Strategy in Afghanistan is unraveling

August 10, 2010


— When Gordon Goldstein sees Afghanistan as “déjá vu,” a mission that’s “unraveling,” it isn’t the ramblings of another armchair critic.

Goldstein is the author of an acclaimed biography of McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson who became haunted by the misadventure he helped devise in Vietnam. The book, “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam,” was on President Barack Obama’s nightstand as he was setting Afghanistan policy last year; it got a rave review from Richard Holbrooke, now in charge of the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy.

Goldstein argues it’s clear the counterinsurgency and population-protection policy, as set out in General Stanley McChrystal’s manifesto last summer, is failing, reminiscent of the grandiose plans Bundy promulgated in Vietnam in the 1960s.

There is emerging a consensus that the policy is heading south. This consensus includes the more than 100 House Democrats who voted against war funding last month, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, a growing number of foreign-policy elites outside the Obama administration, and the president of Pakistan.

Supposed differences, such as those displayed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in ABC News interviews last weekend over how substantial will be the troop withdrawals starting next summer, reflect a false choice. Given the situation and cost in lives and treasure, there seems little doubt Obama will scale back the U.S. commitment.

The other false debate grew out of the papers published on the Wikileaks website showing that elements of the Pakistani intelligence agency are cooperating with the Taliban; that is neither surprising nor unexpected.

The numbers underscore why this policy is unsustainable. U.S. casualties this year are likely to double to between 600 and 700, more than during the entire Bush administration; July was the deadliest month for U.S. forces in the history of the conflict.

The Afghan war will cost $105 billion this fiscal year, more than double what it cost when Obama took over, and almost twice what we’re spending on Iraq. Most allies aren’t interested in being part of any long-term plans. The Dutch have withdrawn their soldiers; Canada and Poland have expressed intentions to do likewise. The largest non-U.S. contingent is the almost 10,000 British troops, and new Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested he’d like to pull most of them out in the not-too-distant future.

There are two overarching elements that make the U.S. policy unpalatable: Public opinion keeps souring; most Americans now think the war isn’t winnable. And in contrast to the context surrounding the original adventure into Iraq, the United States is in tough shape financially, and there is a consensus that huge budget deficits have to be pared back.

Some of the most passionate supporters of the war, such as Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, also advocate that all the tax cuts passed under the administration of President George W. Bush, including those for the wealthiest Americans, be extended. There is no mention of sacrifice.

Even many of these advocates acknowledge the war effort isn’t going well. Whether they are deploring the resurgent Taliban or corruption in the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the most oft-cited villain, they proclaim, is Obama’s deadline to start withdrawing U.S. troops next summer. That supposedly has encouraged all sorts of bad behavior.

The problem is that it was the previous administration that told us the Taliban was essentially eradicated. Suddenly are we to believe they emerged phoenix-like after hearing that a troop drawdown would start in 2011? And do they really believe Karzai was a good-government democrat before Obama laid out his policy in a speech at West Point last year?

To be sure, just getting out, like 1989, is an option almost no one considers smart. The debate instead should focus on the particulars of a more limited counterterrorism policy that both prevents Afghanistan from being a safe haven again for al-Qaida and fosters stability in Pakistan, the more important question.

One option that’s not productive is a multiyear presence of 100,000 or more U.S. troops; the British and Russians could have told us that this turns into a counterproductive occupying force.

Watching Obama, Gordon Goldstein recalls the contrast that Bundy described in the 1960s between the skeptical Kennedy and more gung-ho, accepting Johnson on Vietnam. Bundy speculated that JFK, who believed that military means never should be deployed in pursuit of an indeterminate end, wouldn’t have engaged in a protracted war.

“Obama never drank the Kool-Aid on the counterinsurgency case; that’s why he gave McChrystal fewer troops than he wanted and set a date to start withdrawing,” Goldstein says. “This is illustrative of doubt and caution, of not wanting to be boxed in. That was Kennedy’s signature style on Vietnam.”

— Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News.


Paul R Getto 7 years, 9 months ago

Sigh. "Where have all the flowers gone? When will they ever learn?" Like the Russians, we continue to pound sand and waste blood and treasure for nothing. Build schools faster than they can burn them; educate a generation of women who will tame the wild men and leave it at that. It's much cheaper and will work in the long run. The 'other' long run is wasting a generation or more in this land full of windmills. Don Quixote, can you hear me?

Abdu Omar 7 years, 9 months ago

From the beginning, the war in Afghanistan was a lost fiasco. That country and region has never been tamed in the past, what made GWB think he could? He was a fool, just like Johnson was in 1965. We should have had a quietly armed group of men (perhaps SEALS) go in the country and get Bin Lauden and be done with it all. But we wanted to fight the Taliban and they are pretty smart guys. We have wasted so much for nothing.

jafs 7 years, 9 months ago

If we had helped the Afghan people after they fought the Soviets for us, we might have been able to prevent the country from falling into the state it's in now.

Abdu Omar 7 years, 9 months ago

I agree, JAFS, 100%. The people of Afghanistan were begging us for help, but we ignored them. Now they are fighting us with a vengence because the help wasn't there and they are suffering from so many ills.

Dan Eyler 7 years, 9 months ago

President Bush never intended to remain in Afghanistan, he clearly wanted to bust up the terrorist network. This is the policy that will continue in Afghanistan for years to come but on a much smaller scale. I would agree with an continued intelligence, search and destroy missions but with that said we need to leave Afghanistan immediately. We also need to be a much stronger partner with India as a means to keep Pakistan in line as well as cut off most military aid to that Pakistan. Afghanistan is hopeless and will never be anything more than it already is. A tribal region and hornets nest who will always be a target on a map for B1 and B2 Bombers busting up terrorist camps and poppy fields. Any idea that Afghanistan has or is currently begging us for help is laughable.

jafs 7 years, 9 months ago

When the Afghan people wanted to fight the Soviets (and die trying) we gladly supplied them with weapons, and supported the mujahadeens (who later became the Taliban).

As soon as the Soviets were defeated, we lost interest and left them to deal with the aftermath of the war, even though Charlie Wilson, who had been instrumental in getting the groups together to fight the Soviets continued to advocate for aid to help them rebuild.

After that, the "freedom fighters" became the Taliban, and became anti-American.

It's not a great stretch to imagine that if we had helped them rebuild their country (especially since they had fought and died in order to help us defeat the Soviets), they most likely wouldn't have become anti-American.

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