Sunday, November 15, 2009

Afghanistan: Which Way Mr. President?

Dear Readers:

I am a citizen of the United States. For that reason I am, like many millions of others, paying close attention to the deliberations of the Obama administration over how the U.S. will proceed in its nine-year-long war in Afghanistan.

I do not pretend to be an expert on this issue. While I have had a chance in recent years to speak with a number of journalists and others who have worked in Afghanistan, I have not been there myself. And I have traveled to enough countries in the world to know that you do not know a place, not really, until you have spent time there.

So, while my natural skepticism about U.S. military interventions abroad makes me an easy skeptic about any plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, I am also aware that things are complicated. For this reason I have been an eager reader of thoughtful, intelligent analysis on the enormous choice about to be made by the U.S. President.

In that spirit I recommend an important article published this week by the U.S. analyst Jonathan Schell in The Nation – The Fifty Year War. Schell's article is a detailed, well-researched comparison between the disasterous circumstances of U.S. escalation in Vietnam nearly half a century ago with the current circumstances in Afghanistan today.

Most chilling are the echoes of that time of choices on Vietnam:

A decision with such heavy domestic political implications that a President might well deploy more U.S. troops based on those considerations instead of the facts of the war itself.

The U.S. linking it fortunes in war with a government that is quite clearly corrupt and which is dependent on the U.S for its political survival.

The potential for a quagmire in which the absence of a graceful exit strategy becomes the only real reason we don't exit.

So for those interested in this question, an important one with many lives at stake, Afghani and U.S. – I encourage you to have a look at The Fifty Year War. And if others have other good articles to suggest, please feel encouraged to post a link to them here [please, not the full article, just a link].

Jim Shultz


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too bad you didn't give mention the situation in Afghanistan as "complicated" or entertain a "thoughtful, intelligent analysis" during the Bush administration, James. Did you know that under Obama the Patriot Act remains intact, as well as renditions, tribunals, wiretaps, intercepts, Predator assasination strikes (more than during the entire Bush adminstration), Guantanamo hasn't been closed, no speedy leaving Iraq...and now increasing US troops in Afghanistan?

But it was never about caring for the lives of US servicemen or the Afghan people you and your fellow ideologues care about, right? Where are the antiwar rallies? We now know that the only important thing is that Bush wasn't in command anymore.

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


1:28 PM  
Blogger Norman said...

I'll give the article a read although I'm always leery of any comparison to "VIETNAM". I entered active service in 1983 and retired some 22 years later. Every single conflict during that time period was inevitably labeled another pending Vietnam - including Desert Storm. There is always some vague similarity, but as you mentioned with countries, each conflict has its own nature. I'll reserve further comment though until I've done my homework.

12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:51 PM  
Anonymous university said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:51 AM  
Blogger Norman said...

Well I finally read the subject article and to a great degree, I hold to what I posted above. It seems to be a literary convention to compare all conflicts to Vietnam. The differences between these two conflicts however could not be more stark. First and foremost deals with strategic objectives. Beyond that we can look at, motivations, terrain, etc.

Regarding strategic objectives, the United States entered into Vietnam to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam. Our involvement was characterized by a gradual escalation of forces from advisors first eventually to full scale military involvement, but the objective was always Cold War containment as the article you cited clearly confirms. Compare this with our objective in Afghanistan. Last year Defense Secretary Gates put it concisely: "Our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and its allies." This has to date been an unequivocal success. It is in our ancillary objectives that we run into difficulties. Again citing secretary Gates: "It is not that we don't have other goals — education, female literacy, centralized control of government services, drug eradication, liberal democracy. But Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest and most war-torn countries. At best, many of these objectives will be realized partially, over very long periods, and they should not be measured as part of military campaigns or political cycles." (see Newsweek post by international editor Fareed Zakaria)

The motivations in Vietnam are fascinating and whole volumes have been written centering on this. North Vietnamese motivations can be directly linked to their military objectives which date back to the French conquest of Indochina between 1859 and 1888. This was true colonialism (despite what Evo thinks). The Vietnamese did not see any relief from this until the French defeat in WWII. When Ho Chi Minh (who helped repatriate US pilots during the war) declared independence in 1945, he paraphrased the US declaration of Independence and sought US assistance. Only when we ignored him did he go to the Chinese Communists. It was at that point that the US became involved. Simply put, the Vietnamese were seeking independence. In Afghanistan, our conflict is not to any great degree with Afghanis. Many of them have no great desire to see a return of the Taliban (or Al Qaeda) or the oppression that comes with it. While Vietnam was traditionally a united country, Afghanistan is more tribal in nature. Allegiance is more along blood lines than anything nationalistic. They may have no great love of the US, but neither is there a nationwide opposition. The extremists that we typically end up fighting are cross-border fighters coming in from Pakistan.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Norman said...

