Afghanistan will prove to be Obama’s Vietnam
The President is committing the US to intervention in Afghanistan that recalls JFK’s attempts to expel communism from Vietnam
The world falls in love with a charismatic young president, his stylish wife, and their charming young children. In the campaign for the presidency he has defeated his Republican opponent in part by charging Republican failure in the war against America's enemies.
In the dawn of his administration this Harvard man musters strategic buttress from America's best and brightest for a decisive escalation by which the foe will be routed. Counter-insurgency will go hand in hand with nation-building. Corruption will be banished and local troops trained to shoulder the burden of the war.
To be sure, there are differences between Jack Kennedy's America in 1961 and Barack Obama's in 2009. At the start of the Sixties the US economy hadn’t crested. It was still on the way up. The mantra was "guns and butter". In 1961 think-tank intellectuals, defeating Vietnamese guerillas in their Top Secret memos to Kennedy and his commanders, invoked Britain's defeat of the Communist insurgency in Malaya, America's victory over the Huks in the Philippines.
An excited vibrancy coloured Obama’s rhetoric when he vowed to kill bin Laden
In 2009, veterans' hospitals here offer bleak testimony that 150,000 US troops, lavishly equipped with advanced weaponry, were held down for years in Iraq by the guerillas' rudimentary kerbside explosives.
Woe betide a president who believes his own stump speeches. In his campaign Obama outflanked charges from McCain that he was a peacenik and a wimp by declaring week after week that Iraq was the wrong battlefield, that the enemy was al-Qaeda and their sanctuary Afghanistan. An excited vibrancy coloured the community organiser's rhetoric as he spoke of his determination to "kill bin Laden".
Most people thought this pledge would get lobbed into the trash can the moment McCain conceded. But no. Last Friday I drove down Interstate 5 through the early spring blossom in Oregon's Willamette Valley, listening to Obama on the radio marching through his schedule for escalation and victory in Afghanistan.
He was born in the year JFK became president, but has this supposedly smart fellow not read a single decent history of the Vietnam war and of America's defeat? Apparently not. Otherwise how could he blithely announce that: "We will accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan Army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 so that we can meet these goals by 2011... Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable." Nothing perishes quicker in war than "clear metrics".
Significantly, Obama did not order a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) as he evolved his plan, doubtless because he and his National Security Adviser feared such an NIE might arrive at the same sort of depressing assessment as the April 2006 NIE on global terrorism, which concluded invasions and occupations do not make America safer but lead instead to an upsurge in terrorism.
It seems, from an inside dopester story by Bill Geertz in the Washington Times, that in the White House sessions formulating Obama's Afghan policy Vice President Joe Biden and deputy Secretary of State James B Steinberg argued for a minimal strategy of stabilising Afghanistan. Against them Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy for the region, US Central Command leader General David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton successfully sold Obama on a major nation-building programme, bringing Afghanistan out of feudal poverty and backwardness into the healthful air of a stable and prosperous democracy, respectful of women.
Obama is being pushed into actions similar to those JFK took in VietnamMaybe Biden forgot to point out to his boss that this was the Afghanistan model espoused by the leftist Noor Taraki in the late 1970s, setting off US alarm bells which duly led to Taraki's murder and the CIA's huge covert and successful intervention in support of the drug barons and warlords, whose feudal offspring are now America's actual or prospective allies in the war on the Taliban.
As Obama proudly flourished his alliterative triad ("to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan"), I listened with the same dismayed frisson as I did - more than four decades ago - to Kennedy's similarly childish rhetoric of intervention, whose dark underbelly was the murder of the Diem brothers, and the birth of the Phoenix assassination programme of "Viet Cong infrastructure".
Obama's brisk sentences on March 27 committed thousands more US troops to overwhelm the Taliban, oblivious of the judgment of sensible Afghan veterans that it's precisely the presence of foreign troops that prompts Pashtuns to support the Taliban and join their ranks. More brisk sentences summoned Pakistan to the crusade against terror, as if Pakistan's intelligence establishment does not work hand in glove with the Taliban and protects al-Qaeda leaders.
The march of folly is underway. Bush and Cheney’s 'war on terror' is now married to Clintonian blueprints for nation-building and social engineering, a wedding officiated over by General Petraeus, whose mythical surge in Iraq was hailed last year by Obama as having "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams".
The fantasy of America’s healing kiss flares in Obama's heart just as it did in Kennedy's. It was General Douglas McArthur who told Kennedy in 1961: "Anyone wanting to commit American ground forces to the mainland of Asia should have his head examined." True then, true now. ·
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