Saturday, May 29, 2010

An Honorable Stalement: My Walter Cronkite Moment

Background: The above video is an interview from Walter Cronkite where he discusses the moment he expressed on national T.V. what many Americans were feeling in 1968; the Vietnam war was a lost cause.

Perception versus Reality

Although Cronkite's malaise was brought on by the Tet Offensive, which he, inaccurately, gaged as a defeat of American and ROVN forces [1], the impact of his speech on the American public and political discourse would be difficult to overstate. Cronkite's weariness reflected both a larger popular zeitgeist as well as the default ant-war, anti-imperial, anti-expansion, anti-anything-people-in-the-Old-South-might-think-of-as-a-good-idea position of Greater New England [2]. Coupled with a disastrous accidental president - who lacked the strategic imagination God gave pistachio nuts - and a government wide penchant (left over from the New Deal and WWII) for engaging in pointless and damaging social experiments the weariness expressed by Cronkite contributed directly to the hemming in of Johnson's much more talented and imaginative successors. Eventually, the whole shooting match was brought to grinding halt by a domestic political scandal of Shakespearian proportions , absent which South Vietnam may continue to exist as a viable state in Southeast Asia [3].

Afghanistan and Vietnam

But without re-fighting Vietnam its important to consider what Cronkite said and how it relates to Afghanistan today.

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
Just as Vietnam was an honorable cause[4], so our endeavor in Afghanistan began as an honorable cause in the wake of 9/11. But just as in Vietnam, Afghanistan may be rapidly approaching a tipping point beyond which the continued commitment of American blood and treasure may become futile. I was a big advocate of doubling down on America's commitment in the fall of 2009:

I've made it clear that I believe Obama should support General McChrystal's recommendation and order a full on COIN strategy (based on what I heard at the COIN conference we need ~30 battalions - 30k troops) that both protects the population and begins embedding American forces with their Afghan counter-parts. But I'll admit there are plenty of risks, not the least of which is that the Afghan government could continue to be plagued with corruption and allegations of election fraud which would make it very difficult to counter the Taliban's argument that Karzi's regime is the corrupt tool of the imperialist west. It's also possible that Pakistan could continue to hedge between the U.S. and a Pashtun (read: Taliban) government in Afghanistan which would allow the ISI to continue to build their "farm team" for the coming war with India in Kashmir. Both AQ and the Taliban would love to see another Mumbai-style (or better yet 9/11) attack inside India that will be linked back to the ISI and force America to choose between the two south Asian states.
Knowing what I know now I stand by what I wrote in 2009. I thought then, and think now, that a victory in Afghanistan was worth bearing a tremendous burden. But when it came time to make a decision president Obama decided for a temporary surge and for a slightly longer time horizon over which the U.S. would begin a draw down. In retrospect, its possible that this solution actually represented the worst path America had to chose from, because in signaling our desire for a rapid exit we set off a later day "Great Game" to determine who gets what when we depart.

The Worst of Both Worlds

The United States is currently in the process of the "Afghanization" of the war, which Obama made a key part of the "surge" he approved last year. The problem is the process may not be going very well because Afghanistan is not an "Afghan" problem, but is instead a battlefield in the ongoing, low level war between India and Pakistan. Until we understand the regional issues at play in Afghanistan, and understand that we are currently backing the wrong horse both in Pakistan and in our "partner" in the Afghan government, we will be stuck with a deteriorating security situation in which the Taliban will out administer ISAF and Afghan government forces when they can and simply run out the clock when they cannot. Meanwhile, our quirky little ally -aka Pakistan - is making plans for the day we leave.

When he became president in 1969, Richard Nixon began a "Vietnamization" process which saw the U.S. hand over increasingly larger responsibility to the ARVN. As this process unfolded the U.S. also experienced greater and greater success against the V.C., which eventually saw the V.C. effectively broken as a serious military organization in by late 1969. [5]  At the same time, the government in the South began to stand up in earnest, and, as I stated above, I believe South Vietnam had a real shot at turning into a viable state by the early 1970s. However, South Vietnam was to be done in by the situation in the region, which was not at all amiable to an American-friendly South Vietnam.

What I see in the offing in Afghanistan is exactly what happened in Vietnam, without the defeat of the insurgency. Because not only is America losing the war against the Taliban, but we are also not doing enough to create a regional partnership with a vested interest in Afghanistan's success. We are picking enemies and friends haphazardly, siding with the nuclear proliferating rouge state Pakistan, for example; yet creating tension with non-nuclear Iran over their alleged future nuclear ambitions. We are also stuck in a Cold War mindset of picking Takfiri friendly Pakistan over market and economic development friendly India.

