San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas
Email Email | Print Print --

October 5th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: The Afghan war is beginning to feel a lot like Vietnam

Freethought San Marcos: A column

I suppose most people have had the experience of hearing something, or smelling something, or seeing something that brings back a long, lost memory of another time and place. Whenever I smell newly-cut grass just after the first cool spell of fall, it takes me back to football practices in junior high and high school. Recently, I’ve been having that kind of experience in another realm.

A new set of generals and cabinet members have taken me back nearly forty-five years and reminded me of Gen. Westmoreland and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as they drove the escalation of the War in Vietnam. Now, I find my country engaged in the escalation of a different deadly conflict, one just as senseless and similar in many ways to Vietnam.

Gen. Stanley McCrystal, our top military leader in Afghanistan, has recommended three options for escalating our war in Afghanistan. All options include increases in troop levels–from 10,000 to 15,000, or 25,000, or 45,000. Administration officials are debating “what the priorities should be and whether more U.S. soldiers and Marines on the ground would help achieve them.”

Unclear to me is how Gen. McCrystal can make any recommendations about the War in Afghanistan until the President has decided the purpose of the war. The purposes have changed over the last eight years. Originally, we were after bin Laden and al Queda. In order to get them, we overthrew the Taliban government and chased bin Laden and al Queda into Pakistan and to wherever else they wanted to flee. Now, we are nation-building or pacifying, we are fighting a resurgence of Taliban in some areas of the country, and we are trying to destroy the main cash crop in Afghanistan–opium–all while supporting a corrupt and illegitimate government.

Gen. McCrystal seems to be working in a vacuum. He has made recommendations on strategies, troop levels, and missions without knowing the purpose of the US presence in Afghanistan. Our military is supposed to have civilian leadership, but it seems to me that too often the military decides the purpose while the civilian leadership abdicates its responsibilities. When the military decides, we always keep fighting, wasting lives on all sides, destroying military families, and wasting resources.

The military is supposed to serve the defense needs of the nation. Instead, it has used the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan to try out new weapons systems and perform civilian duties, such as nation-building, for which it is not trained and cannot accomplish because of the military’s very nature.

Before his election, President Obama told us that he would escalate the War in Afghanistan, so I am not surprised by his efforts to do so. But we have no clarity from him about our purposes and goals in Afghanistan, nor how we will extricate ourselves from that country. His cabinet is divided on these issues.

If we continue the nation-building and counter-insurgency route established eight years ago, the manual on such efforts, written by Gen. Petraeus, calls for troop levels around 600,000. We are not going to get any more help from NATO, as meager as that help has been, and the Afghan army is almost nonexistent. If we follow the plans set forth by Gens. McCrystal and Petraeus, we will have a version of Yogi Berra’s déjà vu all over again.

While the War in Vietnam is not similar in all respects with the Afghan war, the escalation of the War in Afghanistan is beginning to look, feel, and smell a lot like the escalation in Vietnam. It seems there is something in the genetic makeup of Americans that leads to emotion-driven wars and an unwillingness to admit mistakes and put an end to folly. There is even an inability to recognize folly.

Finally, war hawk George Will has taken an objective look at the War in Afghanistan and mustered the intellectual honesty to call it what it is. In his column titled “Time to Get out of Afghanistan,” Will concluded that Afghanistan was a country whose political climate was not stable enough to accommodate the nation-building strategy which is the premise of McCrystal’s report.

Will wrote, “Counterinsurgency theory concerning the time and the ratio of forces required to protect the population indicates that, nationwide, Afghanistan would need hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more.” Will’s alternative, while not peace-mongering, is a welcome de-escalation of armed, on-the-ground conflict: “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.” This approach would at least keep al Queda training camps from functioning once again in Afghanistan.

Joseph Galloway, in a recent article in the McClatchey Newspapers, reminded us of the standards for military conflict enunciated by former Gen. Colin Powell and added a few other pertinent questions:

“Gen. Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said these questions all must be answered with a loud YES before the United States takes military action:

1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?

2. Do we have a clear, attainable objective?

3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?

4. Have all non-violent policy means been exhausted?

5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?

