The White Man’s Burden, a phrase immortalized by English poet Rudyard Kipling
as an excuse for European-American imperialism, was front and center Thursday
morning (October 29) at a RAND-sponsored discussion of Afghanistan in the Russell
Senate Office Building.
The agenda was top-heavy with RAND speakers, and the thinking was decidedly “inside
the box” – so much so, that I found myself repeating a verse from Kipling,
who recognized the dangers of imperialism, to remind me of the real world:
It is not wise for the Christian
To hustle the Asian brown;
For the Christian riles
And the Asian smiles
And weareth the Christian down.
At the end of the fight
Lies a tombstone white
With the name of the late deceased;
And the epitaph drear,
A fool lies here,
Who tried to hustle the East.
With a few notable exceptions, the RAND event offered conventional wisdom to a
fare-thee-well. There was a certain poetic justice that President Carter’s national
security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has chaired RAND’s Middle East Advisory
Board, was chosen to keynote the proceedings.
As national security adviser under President Carter, Brzezinski thought it a good
idea to mousetrap the Soviets into their own Vietnam debacle by baiting them into
invading Afghanistan in 1979, the war that was the precursor to the great-power
quagmire in Afghanistan now, three decades later.
On Thursday, Brzezinski disclosed that he had advised the Bush/Cheney administration
to invade Afghanistan in 2001, but insisted that he told Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld that the US military should not stay “as an alien force” once
American objectives were achieved.
Exuding his customary confidence, Brzezinski first addressed – and ruled out –
several “No’s,” the things that the US must not do:
– Withdrawal is “not in the
range of policy options.”
– The US must not repeat the Soviet experience in going it alone, but rather must
“use all our leverage” to make NATO’s commitment stick.
– The US should not neglect the need to include “Islamic” groups in
Brzezinski offered a much longer litany of “Yeses” – but his list was
disappointingly bereft of new ideas. Indeed, it was notable only for his insistence
that the US ought to be more actively engaged in promoting a north-south pipeline
through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. He said, for example, that India needs
access to the resources of central Asia, an area especially rich in natural gas,
as well as oil.
Without batting an eyelash, Brzezinski noted that within three months the war
in Afghanistan will be the “longest war in US history,” and warned that
the United States could be “bogged down there for another decade or so.”
At the same time, he argued, the world impact of an early US departure “would
be utterly devastating.”
Questioned about growing opposition to the war, he conceded condescendingly that
“public fatigue” is understandable, but expressed confidence that adoption
of his recommended policies would be “persuasive” enough to turn public
One must give RAND credit for inviting a few outsiders whose remarks came closer
to reflecting reality. Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the
Middle East, and Harvard professor Stephen Walt offered observations that, though
eminently sensible, somehow seemed oddly out of step – “out of the box,”
as we say in Washington.
Pillar asked if what the US was doing in Afghanistan is enhancing the security
of the American people. Are the costs justified, given the amount of change and
the “direction of change” that US policies can be realistically expected
Even if the US and NATO effort is, as they say, “properly resourced,”
large parts of Afghanistan will remain open to the Taliban, and perhaps al-Qaeda
– not to mention alternative locales like Somalia and Yemen.
And then there are the counterproductive consequences.
It is a given, said Pillar, that sending more troops perceived as occupation forces
will – more than any other step – bring more and more recruits to the Taliban.
As for the cost, Pillar cited the recent Congressional testimony by Stephen Biddle,
a defense policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Biddle, though supportive of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency approach,
said it would incur “Iraq-war-scale cost for three to five years.” Pillar
asked if that kind of anticipated cost was worth what he suggested would be “at
best, a slight reduction in the danger from terrorism.” Whether the game
is worth the candle is, he said, the calculation that the President has to make.
Stephen Walt picked up on Pillar’s themes, pleading for a realistic assessment
of benefits against cost. As for US troop casualties, 850 have already been killed.
At a rate of 50 deaths a month, five more years would bring 3,000 dead – not to
mention the many thousands more who have been wounded.
And the longer the United States stays, the more it looks like a foreign occupier
and the more various Afghan factions are pushed together by giving them a common
enemy. Plus, al-Qaeda will have a safe haven – in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, even
Europe – no matter the degree of “success” the US achieves in Afghanistan.
Walt opined that it is the epitome of hubris for the US to take on the monumental
task of “social engineering” the 200 million people in Afghanistan and
Pakistan, and that the chances of succeeding are “not great.” He questioned
the disproportionate attention in resources directed toward Afghanistan when there
is little reason to send more US troops, except for the fact that there are already
US troops there with too much to handle.
Walt pointed also to a significant “opportunity cost” in the drain on
President Barack Obama’s time, noting there are lots of other problems – domestic
as well as foreign – that crave his attention.
Remarkably, among virtually all the speakers there was broad consensus that Brzezinski’s
first No-No would prevail – that is, that no US troop withdrawal will be in the
cards. Walt put it bluntly, saying the president “painted himself into a
corner” last spring and would probably not be able to change course to address
“one of the world’s most intractable problems” in a sensible way. The
Harvard professor predicted that in just a few years the Obama administration
will look back with huge regret on how badly it erred.
The Cato Institute’s Christopher Preble took strong issue with the notion that
“a country like ours would have no alternative” to escalation. He, too,
asked if adding to the US presence in Afghanistan is essential to US national
security. Or, Preble wondered, has the conflict there simply become an interest
in itself – “that we must win this war because it is the war we are in?”
He, too, gave US policy makers a failing grade on “the cost-benefit test.”
RAND and the Establishment
The biggest surprise for me came in the remarks of well-respected diplomat James
Dobbins, director of RAND’s International Security and Defense Policy Center.
Dobbins provided no supporting data or reasoning to support what seemed – to me,
at least – to be scare tactics. His words were the kind that a diplomat would
use in selling a policy aimed at avoiding the worst.
Addressing the possibility of US departure from Afghanistan, Dobbins predicted
a long list of calamities: civil war (as if one isn’t already under way), the
involvement not only of Pakistan but of Iran, Russia and China; millions of refugees,
widespread disease, negative economic growth, increased extremism and use of Afghanistan
for more terrorism.
As for the administration’s public posture, Dobbins pointed to a need to “expand
the explanation for our presence in Afghanistan,” so that the rationale will
appear more commensurate with an increased commitment” – read, more troops
justified by more rhetorical flourishes.
Although Dobbins performed yeoman service, for example, in securing Iranian cooperation
in setting up the Karzai government in Kabul, his experience with Asian insurgencies
appears paper-thin. I was painfully reminded of this by his gratuitous remark
that “in Vietnam we had neutralized the Viet Cong” (sic), and only when
the North Vietnamese came into the fray, and the US commitment slackened, did
we lose that war.
With that faux history as background, it is less surprising that Dobbins would
tout, as he did, the “Powell doctrine” of overwhelming force and advocate
for a still deeper US commitment in Afghanistan, to be accompanied by a more persuasive
rationale to explain it.
Professor Walt pointed out that, applying the insurgent-to-population ratio Dobbins
has used for Bosnia, 600,000 troops would be needed to defeat the insurgents in
RAND veteran and former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, addressed
the public perception problem regarding the Afghan war with unusual candor: “People
don’t believe we know what we’re doing.” Still, endorsing the Brzezinski
No-No dictum, Khalilzad said that “no serious person” would contemplate
US withdrawal thus enabling “extremism” to prevail.
Khalilzad argued for playing to US strengths with a “purchasing power”
approach – the United States comes up with the money to pay potential or actual
insurgents more than they earn fighting for the Taliban. And he stressed that
the US needs to expand Afghan forces.
Speaking last, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Michigan)
also emphasized the need for building up Afghan forces, as the administration
considers increasing the US troop presence in Afghanistan. Levin spoke of the
need for a 400,000-strong Afghan army and police force by 2012, trained by US
and NATO specialists.
Training the Indigenous: Panacea or Mirage?
I am reminded of what former CENTCOM commander, Gen. John Abizaid, described to
the Senate Armed Services Committee three years ago as a “major change”
in the Iraq war – namely, new emphasis on training Iraqis.
The final returns are not yet in for Iraq, but in my experience this is almost
always an unfruitful exercise, as many of us learned from Vietnam. Been there;
done that; should have known that.
Three months after John Kennedy’s death, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sent
President Lyndon Johnson a draft of a major speech McNamara planned to give on
defense policy. What follows is a segment of an audiotape of a conversation between
the two on February 25, 1964:
Johnson: Your speech is good, but
I wonder if you shouldn’t find two minutes to devote to Vietnam.
McNamara: The problem is what to say about it.
Johnson: I’ll tell you what to say about it. I would say we have a commitment
to Vietnamese freedom. We could pull out there; the dominoes would fall and that
part of the world would go to the Communists…. Nobody really understands what
is out there…. Our purpose is to train [the South Vietnamese] people, and our
training’s going good.