After the U.S. withdraws - and between the president's commitment to a July 2011 time-line and mounting U.S. casualties our withdraw is a near certainty - Afghanistan will suffer a similar fate to that of South Vietnam. Pakistan will play the role of both the Soviet Union and China as they fund, train and run logistics for whatever rough coalition of Taliban forces has the best chance of taking Kabul whole. Meanwhile, I expect the Karzai administration to continue to flounder through one scandal after another while they burn through whatever cash and equipment we leave when we go and ultimately share the fate of Dr. Najibullah at the hands of the Neo-Taliban.

Dr. Najibullah's story is at least as illuminating about a potential future in Afghanistan as the ROVN's example. Najibullah's government, set up in the wake of the Soviet withdraw, proved itself to be remarkably resilient, surviving coup attempts and direct attacks by the mujihaden and eventually seeing some semblance of stability being achieved in Afghanistan's major cities.  Ironically, Najibullah did the right thing (intellectually) by siding with India and it eventually cost him his life at the hands of the Pakistani paramilitaries Taliban. Though less notoriously pro-Indian than Najibullah, Karzai has proved plenty dangerous to the ISI and Frontier Corps Taliban and members of his administration have made no attempt to hide their disdain for Pakistan's behavior.

Planning to Fail in Afghanistan 

All of this leaves the U.S. with only one option: we must plan for a world where we have failed in Afghanistan. The best plan would involve regionalizing a grand strategy for both helping secure and develop Afghanistan with India and China playing the role of key pillars. Unfortunately, I do not believe this will happen because whenever the president gets the key leaders (i.e. the leaders of India and China) in a room he wants to talk about either ManBearPig or Iran, neither of which has killed as many American troops as Pakistan the Taliban in Afghanistan. In any case, it seems that the Obama administration has decided to go for a 100% kinetic failsafe plan in the event we fail to secure Afghanistan. On an A-F grading scale, Obama's all kinetic plan B deserves a grade of C+. It's a passing grade, but we must take note of its complete lack of originality and also note that the plan answers only part of the question - security - while ignoring the far more important (in the long run) geo-political and economic questions at the heart of Afghan instability. Ultimately, Afghanistan is merely one battlefield in an ongoing war between globalizing Asia and Deobanists who wish to see the region thrown back into the 7th century.  

My Walter Cronkite Moment

American forces arrived in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 while the rubble was still smoldering in NYC; this was an honorable thing to do. This was a "good war".  But the results of our endeavors have failed to live up to the lofty heights of our best aspirations 9 years ago . Our troops have performed admirably, operating in the most austere conditions imaginable while upholding the military traditions of honor, courage and protecting those who cannot protect themselves. Our troops did not fail us; the civilian leaders failed them. Our leaders failed to provide the military a grand strategy worth the price the military paid in blood. Our leaders failed to fight the war on the fields of diplomacy and geo-politics with the ferocity and skill the troops brought to the war on the battlefield. And ultimately we have failed the Afghan people; failed to provide them with safety; failed to provide them with effective government; failed to provide them with economic opportunity.

And so today the questions about Afghanistan have moved beyond "failure" and "success" and have instead becomes a challenge to either "lose good" or "lose bad".  We need to plan to fail, by creating a stronger regional coalition that will own Afghanistan when we leave or we must accept that Afghanistan will once again become a large irregular training base for the ISI and Pakistani army. As we wind down our presence in Afghanistan we have to bear in mind the tremendous sacrifice that has already been paid in blood and treasure for what seems to now to be a quixotic misadventure; we must do all we can to salvage a stable outcome for Afghanistan and the region while acknowledging that we have reached the point of diminishing return for our own presence in the region. To do less is to dishonor those who strove to build a future worth creating in Afghanistan.

[1] See: Sorley's A Better War for a fuller explanation of the positive post-Tet changes in America's efforts against both the V.C. and North Vietnam.  

[2] For a brief on the anti-foreign proclivities of New England and the Upper Mid-West see Lind's Vietnam: A Necessary War.  

[3] This is a bit of counter factual history based on the facts on the ground, as described in the two volumes referenced above, and assumes that South Vietnam would have been able to hold back the North in 1975 with American air and logistical support.

[4] Lind's (1996) argument in favor of Vietnam can be summed thusly: There is no strategic rationale for fighting the Cold War that does not demand we fight in Vietnam as well. 

[5] Again, I refer to Sorley.

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