6. Have all the consequences of our action been fully considered?

7. Is the action supported by the American people?

8. Do we have broad international support?”

The War in Afghanistan seems to fail on seven of these eight criteria and none of the questions are addressed in McCrystal’s report.

Galloway goes on to ask “ Why are we fighting the Taliban? The Taliban never attacked America, and no one suggests they have the capacity or interest in attacking the American homeland; they are fighting Americans because Americans occupy their country. Petraeus acknowledges al-Qaida left Afghanistan long ago, but in the absence of al-Qaida we have simply substituted the Taliban as our enemy without asking whether this makes any sense. And if the argument is that we have to stay in Afghanistan so al-Qaida doesn’t return, does that mean forever — at more than $100 billion per year?”

“What will it ultimately cost and how many American men and women will die for this mistaken policy? Does it mean we should invade and occupy all other nations where al-Qaida might pop up? Already, al-Qaida is operating in Somalia and Indonesia, and what should we do about all the many weak and failed nations that potentially could be launching pads for terrorism — do we invade and occupy them all, as well?”

“With the American economy faltering and falling deeper into debt to its most important strategic rival, China, can we afford the luxury of fighting expensive wars wherever terrorism potentially might arise? What are the real strategic threats to the U.S., and is spending hundreds of billions more in Afghanistan getting in the way of more important security issues?”

It seems clear to me that the Pentagon is trying once again to usurp civilian rule by deciding America’s foreign policy objectives. It is using fear, subversion, and manipulation to force the President into supporting more of the same failed policies that we have followed in Afghanistan for eight years. This President from the Land of Lincoln would do well to remember that Lincoln was not afraid to get rid of generals who were ineffective and wrong-headed. Certainly, Lincoln would not tolerate a general who tried to undermine his authority, as both McCrystal and Petraeus have done in leaking McCrystal’s report to the press in an attempt to manipulate the debate and control the outcome.

There is no way to win the War in Afghanistan in any conventional sense because it is not a conventional war. No army has ever conquered the Afghan people for long–not Alexander the Great, the British, the Russians. Eugene Robinson, writing in the “Washington Post” suggested that “Our only goals should be to satisfy ourselves that Afghanistan will not again be a terrorist haven and to leave as quickly as possible. We need to use not just force but also diplomacy — which means, yes, talking to the Taliban.” Condoleezza Rice, former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, declared nearly eight years ago that we had defeated the Taliban, but we did not leave. We started nation-building and have wound up with a corrupt government, unable to control even its capital without our troops, with no chance to create a stable country run by a national government.

About the only thing I haven’t smelled in Afghanistan is the odor of napalm, but our other weapons have caused us to lose the hearts and minds of the people as surely as we did in Vietnam. Creating a stable government in Afghanistan is beyond our military capabilities. Re-building civil society is a job for diplomats and others, not soldiers and Marines. It is time to end the quest for a military solution in Afghanistan, preserve American and Afghan lives, and stop the bleeding of our treasury in a fool’s mission.

Email Email | Print Print


One thought on “Freethought San Marcos: The Afghan war is beginning to feel a lot like Vietnam

  1. Such a difficult problem – no solution we can provide will lead to a good outcome, in my opinion.

    More than half the population of Afganistan (the women and children) have no say in whether their country goes to the Taliban. It’s a tribal land to begin with, and in the absence of U.S. forces the Taliban will soon control the country. We don’t like that the Afgan women will again become non-citizens of their own country – they will again be owned property with no rights and no access to education.

    If we stay, there will be no victory. We can’t defeat those who can retreat to Pakistan at will.

    The economy in Afganistan is now sustained by growing poppy plants – billions of them. If America continues the drug war we began years ago, we will ruin whole nations – Mexico and certain South American countries as prime examples. America is one of the world’s biggest markets for the poppy product. We must legalize and then control and tax drugs. Only then will we be able to control the flow of drugs from Asia and across our southern border. The billions of dollars we waste on all facets of the drug war is money we could use for so many good purposes.

    We need to end the war on drugs – we lost that war many years ago. As to the war in Afganistan, I just don’t know what to do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *