President Obama is not Lincoln with a BlackBerry as some have suggested, but Lyndon Johnson with a war the country no longer supports and a new Cronkite yapping at his Afghan heels.
When President Kennedy was assassinated there were 16,300 U.S. fighting men in Vietnam. Their status had been upgraded from advisers to the South Vietnamese army to warriors. Five years later, when President Johnson decided the war was unwinnable, following the Tet Offensive and Walter Cronkite’s verdict the war was unwinnable, there were 536,000 U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. And by the time the Paris peace accords were signed Jan. 17, 1973, Americans killed totaled 58,193. The 21-year-olds and younger KIA numbered 24,488. Conventional wisdom was turned on its head and defeat in Vietnam didn’t make a particle of difference in the outcome of the Cold War. The United States and its allies won; the Soviet Union and its captive states lost.
A growing number of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats – and a majority of Europeans – can see Afghanistan moving inexorably toward stalemate. And the future of the Atlantic alliance is at stake – yet again. The generals, part cerebral, part swashbuckler, are a new learned breed of experts in counterinsurgency warfare. Yet they, too, like their predecessors, look to more and more troops to lead them to victory. A year late and a trillion dollars short summed up their predicament.
Conservative columnist George Will’s latest column – “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan” – was the first broadside from the right. He points out the Afghan war is almost 50 percent longer than the U.S. involvement in two world wars. All the fundamentals, Will writes, “militate against ‘success,’ whatever that might mean.” He quotes The Economist describing President Hamid Karzai’s government “as so ‘inept, corrupt and predatory’ that people sometimes yearn for restoration of the warlords, ‘who were less venal and less brutal than Mr. Karzai’s lot.'”
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks about combating Afghanistan’s “culture of poverty,” but Will points out it took decades to do just that in a few square miles of the South Bronx in New York. If U.S. forces are in Afghanistan “to prevent re-establishment of al-Qaida bases – evidently there are none now – must there be nation-building invasions in Somalia, Yemen and other sovereignty vacuums?” asks Will.
“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. That is inconceivable,” Will writes.
An outgoing NATO commander said that pacifying Afghanistan – a country the size of France dotted with the world’s most forbidding terrain – would require 400,000 troops. There are now 60,000 American soldiers and 40,000 from 40 other countries, most of them (except British, Canadian, French and Dutch troops) only allowed to fire in self-defense, restricted as they are by domestic political diktats.
Instead, Will advocates a drastically revised strategy, focused on only “what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”
Unfortunately, little can be done from offshore, at least on the scale mentioned by Will. People-based intelligence needs onshore base facilities. Frequent raids against al-Qaida bases in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas can be done by drones and other unmanned aircraft, but these should be launched from and returned to a base in Afghanistan (as Pakistan, now stamping out Taliban insurgents at home, will eventually learn to live with a Taliban regime in Afghanistan, as it did from 1996 to 2001).
Obama’s target in pursuing the Afghan war is al-Qaida. But Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization decamped Afghanistan after the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001. They are now somewhere in FATA and in Baluchistan, one of Pakistan’s four provinces that border both Iran and Afghanistan. Baluchis staged three insurrections since independence, and Quetta, the provincial capital, has little use for Pakistan’s federal government. If the allies decided to pack it in across the border in Afghanistan and leave a vacuum, al-Qaida would be back in a flash. Hence, Obama’s keen interest in the Taliban this week.
At this point, Obama’s principal Afghan concern should be the future of NATO. Failure in Afghanistan would strip history’s greatest alliance of any credibility. Withdrawal would trigger a victorious war dance by would-be jihadis throughout the Muslim world. But NATO members present militarily in Afghanistan do not believe they can placate their domestic opposition much beyond 2010.
Afghanistan’s presidential election is the latest manifestation of failure in a state long ruled by warlords and their coalitions. To move the country into the 21st century would require more treasure and more soldiers than any Western country is willing to spend and expend. In Vietnam, Vietcong guerrillas punished “collaborators” by torching an entire village, killing everyone in it. Surrounding villages didn’t need further coaxing into blind obedience. Taliban fighters gun down individuals to paralyze others into compliance.
The shortcut to success – trebling Afghan forces to 230,000 – will take several more years of U.S. training. Meanwhile, the security situation continues to deteriorate. And Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s 60-day review after taking overall command of Afghanistan last June reportedly calls for eight additional brigades, or about 40,000 more U.S. troops, on top of the additional 21,000 (including 4,000 trainers) already decided by Obama, for a total U.S. troop presence of 70,000 (plus 40,000 from friends and allies).
There are still 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, now pulled back to bases outside major towns and cities. The 2006 bipartisan commission on Iraq said Iran had already superseded U.S. influence throughout the country. As the United States continues to downsize militarily in Iraq, Iran’s profile looms still larger. When and if Israel decides to strike some of Iran’s nuclear facilities, now deemed increasingly likely if the next round of U.N.-approved sanctions in September proves unproductive, the ingredients for theater-wide mayhem are in place.
Arnaud de Borchgrave, a member of the Atlantic Council, is an editor-at-large at UPI. This essay was previously published in UPI‘s Emerging Threats analysis section.