I can’t remember how many times I have said that the US military adventure
in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand.
The reaction I frequently encounter includes some variant of, “How can
you blithely acquiesce in the chaos that will inevitably ensue if we and our
NATO allies withdraw our troops?” While the “inevitable chaos”
part is open to doubt, the question itself is a fair one.
By way of full disclosure, my answer is based largely on the fact that I asked
the equivalent question 43 years ago regarding a place named Vietnam. Been there;
As a young Army infantry/intelligence officer turned junior CIA analyst in
1963, I was given responsibility for reporting on Soviet policy toward China
and Southeast Asia and was just beginning to get a feel for the complexities.
My degrees were in Russian studies; I knew something about Communist expansion,
but very little about Vietnam.
I should have listened to my brother Joe at Princeton, who tried to help me
see that it was mainly a civil war in Vietnam, that the Vietnamese had ample
reason to hate both the Russians and Chinese (and now us), and that the “domino
effect” was a canard.
Joe was openly impatient to find me such a slow learner – so susceptible to
the Red-menace fear mongering of the time.
Enter George Kennan
If my studies of Russia and of US foreign policy had given me an idol, it was
George Kennan, former ambassador to the USSR and to Yugoslavia, and author of
the successful post-war containment policy vis-Ã -vis the Soviet Union.
He returned to the Princeton campus in 1963.
Early in the Vietnam War, I was delighted to discover one Sunday morning that
Kennan had written a feature article on Vietnam for the Washington Post. Good,
I said to myself, Kennan has finally ended his silence. Surely, he will have
something instructive to say.
What Kennan wrote on Vietnam was not at all what I expected. Ouch; an idol
turns out to have clay feet, I thought. Had Kennan not heard of the dominoes?
I am embarrassed to admit that it took me another year or so to see clearly
that Kennan was, as usual, spot on.
It was December 12, 1965, and there it was on the front page of the Outlook
section – George Kennan calling for a major reality check on our involvement
in Vietnam, and arguing for what he called a “simmering down” of our
military adventure there as “the most promising of all the possibilities
we face.” He wrote:
“I would not know what ‘victory’ means…. In this sort
of war, one controls what one can take and hold and police with ground forces;
one does not control what one bombs. And it seems to me the most unlikely of
all contingencies that anyone should come to us on his knees and inquire our
terms, whatever the escalation of our effort….
“If we can find nothing better to do than embark upon a further open-ended
increase in the level of our commitment simply because the alternatives seem
humiliating and frustrating, one will have to ask whether we have not become
enslaved to the dynamics of a single unmanageable situation – to the point where
we have lost much of the power of initiative and control over our own policy,
not just locally but on a world scale.”
Kennan was harshly critical of those asserting that the US had no choice other
than to “live up to its commitments.” “Commitments to whom?”
he asked. More pointed still, he asked if the “commitment” was conceived
as “something unrelated to [South Vietnam’s] own performance, to its ability
to command the confidence of its people?”
Kennan’s prescription of “simmering down” involved letting negotiations
begin “quite privately and without elbow-jogging on our part, by our friends
and others who have an interest in the termination of the conflict … We must
be prepared, depending on such advice as we receive from them, to place limited
restraints at some point on our military efforts, and to do so quietly and without
published time limits or ultimatums.”
Kennan’s bottom line:
“The most disturbing aspect of our involvement in Vietnam
is its relationship to our interests and responsibilities in other areas of
world affairs. Whatever justification this involvement might have had if Vietnam
had been the only important problem, or even the outstanding problem, we faced
in the world today, this not being the case, its present dimensions can only
be said to represent a grievous disbalance of American policy.
His article was no academic exercise. Washington was abuzz with talk of further
escalation in Vietnam. (To offer some current context, Gen. Stanley McChrystal
was 11 years old; Vietnam was not in the history books, apparently, until well
after he left West Point in 1976.)
A companion Outlook front-page piece by the Washington Post’s Chalmers Roberts
opened with, “One of history’s undated moments for great decisions is at
hand. President Johnson must decide where to lead the nation in the war in Vietnam.”
Roberts reported the prevailing thinking that, given Hanoi’s obduracy, “the
United States will have no alternative but to pour in more and more manpower,
to widen the bombing in the North and to intensify the military struggle in
the South.” Chalmers continued:
“Thus, as an increasingly bloody year draws to a close,
as mounting casualty lists appear … the President faces momentous decisions.
What should he do?”
Noting that there was “confusion over the aims of this war,” Roberts
“What should he [President Johnson] tell his fellow
Americans? How can he prevent the loss of the consensus he so far has had on
the war? How can he restrain the increasingly vocal war hawks? … Is the United
States simply to slide into the next phase of the war?”
Roberts added that:
“Looking back, it is evident that both Presidents Kennedy
and Johnson upped the ante bit by bit without really telling the American public
where it [the war] was heading.
“That process continues today as Mr. Johnson merely says … that the
United States ‘will supply whatever men are needed to help the people of South
Vietnam resist aggression.'”
