Vietnamization of the Afghanistan War
With today's warfront headlines reading like the oracle Yogi Berra's d?j? vu all over again -- about the war going worse than expected and Congress growing apoplectic -- there are some lessons Washington must forever re-learn.
With today's warfront headlines reading like the oracle Yogi Berra's déjà vu all over again -- about the war going worse than expected and Congress growing apoplectic -- there are some lessons Washington must forever re-learn.
Such as the lesson I learned as a rookie Washington correspondent from some senators who were so famous then that they are famous buildings today. The late Sens. Richard Russell, Everett Dirksen and Philip Hart are known today as the names of the Senate Office buildings today. Jacob Javits is New York City's convention center, John McClellan is Little Rock's VA Hospital, and so on.
But decades ago, they taught me a valuable lesson about what fame means -- and doesn't mean -- in Washington. Apparently we need to re-learn it again, as once again confront a warzone where battles are part combat and part hearts-and-minds, as we prop up an ally who is uncertain at best.
A Lesson Old and New: In 1967, while reading the boring fine print of McNamara's new Defense Department posture statement, I discovered that the basic assumption underlying his Vietnam wartime budgeting was that America must be able to fight two-and-a-half wars simultaneously. Initially, I figured that I was just new and uninformed -- but when I interviewed each member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees I was shocked to discover they'd never heard about it either.
Russell, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said maybe it was a good idea and maybe not. But he intended to look into it. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman J. William Fulbright, D-Ark., said he'd never heard about it either -- and thought it was preposterous to think America would budget to fight two major wars and a brushfire war simultaneously. So it went, with Sens. Barry Goldwater of Armed Services, Javits of Foreign Relations and all the rest.
The fact that McNamara's two-and-a-half wars assumption was news to those Senate luminaries is what seemed like big news to me. But there was an even larger lesson that those famous senators taught me: Being famous in Washington was no guarantee of being well informed. Indeed, fame may well be an obstacle to being informed.
Which brings us to today. The Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld administration led America into trying to fight two wars simultaneously -- first in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq before the Afghan war was won. Today, U.S. troops must pay a bloody price because Bush/Cheney/Rummy siphoned resources from the Afghan war to fight the Iraq war -- enabling the Taliban to revive and fortify in Afghanistan, as al-Qaida's leaders fled to tribal Pakistan.
In both Afghanistan and Iraq, we have wound up with problems not unlike those America experienced in Vietnam a half century ago: We have waged military warfare against insurgents who could attack, then melt back into the populous. And we have waged battles for civilian hearts and minds, much as we did with mixed results in Vietnam. As in Vietnam, U.S. generals now report that many civilians aren't enthusiastic about being saved from a strong-arm rule by U.S. and allied forces. And as in Vietnam, citizens have grave doubts, with due cause, about the government leaders in Kabul and (to a lesser degree) in Baghdad.
But while America's homeland faced no threat when the Vietnam War ended in defeat, the same cannot be said about a de facto U.S. and NATO defeat in Afghanistan. Europe and the United States face an uncertain but potentially grave risk if the corrupt Kabul government falls and a Taliban regime reestablishes a safe haven for al-Qaida terrorists inside Afghanistan.
Now this: America's top general in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, reports war deadlines have slipped because the war is more difficult than anticipated -- and the Afghan government failed to provide trained forces as promised.
Only one deadline seems intact: Sadly, the Vietnamization of Afghanistan seems to be proceeding on course.
-- Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .