Tuesday, January 12, 2010


About ten years ago, when I had the time for such things, I used to volunteer at a left-leaning bookstore here in Chicago, the New World Resource Center. It was an interesting experience. It was a great source of a variety of political and historical materials-- books, magazines, political pamphlets, etc.

It was never very busy, and I had time to do the things I rarely had time to do-- read and write. One night, I picked up one of the many pamphlets they had and read it. It was an informational pamphlet about the brutality of the Taliban in Afghanistan toward the Afghan people, particularly toward women. Women were not allowed to go to school or even appear in public without a male family member. The Taliban banned everything-- television, music, shaving, even kites.

A couple of years later, when it was revealed that the Taliban had given comfort and aid to Osama Bin Laden, allowing him to plan and execute the slaughter of thousands of American civiliians, I was glad that we now had a reason to intervene in Afghanistan. I thought about Germany in World War II; that the war gave the United States reason to go in and take out a brutal regime.

Of course, we all know what happened. The idiots in the Bush Administration-- Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Condaleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, etc.-- had a hot nut to invade Iraq, a country that had had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks (indeed, Saddam Hussein considered Muslim fundamentalism a threat to his regime, and bin Laden considered Hussein to be a corrupt infidel). I'm reading Thomas Ricks' account of the drive to war in Iraq and the disasterous consequences, and hope to find the time to read Bob Woodward's "Plan of Attack." Both books examine the ideological biases, personal ambitions and ignoring of contrary intelligence in the build-up to the second Gulf War, which has been disasterous on many, many levels-- including the completely unnecessary deaths of thousands of American and allied troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

It appears that we are on our way out of Iraq. What then of Afghanistan?

A few weeks ago, I was looking through some old books and magazines in my basement and came across the sole copy of Time Magazine I've ever saved. The reason-- Colin Powell was on the cover. I used to subscribe to Time. This issue is dated September 10, 2001 and was titled "Where Have You Gone Colin Powell?" Over the years, this cover was to become quite telling.

Powell, who had fought in Vietnam as a young officer, had actually participated in one of the "low intensity conflicts" that many military analysts saw as the immediate future of warfare as the Cold War ended. He had come up with "the Powell doctrine"-- basically the idea that you go into a war with enough force to win the war. And he didn't buy fully into what was to be called "the Bush Doctrine"-- preemptively striking regimes that were considered dangerous.

The Bushies put their fake case for war together, cherry-picking evidence, ignoring anything that didn't fit (and there was lots of it) and squelching anyone who tried to present any evidence or ideas contrary to theirs, they brought it all together in a dog and pony show at the UN in which Powell presented the (unknown to him) fabricated evidence of Saddam's "Weapons of Mass Destruction." It was shameful.

Powell may have had the last laugh though. It was he who warned the Bushies that invading a country was like being in a china store; "You break it, you own it."

The invasion of Afghanistan was botched in so many ways. For starters, the Colin Doctrine was ignored; it was executed with not nearly enough troops to do the job. An early oppurtunity to capture or kill bin Laden at the Tora Bora pass was botched. The backing of Hamid Karzai has been a disaster-- he blatantly stole the most recent "election" in Afghanistan. Opium production has once again soared, funding the Taliban, which has rebounded.

The Taliban leaders know what every insurrectionist from America's General Washington through Vietnam's General Giap knew-- that in a guerilla war, all you have to do to win is not lose. That then begs the question: Should we still be in Afghanistan?

Years ago, I was watching the PBS show "Vietnam: A Television History," and remember watching former Secretary of State Clark Clifford talking about a meeting he had with General Westmoreland. Westmoreland was asking for hundreds of thousands of more US troops. Clifford asked Westmoreland if he could win the war if given those troops. Westmoreland said "I don't know." Clifford pressed on, asking how many troops would be needed to win the war. Westmoreland again said he didn't know. It was at that point that Clifford knew that at that point, they needed an exit strategy rather than a victory strategy.

There have been a lot of similarities some have pointed out between Vietnam and Afghanistan. On a surface level there are similarities. I would contend that once one digs a little deeper, the similarities end.

Yes, like Vietnam (at least in the early and middle parts of the Vietnam War), the Afghan War is a guerilla-style "low intensity" war; the other side is using roadside bombs, hit and run tactics and terrorizing civilians to keep control. That's where the similarity ends. The Viet Cong, the insurgents in the South of Vietnam, were supplied one superpower, the Soviet Union, and one future superpower, China. For the Soviets, to arm the Viet Cong, and later the North Vietnamese Army, was a relatively low-cost way to counter and bleed their rival superpower, the United States. By low-cost, I mean that yes, they sent billions of dollars in miltary hardware, but few Soviet lives were lost. With China on North Vietnam's border, there was no way to stop the funneling of weapons to the opponents of the United States, the attacks on the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" notwithstanding.

