Forty years ago, commenting on the contradictions of US foreign policy in Vietnam, Norman Mailer observed that “Bombing a country at the same time you are offering it aid is as morally repulsive as beating up a kid in an alley and stopping to ask for a kiss.” Sadly, those words remain relevant not only in Afghanistan, where the current Nobel laureate for peace stands poised to approve a costly and militarily questionable escalation in a war that has already run for eight years, but also in Pakistan, where the American military’s fondness for unmanned drones persists in spite of the heavy toll in civilian casualties which their use has produced.
As each news cycle brings further details of some outrage in either Pakistan or Afghanistan, President Obama is edging towards a moment uncannily similar to President.Johnson’s decision, half a lifetime ago, to increase US troop levels in Vietnam, in hopes of an unlikely victory. At the time, Johnson believed that his unexpected triumph in an “unwinnable war” would free him up to pursue the dream of a “great society” – instead he grew so disheartened by the complications of the war that he decided not to run for a second term and finished his presidency as a broken and disappointed man. Obama, too, is gambling that a long-shot victory in the Af-Pak theatre will buy him enough time to focus on domestic issues like health care and the economy. Time will tell, perhaps sooner than expected, whether this will turn out to be an act of hubris, or a timely intervention in a campaign that has run out of ideas.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the Obama administration has been debating two well-known analyses of the Vietnam war, while trying to settle on the correct approach towards Afghanistan. The first is Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, which argues that the Johnson White House was “marched into an escalating war by a military viewing the conflict too narrowly to see the perils ahead”; the second, favoured by the Pentagon, is A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, which suggests that the US could have triumphed in Vietnam if the Johnson administration had just kept faith with the generals and resisted yielding to domestic critics. Although Obama is said to be more sympathetic to the first analysis, the political pressure to deliver something tangible in Afghanistan seems to have forced his hand into acting in accordance with the latter, making further concessions to the military and hoping that they will break their long run of recent military failures.
While Vietnam is relevant to the larger strategic questions in Afghanistan, Iraq offers much fresher evidence of why the US military have failed to deliver victory. Having stumbled into Baghdad without a plan for the aftermath of their military campaign, the US-led coalition has struggled, with varying degrees of ineptitude, to rebuild a shattered country while subduing a tenacious counterinsurgency. The mixed messages and confused morality of the Coalition’s last six years are perfectly caught in Mailer’s Vietnam metaphor. Unsure of its larger goals the US military has alternated between blows with kisses, hoping that the increased ferocity of both might compensate for an incoherent strategy. This confusion persisted until General Petraeus had the good sense to alter the counterinsurgency doctrine by ensuring that US troops learn how to live among, and integrate with the Iraqi civilians they are meant to protect.
Buoyed up by the mitigation of their failures in Iraq, generals Petraeus and McChrystal are clearly in no mood to be second guessed by a new president. In the Washington Post, Bob Woodward recently published extracts from a “confidential” memo which McChrystal had prepared on Afghanistan. Its overconfident tone, full of certainty and impatience, will be eerily familiar to anyone who has read its predecessors on Iraq. At one point, for example, the memo states that “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” This advice is tempered with an admission that “The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF’s [the International Security Assistance Force] own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government.” The truth is somewhat starker than that cautious understatement would allow. After eight years and ten billion dollars of training, the US military has failed to train an adequate Afghan army and police force, and there is very little prospect of them doing so in the near, middle or long term. Having overstayed their welcome, and made too many accommodations with the patently corrupt Karzai government, the war in Afghanistan cannot be won until the Taliban, and other powerful local actors are co-opted into a political solution. Obama’s decision to embrace a surge makes this far less likely and will only prolong the realization, entirely absent from McChrystal’s upbeat assessment, that “defeating the insurgency is no longer possible” because there is, to date, no coherent Afghan state on whose behalf the insurgents can be defeated.
Confronting the “domino theory” and other official cant from apologists for war in Vietnam, Norman Mailer distilled his advice to four simple words: “Get out of Asia.” Showing far more sophistication and strategic depth than the “best and brightest” who guided Kennedy and Johnson, or any of the current crop of presidential advisers, Mailer memorably stated that for the American public “Vietnam is faceless . . . Who can say which language is spoken there, or what industries might exist, or even what the country looks like? We do not care. We are not interested in the Vietnamese. If we were to fight a war with the inhabitants of the planet of Mars there would be more emotional participation by the people of America.” Eight years and US$228 billion into another misconceived war, President Obama would do well to remember this advice, before he too is marched into a conflict by a military that views its mission too narrowly. It is not too late to get out of Afghanistan, but once Gen. McChrystal gets his surge, it probably will be.