Does anyone see any parallels to Washington’s parlor games – and its more serious
discussions – today regarding upcoming decisions on Afghanistan?
Johnson was not about to be the first US president to lose a war – but, succumbing
to the Greek tragic flaw of hubris, he became exactly that. The result: Not
only were two to three million Vietnamese and 58,000 American troops killed,
but also his Great Society bit the dust.
Fortunately for seniors like me, Johnson was able to sign Medicare into law
(on July 30, 1965) before the bottom fell out. Most of the other promising reforms
his administration had in mind became unsung casualties of that ill-conceived
And, as costly as Vietnam turned out to be, the Treasury was not nearly as
broke then as it is now.
Shortly after his Washington Post Outlook article, Kennan accepted an invitation
from Sen. William Fulbright to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
It was February 1966. There were some 200,000 US troops in Vietnam; two years
later there would be 536,000.
Kennan minced few words:
“There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this
world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by
the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives….
“Our country should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder
the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country,
and particularly not in one remote from our shores, from our culture and from
the experience of our people.
“This is not only not our business, but I don’t think we can do it successfully….
Vietnam is not a region of major military, industrial importance. It is difficult
to believe that any decisive developments of the world situation would be determined
… by what happens on that territory….
“Even a situation in which South Vietnam was controlled exclusively by
the Viet Cong … would not, in my opinion, present dangers great enough to
justify our military intervention.”
Kennan concluded his Senate testimony with a familiar quotation from John Quincy
Adams. “[America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,”
said our sixth president. “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence
of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Kennan added: “Now, gentlemen, I don’t know exactly what John Quincy Adams
had in mind when he spoke those words. But I think that, without knowing it,
he spoke very directly and very pertinently to us here today.”
And to us here today.
Death Via Invincible Ignorance
More than 55,000 of the eventual 58,220 American deaths in Vietnam came after
Kennan testified. It is yet to be known how many Americans will die in Afghanistan
if President Obama follows the advice of his generals – much as President Johnson
did – and escalates.
Can we not learn from history? Kennan (and John Quincy Adams) were, of course,
right on target. As for today, it is a pity that the United States lacks a statesman
of Kennan’s caliber, who would dare set aside concern about status within the
power circles and make as pointed a critique about Afghanistan as Kennan did
about Vietnam. (George Kennan died on March 17, 2005.)
And it is a pity that West Point didn’t teach much about the lessons of the
Vietnam War when McChrystal was studying there in the 1970s. (For a flavor of
the current elite “group think” on Afghanistan, see Consortiumnews.com’s
“Kipling Haunts Obama’s Afghan War.”)
Is this not the lesson to apply to deliberations on Afghanistan? When it becomes
clear that current policies are not working or, worse, are self-defeating, experienced
folks with those insights need to find ways to say that – loudly.
It is incumbent on them to make a stab at coming up with better alternative
policies, but – as in George Kennan’s case – this is not a prior requirement.
Great powers can mitigate the effects of great mistakes, especially if they
have the good sense and humility to reach out for help. But the key decision
to halt a futile course can – and must – be made as soon as its futility is
clear, even if the details of a more promising alternative policy remain to
be worked out.
I think Kennan was right in his December 1965 article in proposing a multilateral
path toward a solution in Vietnam. Something similar might be possible for Afghanistan
As Sonali Kolhatkar suggested Monday in Foreign Policy in Focus, if the US
would withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s raison d’Ãªtre there would
be greatly weakened. She added:
“If the United States were to take the lead in regional
talks between Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, and China to address the Pakistani
government’s fears of a hostile regime in Afghanistan, it would go a very long
way toward undermining the Taliban.”
Helicopters Down; Hawks Up
By way of footnote: After an American Chinook helicopter was shot down over
Iraq on November 2, 2003, killing 16 US troops, I was reminded of a similar
guerrilla attack on US forces in Pleiku, Vietnam, on February 7, 1965.
President Johnson seized on the Pleiku incident to start bombing North Vietnam
and to send 3,500 marines to South Vietnam with orders to engage in combat (beyond
the earlier advisory role for US troops), marking the beginning of the Americanization
of the war.
When the Chinook went down in Iraq 38 years later, Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld made it a point to emphasize that the Iraq war was still “winnable.”
(It is hard to know whether he really believed that – his reputation for candor
being somewhat tarnished.)
Suffice it to note that Rumsfeld’s comment reminded me of Pleiku and spurred
me to write an article exactly six years ago right after the helicopter crash
in Iraq. I titled it “Helicopter Down.” And, in an attempt to warn
against a Vietnam/Pleiku-style overreaction, I wrote, five times, that the Iraq
war was “unwinnable” – no matter how many more US troops might be
sent into the fray.
It seems an appropriate day, then, to remind ourselves that when choppers go
down, hawks go up in influence. Two more helicopters went down just last week.
So, for what it may be worth, let me state the same judgment today regarding
The war in Afghanistan is UNWINNABLE.
Quick, somebody please tell President Obama.
This article has been previously published on Consortiumnews.com.
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