Vietnam Syndrome?

Petraeus Afghanistan

U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. and NATO supremo in Afghanistan, is as well versed in the history of major post-World War II insurgencies as anyone alive today. From Lawrence of Arabia to Mao’s and Tito’s guerrilla triumphs to France’s 16 years of defeats in Indochina and Algeria, Petraeus knows it all — and then some.

Australia’s world famous guerrilla warfare expert Col. David Kilcullen ("The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One" and "Twenty-eight Articles — Fundamentals of Company-Level Insurgency") has been by Petraeus’ side or on direct dial for almost 10 years.

As the senior counterinsurgency adviser to Petraeus, Kilcullen made clear in many think tank talks he was against the invasion of Iraq from the get-go but stayed by the general’s side throughout his successful prosecution of the insurgencies that followed. Petraeus was promoted to CENTCOM commander in October 2008.

And 18 months later, he stepped down from CENTCOM to take over the Afghan war command, replacing the cashiered Gen. Stanley McChrystal. There, too, Kilcullen felt the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake.

It was, he said at the time "tailor-made" for Special Forces to hunt down Osama bin Laden’s and his al-Qaida camps, separating them from Taliban. He also remembered that Taliban leader Mullah Omar, in his first and only interview with this reporter and UPI’s South Asia consultant Ammar Turabi, three months before 9/11, was already highly critical of bin Laden.

Turabi has received a message from Mullah Omar that he now favors direct negotiations with the United States.

Kilcullen said at the time, "You don’t invade countries in pursuit of a few Islamic terrorists and turn the whole population against you." Afghans know only one thing about their history: Sooner or later the bloodied and dispirited foreigner leaves; even the mighty Soviet empire left Feb. 15, 1989 — and the Berlin Wall fell nine months later. Afghan "freedom fighters," armed and funded by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, brought half a century of Cold War to an end.

This time, Petraeus says the allies — 100,000 U.S. and 9,000 British troops are the only ones out of 44 nations doing any fighting — are "drawing strength from the enemy’s weaknesses." The Taliban have limited mobility; the allies, unlimited. But in Afghanistan, asymmetrical warfare consists of actions that the enemy launches and that NATO cannot or won’t take. Punishing a village by firing squad for collaboration with the enemy is an effective Taliban weapon, much the way it was in Vietcong hands against the United States in Vietnam 40 years ago.

While Petraeus’ officers in the field and his military and civilian chiefs in Washington understand that it is Afghanistan’s war to be fought by Afghan soldiers, the sad truth is that their army is still years away from being able to conduct their own operations, with their own air cover. The head of the Afghan army says this will require U.S. and NATO budgetary and supply support for another "nine to 10" years before they can hack it on their own. The Afghan army is slated to grow from 93,000 to 134,000 by 2011. The next troop target for this country the size of France is 325,000 that would entail a budget of almost $1 billion.

The Afghan war effort as a whole is running at $150 billion a year. Cost estimates through 2014 range up to half a trillion dollars. How long will Congress be willing to sustain an increasingly unpopular war?

When the last U.S. troops pulled out of Vietnam March 29, 1973, the South Vietnamese army, far more sophisticated and battle-hardened than the Afghans, fought on alone with U.S. military aid, with distinction. Then in late 1974, the U.S. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, severed all further military assistance to South Vietnam. North Vietnam, according to memoirs of their senior generals, was taken by surprise. They thought the prize of Saigon was at least two years away and they had to improvise an offensive for the final assault.

There is no guarantee this won’t happen again. Clever diplomacy at this stage would bring Pakistan and China, both with common Afghan borders, and Saudi Arabia, to sweeten the pot, into secret talks — protected this time from WikiLeaks — to explore a negotiated settlement with Taliban’s Mullah Omar.

This past weekend, prominent academics, writers and non-government organizations members, all with Afghan experience, signed a joint letter addressed to U.S. President Barack Obama that called for a major change in U.S. strategy.

Among the 23 signatories, all Afghan experts, are Scott Atran, anthropologist at the University of Michigan and author of "Talking to the Enemy"; Rupert Talbot Chetwynd, author of "Yesterday’s Enemy — Freedom Fighters of Terrorists?"; Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment and author of "Revolution Unending"; David B. Edwards, Williams College anthropologist, author of "Before Taliban"; Antonio Giustozzi, author of "Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop" and editor of "Decoding the New Taliban"; Felix Kuehn, Kandahar-based writer and co-editor of "My Life with the Taliban"; and Ahmed Rashid, journalist and author of "Taliban and Descent into Chaos."

The joint letter to Obama made these key points:

— The cost of the war is more than $120 billion per year for the United States alone. This is unsustainable in the long run … the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country.

— With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it isn’t realistic to bet on a military solution. The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.

— It is time to implement an alternative strategy that would allow the United States to exit Afghanistan while safeguarding its legitimate security interests. The Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate and it is in our interests to talk to them.

— We ask you to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan.

Lawrence of Arabia’s "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," studied by Petraeus, doesn’t appear to add much more to his quiver than the Seven Deadly Sins of Social Media. Clearly, his confidence isn’t shared by experts with long experience in Afghanistan.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, a member of the Atlantic Council, is editor-at-large at UPI and the Washington Times.  This column was syndicated by UPI.

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