McNamara: All right, sir.
But the Vietnamese training wasn’t “going good.” Before long, half a
million American troops were in Vietnam trying to save South Vietnam’s government.
It is a forlorn hope that unwelcome occupation troops can train indigenous soldiers
and police to fight against their own brothers and sisters. That the British also
seem to have forgotten these lessons, along with some of Kipling’s cautionary
poetry about the risks of imperialism, is really no excuse.
If President Obama is depending on the RAND folks and embedded neocon pundits
like the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, we are in trouble. In Friday’s column,
Ignatius appeals for more troops “to continue the mission,” as the president
and his advisers attempt to figure out what the mission should be.
As I sat at the RAND event on Thursday, I could not help wondering what would
be the judgments of my former colleagues in the intelligence community on these
key issues? Specifically, what might a National Intelligence Estimate on Prospects
for Afghanistan say?
NIEs are the most authoritative genre of analytical product, embodying key judgments
on important national security issues. They are coordinated throughout the 16-agency
intelligence community and then signed by the director of national intelligence
in his statutory capacity as chief intelligence adviser to the president.
An NIE can, and should, play an important role. An estimate on Iran’s nuclear
program, for example, given to President George W. Bush in November 2007, helped
derail plans by Vice President Dick Cheney and White House adviser Elliott Abrams
for war on Iran. The most senior US military officers had realized what a debacle
that would be and insisted that this NIE’s key judgments be made public.
They anticipated, correctly, that public knowledge that Iran had stopped working
on developing a nuclear warhead in 2003 (and had not resumed such work) would
take the wind out of Cheney’s, Abrams’, and Israel’s sails. Bush and Cheney were
not pleased; but the NIE helped stop the juggernaut toward war with Iran.
There’s Always an NIE, Right?
As one of the intelligence analysts watching Vietnam in the sixties and seventies,
I worked on several of the NIEs produced before and during the war. All too many
bore this title: “Probable Reactions to Various Courses of Action With Respect
to North Vietnam.”
Typical of the kinds of question the president and his advisers wanted addressed:
Can we seal off the Ho Chi Minh Trail by bombing it? If the US were to introduce
x thousand additional troops into South Vietnam, will Hanoi quit? Okay, how about
Our answers regularly earned us brickbats from the White House for not being “good
team players.” But in those days we labored under a strong ethos dictating
that we give it to policymakers straight, without fear or favor. We had career
protection for doing that. And – truth be told – we often took a perverse delight
in being the only show in town without a policy agenda.
Our judgments (the unwelcome ones, anyway) were pooh-poohed as negativism; and
policymakers, of course, were in no way obliged to take them into account. The
point is that they continued to be sought. Not even Lyndon Johnson, nor Richard
Nixon, would be likely to decide on a significant escalation without seeking the
best guess of the intelligence community as to how US adversaries would likely
react to this or that escalatory step.
Wrong: No NIE
Here’s the thing. Would you believe there is no current National Intelligence
Estimate on Afghanistan? Rather, Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal
are running the show, allowing professional intelligence analysts to be mostly
straphangers at planning and strategy meetings.
CIA Director Panetta, a self-described “creature of Congress,” is not
going to risk putting any senior military noses out of joint by objecting, and
neither is his nominal boss, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. And,
sad to say, National Security Adviser James Jones, in deferring to the military,
is serving President Obama just as poorly as Bush apparatchik Condoleezza Rice
served President Bush.
How many “militants” are there in Afghanistan? How may “insurgents?”
How do you draw a distinction between a militant and an insurgent? Could it be
that these combatants are widely regarded, in many areas of Afghanistan, as resistance
fighters? What would be the implications of that?
When the Military Does the Packaging
Forty-two years ago, my CIA analyst colleague Sam Adams was sent to Saigon to
have it out with the Army intelligence officers working there for Gen. William
Westmoreland. After several months of exhaustive analysis, Adams had connected
a whole bunch of dots, so to speak, and concluded that there were more than twice
as many Vietnamese Communists under arms as the Army would carry on its books.
Bewildered at first, Adams quickly learned that Westmoreland had instructed his
intelligence staff to falsify intelligence on enemy strength, keeping the numbers
low enough to promote an illusion of progress in the war. After a prolonged knock-down-drag-out
fight, then-CIA Director Richard Helms decided to acquiesce in the Army’s arbitrary
exclusion from its enemy aggregate total paramilitary and other armed elements
numbering up to 300,000.