There were a lot of ironies, in retrospect, about how the Vietnam War ended. The Viet Cong were annhilated during the Tet Offensive, and from that point on, the war was the "set piece" army on army battle that the United States was prepared to fight, as the regular North Vietnamese Army took over. However, public support for the war was gone. With the Soviet Union and US moving toward detente and the diplomatic opening of China, it appeared that the Cold War was done heating up.

Importantly, also, the whole intellectual rationale for the war, the "Domino Theory," turned out to be a complete sham. In fact, in 1979, just a few years after the Communist regime took over in Vietnam, Vietnam went to war with another Communist regime, the genocidal Pol Pot government in Cambodia. They took down the fellow Communist regime and left the country.

The Taliban do not have the limitless backing of a superpower. They do not have tanks and airplanes. And they don't have the backing of most of the people of Afghanistan.

The great Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz wrote many brilliant things. Perhaps the most important thing he said was "The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes. " War, as he pointed out, is "a mere continuation of policy by other means." One must determine realistic poltical goals that one desires to achieve.

Last month, the New York Times had a great article about the deliberations President Obama made in deciding, as Commander In Chief, what to do about Afghanistan. If you have time, take some time and read the article.


Reading it, I was reminded of a History Channel piece I saw on John Kennedy, "John Kennedy: A Presidency Revealed." I was so impressed with this particular show that I bought it on DVD to watch it again. What I found particularly fascinating was the part on how Kennedy handled the Cuban Missle Crisis.

At the beginning of his presidency, Kennedy had inherited the April, 1961 "Bay of Pigs" plan-- a plan to send 5000 Cuban exiles into Cuba to overthrow the Castro regime. Kennedy allowed himself to be pushed into continuing the ill-conceived plan by the Joint Chief of Staff, ignoring his own doubts about the plan.

As the invasion turned into a fiasco, Kennedy accepted responsibility for the disaster-- and learned from it.

When the Cuban Missle Crisis evolved a little over a year later, in October, 1962, Kennedy handled it completely differently. He gathered people with completely conflicting views and listened to them. He pressed everybody-- asked them to defend their thoughts on it. Reading the account of President Obama's deliberations on how to handle the situation in Afghanistan, I'm struck by how similar it was to Kennedy's ultimately successful approach to Cuba. The vital national interests were kept first and foremost in mind-- as well as what resources were available.

Like Kennedy and Cuba, Afghanistan has been dropped into President Obama's lap. Kennedy understood about Cuba that victory entailed not defeating Cuba, but assuring that a regime that posed no serious threat to the United States remained at the end of it. It's clear to me from reading the article that President Obama understands this about Afghanistan. In addition, he realizes that we cannot have an open-ended commitment to have huge amounts of troops there. He's set a limit on the amount of troops, asked for help from allies-- and set a timeframe to attain the goals that have been set.

It's clear to me, also, that he understands the nature of the threat-- that it's like a ballloon-- you squeeze one end and the air runs to the other end of the balloon. You may run Al Queda out of Afghanistan, but it runs to Yemen, or the (oh horrible irony) a destabilized Iraq. Reading the account of his deliberations on Afghanistan, I was reminded of Kennedy, as he listened to people with wildly differing opinions, asking hard questions and taking nothing for granted.

I agree with the decisions made so far on Afghanistan. He's set tangible goals, with the military being an instrument in attaining the political goals. Afghanistan can never again be a base for those who would harm US citizens.

In the end, we have to look at the longer view. The real enemy is not Al Queda, the Communists or any other group or ideology-- those come and go. Throughout history, people look to any system-- whether right or left, religious or ideological-- that can provide for it better than the other side. In the end, the real enemy is poverty and any system that perpetuates it.

I'm curious how things are going to pan out in Obama's four or eight years in office. I've been pretty impressed with him overall-- particularly his health care fight (unlike some, who apparently think that no loaf is better than 8/10's of a loaf). I've been impressed with his ability to grow into the job. And I suspect that a guy who started out in politics fighting poverty as a community organizer will understand that the real fight in this world-- from Afghanistan to the West side of Chicago-- is against poverty. I've got high hopes. And my fingers crossed.


SkylersDad said...

This was excellent JY, nice synopsis.

LegalMist said...

A well-thought-out piece.

I've been annoyed with those who claim Obama has "done nothing so far" to solve our problems. It's barely a year in to his term, and he has wrestled with some huge problems from the economy to health care to the wars, that he inherited. He's made quite a bit of progress on all fronts. Did folks really think he could solve in 6 months the problems that the Bushies spent 8 years creating? (Of course, the poverty issue was there long before Bush, but his policies certainly exacerbated the poverty issue in this country!)

I'm keeping my fingers crossed, too, for a good outcome on it all.

Erik Donald France said...

Right on, Johnny! Good reason to have high hopes, indeed. Enjoyed your long view take on things.

Churlita said...

I do not envy Obama's job. it seems no one anywhere will cut him slack.

Interesting post. I'm reading Reading Lolita in Tehran and they go into great detail about the oppression of women in that book. It makes me so sad.