As to terrain, there could not be a greater contrast. The Ho Chi Minh trail from the north supplying southern guerilla opposition was infamous. Under cover of darkness, under triple canopy forest using bicycles or ox carts, a constant supply of weapons flowed from communist sources. Bomb out a bridge one day and it was re-established within a week. The North Vietnamese could also circumvent via Laos and Cambodia. Afghanistan is predominantly desert and rough mountain. Coalition bases are most often isolated from civilian populations. One or twice a year you hear of a concerted attack on a distant outpost rather than the frequent experience in Vietnam. We have air supremacy! We fly where and when we want to. The resistance in Afghanistan is reduced to highly ineffective terrorist tactics; roadside bombing, one or two rockets poorly aimed, and Rocket Propelled Grenades. My point is that the comparison is stretched at best.

So do we have to win hearts and minds as the article you referenced indicates? And is this impossible in Afghanistan? Well if we want to keep our clean image, then we probably have to, but to be honest, that is a self imposed constraint. This was not an issue for the Romans, Greeks, Persians, or Assyrians. But we are not anywhere near prepared to go to that degree of brutality, nor should we ever. (On the other hand, appearing to be that rabid has its advantages in preventing conflicts. It's a little late for that at the moment though.) No, we need to seek another solution. There was one quote from your article that I particularly agreed with though. "In January a Defense Department report stated, 'building a fully competent and independent Afghan government will be a lengthy process that will last, at a minimum, decades.'" I could not agree with this more. If this is a strategic objective, if this is something we must accomplish, then we must realize that it is a long term goal. And that is the meat of the matter. Are we willing to enter into a decades-long, highly expensive (not just in dollars) nation-building process? If we pull out early, do we risk another attack on US soil? If we stay put, does that prevent another attack?

Afghanistan should be viewed in its own light and not forced into a tenuous comparison.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, Norman. I don't like to compare Vietnam with more recent conflicts involving the US, especially Afghanistan.

First of all, Afghanistan is no more ungovernable than than any of the region's other rough countries. After the founding of the modern state in 1919, Afghanistan enjoyed a relative stable succession of constitutional monarchs until 1973. The country was once considered generally secure, tolerant and hospitable to foreigners. Kabul was relatively tolerant and Westernized.

In the last 2-3 years (the bloodiest ones), the US has suffered a total of 553 fatalities, which less than 1% of the 58,000+ Americans killed in Vietnam. What is astounding is the ability of the US military to inflict damage on the enemy, protect the constitutional government and keep our losses to a minimum

Besides, while Afghans have been traditionally fierce resistance fighters and made occupations difficult, they have rarely for long defeated invaders...and never without outside assistance. That's why they've been invaded and occupied so many times throughout history.

Finally, Obama still has relative solid support from the US people and Congress...something LBJ didn't have in Vietnam for much time.

The major problem for Obama is that he finds himself increasingly trapped by his campaign rhetoric. He is on record as committed to defeating the Taliban and winning the "necessary" war, but Obama is now also a Noble Peace Laureate who apparently does not want what has become a messy conflict with Islamists on his watch.

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm just waitin for the #2 of the CAncilleria to be drawn and quartered by his MAS comrades fro daring to state the obvious:it's normal that countries spy each other. Remember it's for that reason (spying) that Goldberg was kicked out by EM.

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Viet Nam and Afganistan= Corrupted government, corrupted US contractors,
millions of Viet killed, US soldiers; 50,000 death in Viet Nam, over 50,000 crippled soldiers and over 4000 death in Irak,Afganistan. Economy in shambles in the US and same people who run the viet war and this war in charge.
What else is new? What is different? Same old same. Oh, forgot. Blackwater and the new huge merks spartans taking over the war.

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The End of Bolivian Democracy
Elections scheduled for December 6 will mark the official end of the Bolivian democracy.

A dictatorship that fosters the production and distribution of cocaine is not apt to enjoy a positive international image. But when that same government cloaks itself in the language of social justice, with a special emphasis on the enfranchisement of indigenous people, it wins world-wide acclaim.


Under his rule, coca cultivation is legal and he collects a licensing fee from all farmers, whose harvests are sold through a centralized market. MAS officials also regulate cocaine production and trafficking which now reaches down to the household level.

The booming business has made Mr. Morales popular. He may hate the U.S. and freedom but one thing is for sure: He understands markets.

Write to O'

12:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heart Mary!

8:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surge redux from the Bush clone.
Antiwar progressives of the world, unite!

2:57 PM  

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