The fallacies of military intervention: Obama on Afghanistan and Vietnam

Yet this argument [the similarity of Vietnam to Afghanistan] depends on a false reading of history.” President Barack Obama

The world has come to expect fractured history and fallacious analysis from American presidents. The world welcomed the election of Obama in part because he promised an end to nonsense flowing from presidential podiums. Obama’s speech at West Point confirmed instead that the office of the president can reduce intelligent and articulate men to the level of George W. Bush. One begins to suspect that citizen Bush might not be as stupid and ignorant as President Bush seemed. Let me deal with one aspect of Obama’s speech: his denial of the relevance of Vietnam to Afghanistan.

First let me state the case for the relevance of the American experience in Vietnam. As the Pentagon Papers argued, Vietnam was engaged in a civil war between left-over collaborators with the French colonial regime and the followers of Ho Chi Minh. Inheriting the South Vietnamese regime, the Americans cast their lot with an admittedly corrupt and unrepresentative government. President Johnson acknowledged this fact, yet continued his support for lack of an alternative. He thought he could prepare the South Vietnamese to defend their country. Unfortunately for this hope, there was only one country, artificially divided, which Ho Chi Minh fought to reunite. Falsely premised, American efforts were doomed. In Afghanistan Obama has asked Americans to support a corrupt regime that represents only itself in the name of a country that is neither a nation nor a state. Afghanistan is 40,000 villages, largely isolated by an impossible terrain, more or less ruled by tribal leaders, who are loyal only to themselves. Just as Johnson’s policy was based on a false premise of the existence of a South Vietnam, Obama’s policy is based on the false premise of an Afghan nation. Neither nation ever existed.

Incorrect analysis

Obama simply ignored the similarity of his approach with Johnson’s. Instead he cited two differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam. (1) America was attacked by the Sept. 11 terrorists who were “from Afghanistan.” (2) An international coalition supports America in Afghanistan. Taking the first assertion first: What does it mean to say the terrorists were from Afghanistan? The majority of them were Saudi nationals. None was Afghan, or more precisely, a member of an Afghan tribe or village. If being from a place is justification for retaliation, Obama should be calling for an invasion of Saudi Arabia. Such a policy would make economic sense as well, since oil is a strategic commodity. If being trained in a place is justification for retaliation, then Obama should be calling for the destruction of the flight instruction schools in America which trained the Sept. 11 pilots. The place of Afghanistan is no more relevant to retaliation than any other place where terrorists can gather in real or virtual space.

The second argument is equally weak. In Vietnam many nations supported the American efforts, although perhaps not as many as in Afghanistan. Placing this in the post-Cold War context, what does this prove when nations support the sole super power for many reasons independent of a particular policy? Our closest ally, Great Britain supports the Obama escalation of 30,000 troops and uncounted mercenaries by adding 500 British soldiers, a ratio of 60 to 1, not counting mercenaries et al. Some support!

There are, of course, significant and relevant differences between the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, differences which Obama failed to cite because they work against his reasoning for escalation. Leaving aside radically different geographies, Vietnam differs from Afghanistan in two important respects, as we have suggested. Vietnam has been a nation for 1,000 years; Afghanistan is little more than a geographical expression. Vietnam was led by a charismatic leader; Afghanistan by a corrupt and fraudulent puppet of the US. The struggle in Vietnam was over the control the southern part of the country. In Afghanistan the struggle is over the control of 40,000 villages under tribal leadership. Five-hundred-thousand Americans could not keep the south of Vietnam from being unified under Ho Chi Minh. What number of Americans will it take to do what in Afghanistan? Unify the people who live there? This idea, tied up as it is with nation-building, seems to have been abandoned. Obama does not believe in Afghan in-name-only national institutions like the army and the police. Keeping the Taliban out of power seems to be the only coherent objective.

Leaving aside that the US helped the Taliban to achieve power, because they fought the Soviets, what is the American objection to the Taliban? “They harbor al-Qaeda” is the usual answer. Does anyone seriously believe that the Taliban would harbor a group of non-Afghan terrorists, except as the most temporary expedient? As the only trans-tribal factor in the region, it seems highly unlikely that they would jeopardize their efforts to achieve central power by allowing a fanatical and foreign group a free hand. Does anyone believe that American efforts to run down the remnants of al-Qaeda would be more effective than Taliban efforts?

Why not Pakistan?

But what about Pakistan? Isn’t Afghanistan really about Pakistan and its ability to resist the Taliban? If this is true, making life more difficult for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan seems self-defeating. Would not Pakistan be better off if al-Qaeda were roaming the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan? If the concern is Pakistan, then the focus should be on Pakistan. Not exactly rocket science, is it? Since Pakistan has a competent military and is a nation-state and does not want American soldiers on its territory, what can be done? Why not take the $30 billion earmarked for a military effort in Afghanistan and apply it to economic development in Pakistan? Is it un-American to believe that a more prosperous and self-sufficient Pakistani population will be better able to resist fanatical messages of despair than one which is desperately poor?

This points up the final and conclusive weakness of the Obama speech at West Point. There was no clear statement of a strategy, no articulation of how it would be achieved or how its progress or lack of progress would be assessed. In the face of this disappointment, one can only imagine what Senator Obama would have said to President Obama. When cross-questioning Secretary Rice, Senator Obama asked her: (1) How will you know when the policy is working? (2) How will you measure successes against failures? (3) How and when will you know whether the policy remains viable? In short what are the benchmarks? Senator Obama received no answers from Secretary Rice. But then neither did Senator Obama receive answers from President Obama.