Feting a Fetid War
May 12, 2010
To smooth over the stormy relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, President Barack Obama is throwing out the red carpet in Washington, D.C., for Karzai and his entourage. Vice President Joe Biden, who in the past has erupted in open hostility toward Karzai, is holding a “kiss-and-make-up” dinner for the Afghan leader.
All of this hoopla is the belated recognition by the Obama administration that Karzai is weak and corrupt but is the only game in town in Afghanistan. Of course, if the Vietnam War is any indication, being chained to a local leader with no legitimacy at home is usually the death knell of the entire war effort. Many historians think the U.S. lost that war even before the escalation when President John F. Kennedy tacitly endorsed a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. After that, corrupt South Vietnamese leaders ruled South Vietnam, giving the communists the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the people and eventual victory.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, who escalated the war after Kennedy’s death, has been criticized ever since by the U.S. military for not letting it do all needed to win. But LBJ’s martial limitations made a little more sense when it is realized that he was trying to avoid an all-out war with a large communist power, as had disastrously occurred during the Korean War, and never intended to win the Vietnam War. LBJ was worried, even before he escalated the war, that the conflict would turn into a quagmire and was merely trying to tilt combat in U.S. favor to force the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong into a negotiated settlement. But the zealous communists never intended to compromise.
Obama is trying the same gambit in Afghanistan. His stated goal is to eradicate al-Qaeda and degrade, by the escalation of the U.S. military presence, the Afghan Taliban on the battlefield to such an extent that the United States can negotiate a better deal with them. The major problem with this strategy is that, unlike in Vietnam, Obama has signaled his intention to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in the summer of next year. So the zealous Taliban has every incentive to merely hang on and outwait Obama, who is already facing an unpopular war at home, much like LBJ and Richard Nixon did in Vietnam.
Moreover, even in the hapless Vietnam War, the U.S. government’s ultimate objective was clear—prevent the communists from overrunning South Vietnam. The purpose of this war is the president’s vague notion that Afghanistan, not Iraq, should be the central front in the war on terror. Why this is so is unclear. After all, the Afghan Taliban seems to have learned its lesson and is not allowing the training on territory it controls of al-Qaeda, the leadership of which has likely long moved to Pakistan. Furthermore, the hated U.S. presence in Afghanistan and U.S. drone strikes against the Pakistani Taliban—whose enemy is instead the government of Pakistan—have destabilized Pakistan and made real the possibility that Islamist militants could eventually take over the nuclear-armed Pakistani government.
Maybe equally as bad, the Pakistani Taliban, which had been confining its efforts to destabilizing the Pakistani government, is now assisting attempted terrorist attacks in the United States. As in Yemen and Somalia, the United States has made new Islamist enemies of groups that concerned themselves primarily with local issues. In the case of Yemen, the United States had just ramped up its assistance to the Yemeni government against local militants when they commissioned the underwear bomber to blow up a U.S. flight.
President Obama, like his predecessor George W. Bush, has dismissed the obvious link between U.S. occupations of Muslim countries in Iraq and Afghanistan and increased terrorism against U.S. targets, saying that there were no such occupations on 9/11. Of course, Osama bin Laden has repeatedly declared that his primary reason for attacking on 9/11, before, and since has been U.S. military intervention in and occupation of Islamic countries.
John O. Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser at the White House, has gone further and said that the administration’s drone attacks in Pakistan have thrown “these terrorist groups” off balance, hindering their attacks against U.S. targets. “Because of our success in degrading the capabilities of these terrorist groups overseas, preventing them from carrying out these attacks, they are now relegated to trying to do these unsophisticated attacks, showing that they have inept capabilities in training.” It failed to dawn on Brennan that the terrorist attacks wouldn’t be occurring in the first place without aggressive U.S. behavior in Islamic lands—for example, the motivation for the Pakistani Taliban-assisted Times Square bombing was clearly Obama’s escalation of the Bush administration’s drone attacks on Pakistani Taliban targets.
The original purpose of the war in Afghanistan was to eradicate al-Qaeda’s base of operations in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda is now probably instead in Pakistan. The United States, with its nation-building wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, seems to be fighting everyone instead of focusing on those who attacked the U.S. on 9/11. The U.S. government’s inability to distinguish between al-Qaeda, with global ambitions, and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, with their local goals, has merely made more enemies, including those who would begin attacking the United States. How are Americans being made safer by this war?
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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