Monday, April 6, 2009

Afghanistan = Vietnam?

The respected conservative commentator Georgie Anne Geyer thinks so, among others - and as I've noted earlier, I'd have to agree. Don't get me wrong. I am, all in all, a big fan of Mr. Obama, and hope that I can remain so. But I fear that he's biting off more than he - or we - can chew, in Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

There's a famous aphorism from the Vietnam war, about how the US would sometimes have to "destroy a hamlet so that we could save it." The more I read about the impact of US drone attacks in Pakistan, the more that aphorism haunts my thinking. I hope the "surge" now in process in Afghanistan will succeed, but let's all try to keep in mind that, despite the inferences published by Fred Kagan and the American Enterprise Institute, there's no evidence to prove that General Petraeus can indeed walk on water. Nor, despite the best efforts of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to make the case, could General Maxwell Taylor or General William Westmoreland.


WASHINGTON -- As President Obama and his advisers focus on Europe, Russia and the international economy at the G20 summit, a slowly bleeding wound on the body of American foreign policy is becoming increasingly infected -- and will, in the end, seriously poison his presidency.

The wound is Afghanistan. Its present situation reminds those of us who remember Vietnam of those days in the '60s when minds in Washington were elsewhere -- on the nuclear standoff with Russia in Cuba, on President Kennedy's death, on the civil rights fight -- as we quietly kept sending more and more troops to replace the French in Indo-China.

What we hear from those faraway Afghan mountains and villages, which have voraciously devoured every foreign conqueror for hundreds of years, is that the Taliban is growing in influence. (It is al-Qaida and the Taliban we blame for the 9/11 attack, of course.)

The Taliban is now right outside the capital of Kabul, and young correspondents and aid workers who have covered the war tell me unanimously that they no longer can move around the country without guards. (One of the best, a dark-haired, handsome young American, has now grown a beard and wears Afghan dress whenever he leaves his hotel.)

Moreover, this very week, Taliban fighters struck for the first time outside of their protective tribal areas into Pakistan proper -- into the country's most populous state of Punjab and into that elegant ancient city of Lahore, in an eight-hour attack on the police institute that was only confusedly defeated. A warning.

Yet, even while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking a week ago in The Hague, called the waste of aid money already spent in Afghanistan "heartbreaking," the administration is going to forge ahead, planning to send some 900 new civilian personnel to the country, among other changes. This, despite the fact that foreign civilian personnel have become "the" target of the Taliban and other indiscriminate killers, many of them in the fight only to fight foreigners!

Is this wise? I don't think so. There is the same feeling in Afghanistan today that there was in Saigon in 1968, '69 and '70, when I was there -- that despite all our outward manifestations of military and technological power, the Viet Cong were sneaking up on us from all sides. In fact, it was, just as the Taliban is today.

But to back up momentarily to the decision-making process: Bill Gertz, one of Washington's most astute journalistic voices and investigators, wrote recently in The Washington Times that the Obama administration was initially divided on what to do, after eight long and ambivalent years, on Afghanistan. Vice President Joseph Biden and others argued in closed-door meetings for a "minimal strategy of stabilizing Afghanistan," focusing on the main military objective of denying safe haven to the terrorists.

A second group, led by special regional envoy Richard Holbrooke and supported by Secretary Clinton, fought for "a major nation-building effort." The latter won, and we are now, Gertz wrote, embarked on a "major, long-term military and civilian program to reinvent Afghanistan from one of the most backward, least-developed nations to a relatively prosperous democratic state."

And so, they are most probably placing us firmly back into the pattern of America's unfortunate lost wars. As Bill Lind, one of our most impressive military historians (he wrote the Marine Corps' small-wars manual in earlier years), says: "The error, one that no tactical operational successes can overcome, is setting unattainable strategic objectives. Short of divine intervention, nothing can turn Afghanistan into a modern, prosperous, democratic state."

Then he adds, revealingly: "Here we see how little 'change' the Obama administration really represents. The differences between the neo-liberals (the Obama-ites) and the neocons (the conservatives who got the Bush administration into the Iraq and Afghan wars) are few. Both are militant believers in Brave New World, a Globalist future in which everyone on earth becomes modern. ... Meanwhile, the money is running out. The 'ancien regime' syndrome looms ever larger: We not only maintain, but increase, foolish foreign commitments."

Another extremely well-informed columnist on the region and veteran of the Congo and Vietnam and innumerable other conflicts, Arnaud de Borchgrave, writes in his United Press International column of how Pakistan's always-secretive and endlessly intrusive intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, has in part supported the Taliban, at the same time it was supposedly working with us. "Pakistan's geopolitical calculus," he writes, "shows NATO followed by the United States succumbing to the Vietnam syndrome -- and the Taliban prevailing."

What is now taking form, then, is an Afghanistan that could steadily be taken over by the Taliban. More Americans there, particularly unprotected civilians, mean more targets of opportunity. (The Americans who volunteer are most often our very best people -- that is not the question.) Meanwhile, Pakistan could become Talibanized, rendered essentially helpless or radicalized itself.

But these are details -- THEIR details. What about OURS? Our big question is an overarching historic one. Are we going to continue to bleed ourselves in countries we are trying to transform in our image? Our history of unnecessary lost wars and fruitless interventions -- from Vietnam, to Somalia, to Haiti and others -- may not show up immediately, but they are there, underlying and poisoning everything. In Afghanistan, we could have, from the beginning, dealt with al-Qaida and the Taliban as a police and intelligence action, realizing both their limits and our own. Instead, we are trying, nobly but ultimately foolishly, to build a "city on the hill" in sand. Again.

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