.
None of this should be taken as criticism of the brave and courageous U.S. military forces that are stationed in Afghanistan. The ability and skill of our armed forces is unmatched. But many years after U.S. forces had completely withdrawn from Vietnam, Col. Harry Summers, a military historian, said to a counterpart in the North Vietnamese Army, “You never defeated us in the field.” The NVA officer replied, “That may be true. It is also irrelevant.” The Viet Cong knew that one day U.S. forces would leave and, until that day arrived, they would outlast us. At the peak of the Vietnamese conflict, LBJ confided in Senator Richard Russell that he knew we could not win the war in Vietnam, but he felt compelled to stay the course so as to avoid being the first American president to lose a war. Johnson’s pride and political calculations cost the lives of tens of thousands of some of America’s finest young men. These should be warnings to President Obama. While the number of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan will likely never approach Vietnam War levels, President Obama is risking a commitment to a war that has no end in sight and no apparent upside.
While the goal of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, is to establish a reasonably noncorrupt Afghan state that will partner with America in keeping Afghanistan free of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, it is clear that he is talking about nation building in one of the poorest, most tribalized, countries in the world. As Thomas Friedman contends in today’s New York Times:
It would be one thing if the people we were fighting with and for represented everything the Taliban did not: decency, respect for women’s rights and education, respect for the rule of law and democratic values and rejection of drug-dealing. But they do not. Too many in this Kabul government are just a different kind of bad. This has become a war between light black — Karzai & Co. — and dark black — Taliban Inc. And light black is simply not good enough to ask Americans to pay for with blood or treasure.
Obama has framed Afghanistan as a war of necessity and not of choice. No one disputes that there are people and organizations committed to harming America and that strong measures are needed to protect us from these threats. But how and when we use force is a decision that must not be made in the mere hope that, maybe, it will succeed.
If we still have not learned that it is virtually impossible to defeat an enemy we do not understand in a terrain we cannot control, then President Obama is destined to repeat the failed lessons of history. There is much more to this debate, and the issues are complex and not easily boxed into the Vietnam analogy. But I cannot help but believe that a coordinated policy of containment and deterrence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, coupled with strategic development, military training, and economic aid to the Afghan government, will be more successful in keeping us safe and in preventing a resurgence of Taliban influence in the Pashtun regions of Pakistan, than will a military strategy of "winning" at all costs. As Senator Hagel said, “Relying on the use of force as a centerpiece of our global strategy, as we have in recent years, is economically, strategically and politically unsustainable and will result in unnecessary tragedy – especially for the men and women, and their families, who serve our country.”