These categories had been included in previous estimates because they were a key
part of the combat force of the Communists. The Adams/CIA best estimate was total
Communist strength of 500,000. However, it was the doctored estimate that went
to the president and his advisers in November 1967. That was just two months before
the countrywide Communist Tet offensive in late January/early February 1968 proved
– at great cost – that Adams’ figures were far more accurate than the Army’s.
Years later, when Adams and CBS told the story of this internal battle on “60
Minutes,” Westmoreland sued, giving Adams his day in court, literally. Subpoenaed
documents and the testimony of Westmoreland’s own staff in Saigon established
the accuracy of Adams’ charges, and Westmoreland withdrew his suit.
Yet, right up until his premature death at age 55, Sam Adams could not dispel
the remorse he felt at not having gone public with his findings much earlier.
He felt that, had he done so, the entire left half of the Vietnam memorial would
not be there, because there would be no names to carve into the granite for those
later years of the war.
In recent years, former Defense Department and RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg also
has expressed deep regret that he waited too long; that he did not give the press
the “Pentagon Papers” history of the Vietnam War and its many deceptions
What few people know is that a couple of patriotic truth-tellers, including Ellsberg,
did reveal key facts about the war in the late sixties, when they learned that
the Johnson administration was working on plans to expand the ground war into
Cambodia, Laos and right up to the Chinese border – perhaps even beyond.
In 1967, the beribboned, bemedaled Petraeus – sorry, I mean Westmoreland – addressed
a joint session of Congress during which he congratulated himself on the “great
progress” being made in the war. Congress was unaware that Westmoreland was
on the verge of getting President Johnson to agree to sending 206,000 more troops
for a widening of the war that threatened to bring China in as an active combatant.
Two key leaks to the New York Times helped put the kibosh on that escalation.
The first, on March 10, 1968, revealed the 206,000 escalation figure; and the
second, on March 19 – by Ellsberg himself – disclosed the suppression of the CIA’s
higher, accurate count of Vietnamese Communists under arms. On March 25, Johnson
complained to a small gathering of confidants:
“The leaks to the New York Times hurt us…. We
have no support for the war…. I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.”
I believe that President Obama wants to make the right decision regarding Afghanistan.
For me, his poignant visit Thursday night to the US Air Force Base at Dover, Delaware,
to receive the coffins of 18 Americans recently killed in Afghanistan bespeaks
an authentic desire to do the right thing and face into any political repercussions.
It is clear, at the same time, that he is under great military and political pressure
to send more troops on what those of us who experienced Vietnam are convinced
is a fool’s errand. And, sadly, his national security adviser and his intelligence
chiefs seem to have gone AWOL.
For Intelligence Analyst Colleagues:
One clear lesson from what Ellsberg did in March 1968 – not to mention the November
2007 NIE on Iran – is that patriotic truth telling, official or unofficial, can
prevent wider wars. And so I address you all – both my erstwhile colleagues and
newer analysts in the intelligence community:
Those of you working on Afghanistan and Pakistan have your own educated estimates
of the prospects for success of various US courses of action. If you have not
been asked by now to prepare a National Intelligence Estimate, wait no longer.
Keeping silent is not a responsible option.
The president should not be deprived of your views.
Perhaps it was serendipity (or maybe a reward for sitting through the entire RAND
event Thursday morning), but that evening I was privileged to attend the Washington
premier of an excellent documentary on Dan Ellsberg – “The Most Dangerous
Man in America” – the sobriquet he earned from Henry Kissinger when Ellsberg
gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other newspapers.
The film contained hard-to-watch footage of the war that took the lives of 2 million
to 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans – a very painful reminder. I was
happy to see, though, that the film did pick up, from Ellsberg’s book, “Secrets,”
his decision to begin revealing important facts to the New York Times in early
1968 and help prevent a still more dangerous escalation and widening of the war
Think about it, friends. And don’t look just at one another. Visualize instead
all those young people from our country’s inner cities and small towns who form
the pool for the de facto poverty draft that provides the bulk
of US troops sent off to bear the present-day White Man’s Burden.
You may be in a position to help give the president the wherewithal to resist
pressure to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Let’s stop the Dover deliveries of
the dead headed to tombstones white, with the names of the late deceased.
Ray McGovern was an Army infantry/intelligence
officer and then a CIA analyst for almost thirty years, during which his duties
included chairing National Intelligence Estimates. He is cofounder of Veteran
Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, and now works with Tell the Word, the
publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.