Here are two questions for President Obama before tomorrow night’s speech on Afghanistan:
- How many months did it take for President Nixon to end the Vietnam War with his “Vietnamization” plan?
- When was the last time a general in the field told a president, when asked to assess a battlefield situation: “Sir, this is a real dog, unwinnable, it is a mistake being here?”
Okay, okay, my first query is a trick question because Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization did not end the war. Nixon and Henry Kissinger prolonged the war, which continued until Congress finally shut down funding in 1975. Even then, it was over the objections of President Gerald Ford.
There is no trick to the second question, however, because when General Stanley McChrystal requested 40,000 more troops for Afghanistan, he took his place in a long line of military men who have called for more troops. The job of generals is to fight, not to consider the possibility that the fight itself is wrong. William Westmoreland assured President Johnson the thousands of deaths were not in vain – with more troops he could destroy the North Vietnamese. Douglas MacArthur had only one military strategy in Korea – forward. Franks and Petraeus believe the answer in Iraq has been more troops. Despite the conventional wisdom that the surge troop addition “worked,” an honest assessment would wait until after we leave Iraq to judge whether a post-U.S. invasion Iraq is a more stable peaceful country than it was prior to our invasion.
The point is what did Obama expect McChrystal to tell him? The president’s time would have been more valuably spent getting more counsel from historians, Afghanistan experts, and anti-terrorism experts, who could have made the following points more persuasively than I can:
First. It is risky business to think you can change reality by propping up corrupt governments that are fighting counter-insurgency forces of indigenous people, even if the insurgents are not good guys. Home grown forces can be stubborn foes, especially when the government they are fighting is no one’s friend. Many foreigners have found this out the hard way in Afghanistan. From the ancient Greeks and Persians to Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union in 1988, foreigners have decided to leave Afghanistan when they could not bend Afghanis to their will in this country of deserts, mountains, and caves.
Second, just as Vietnamization did not work because the South Vietnamese did not think the corrupt government of Saigon was worth the fight, so too are the Afghanis resisting American requests to fight the Taliban. They are saying in Kabul and Kandahar what we heard in Saigon: this is the Americans’ war, not ours. The Washington Post reported on Sunday that the Afghan government has been able to recruit fewer than 2,000 recruits a month to fight. That is less than half the amount expected in the McChrystal plan. The U.S. generals themselves have often mused to the media about their inability to change hearts and minds in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday President Obama will tell us we are in Afghanistan to fight a war against global terrorism. He is right, but sending troops into a country that does not want them, with no stable government, is not the answer. President Clinton may have the appropriate strategy of using strategic missile strikes at Taliban targets, to keep them off balance.
If Obama proceeds with his Afghanization he will be no more successful than was Nixon with Vietnamization. Eventually, we will leave as many others have left, with nothing to show but loss of life on both sides.
I realize that Obama inherited the Afghanistan-Pakistan terrorist mess, but this is no excuse. History is filled with leaders who continue wars they have inherited because they do not want to be the one who pulled out. We now know that Johnson, Nixon, and Bush sent young Americans to die in unwinnable efforts because they themselves lacked the courage to be known as presidents who pulled out.
It’s just that we had hoped Obama would be different.
GLOBAL WARMING BLOG POST CORRECTION:
My last post described both the Pew poll and the ABC News poll as finding that more Americans thought global warming was a “serious problem” than thought it was happening. This was an accurate report of the Pew poll’s findings, but an inaccurate description of the ABC poll. In the ABC News poll, only those who said they felt that global warming was happening were asked if they believed it was a serious problem. The actual numbers for the ABC News poll, released on November 15, reported 72% of the public believes global warming is happening, and 82% of those people believe it is a serious problem. Apologies and many thanks to Gary Langer, director of the ABC News poll, for pointing out my error.