Yea, We Get It Already. Afghanistan = Vietnam. Now Can We Do Something About It?

In the umpteenth attempt to drain some forgotten lesson out of Vietnam and apply it to Afghanistan, the New York Times publishes an op-ed from retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Sorley. To Sorley’s credit, his analysis is carefully reasoned and more specific than most such comparisons. But Sorley suffers from the crucial leap of logic that Boston University military historian and former Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich keeps harping on: mistaking tactics for strategy.  

Don’t get me wrong: Tactics are important, and Sorley does a nice job of summarizing the conventional wisdom on how to conduct a counterinsurgency. But before you even consider tactics, you need a foreign policy strategy, and you need to make sure the war fits into your strategy. As Rory Stewart showed powerfully in his July essay in the London Review of Books, the Obama administration has no such strategy. The cost of skipping that step is you fight unnecessary wars and provoke new enemies, all of which you’re oblivious to because you’re buried in the tactics of how to “support local governments” or “gather intelligence,” to take just two of Sorley’s recommendations.

To illustrate my point, I’m going to reproduce a column I wrote in the Hazleton Standard-Speaker in December 2008. And I’ll make you a deal: If you tell your friends to visit Trading Eights and I see a spike in traffic over the next few days, I’ll reproduce another column later in the week where I give a more in-depth look at what our military strategy should look like, using exclusive quotes from my conversation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. In the meantime, here’s the real lesson from Vietnam:

Richard Nixon is having a revival in American consciousness. Last year’s double biography by Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger, got the ball rolling, followed this year by Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, the recent release of 198 more hours of Nixon tapes by his presidential library, the success of Frost/Nixon on Broadway, and the film of the same title that hit theaters this weekend. There is a forgotten lesson, however, in his legacy that the current President-Elect would be wise to study.

In 1968, Nixon was elected President of the United States, partly on his promise to bring “peace with honor” to the Vietnam conflict. As a political ploy, it was as effective as it was vacuous. No one really knew what it meant until he announced his “Vietnamization” plan to slowly withdraw American forces while the South Vietnamese army gained control of its country’s security.

Next door in Cambodia, Prince Norodom Sihanouk didn’t want to get roped into the conflict, so he refused to take sides despite communists using his country as a base to attack American and South Vietnamese troops. By 1969, though, Nixon finally pressured him into changing his mind.

Nixon decided to speed the communists’ exodus from Cambodia with a secret bombing campaign called Operation Menu. He hoped it would stave off North Vietnamese offensives long enough for them to withdraw troops and negotiate a peace treaty. By that measure, it failed miserably. North Vietnamese attacks continued unabated; anywhere from 100,000 to 600,000 civilians died from the bombs; and the campaign (which was followed with a series of land incursions) destabilized Cambodia to the point that the communist party, the Khmer Rouge, seized power and killed approximately 1.5 million people during its reign.

And that’s called “peace with honor.”

The shame of politics is not that the game is played so poorly but that we encourage it. During the campaign, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman posed the following self-reflective question to Barack Obama: “Am I for sending more troops to Afghanistan because I really think we can win there, because I really think that that will bring an end to terrorism, or am I just doing it because to get elected in America, post-9/11, I have to be for winning some war?”

Flip it around: Is that the message we are sending our leaders? Is that the reason we are risking our sons and daughters?

While you chew on that, let’s size up the conventional wisdom. Withdraw from Iraq and surge in Afghanistan. That, we are told, is the Obama playbook for the next four years. If so, we should probably know a thing or two about the Graveyard of Empires, as it is known, before we plunge headfirst.

“Afghans remember the reign in the 1960s and ’70s of King Zahir Shah and his cousin Daoud Khan,” writes American author Sarah Chayes as she observes the country firsthand, “when Afghan cities were among the most developed and cosmopolitan in the Muslim world, when Peace Corps volunteers conducted vaccination campaigns on foot through a welcoming countryside, and when, my friends here tell me, a lone, unarmed policeman could detain a criminal suspect in a far-flung village without obstruction.”

The United States could not leave well enough alone. Because the Afghan regime was implicitly backed by the Soviet Union, the Carter administration lured the USSR into an all-out military debacle by funding rebels who were trying to overthrow the government. Funny how most Western historians skip over that part: We started the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

After we left the country in tatters, a hodgepodge of tribal warlords and Islamic terrorists filled the power vacuum. When we reentered in 2001 and crushed the Taliban, Chayes recalls in astonishment, “[W]e gave power back to corrupt gunslingers who had been repudiated years before. If they helped us chase al-Qaeda, we didn’t look too hard at their governing style.”

And the solution to this mess, we are told, is more troops.

First, consider the geography. Afghanistan is far bigger than Iraq. In the ’80s, the Soviet Union combined 160,000 troops with the Afghan army’s 200,000 strong, only to be trumped embarrassingly. Former NATO General Dan McNeill, who led the forces in Afghanistan, estimates we would need over 400,000 troops. Admiral Michael Mullen, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “no amount of troops in no amount of time” would be sufficient without a broader solution.

It all sounds too familiar. Like Richard Nixon and his side trip to Cambodia, Barack Obama wants to minimize our withdrawal from an unpopular conflict by showing the enemy we still know how to fight. But at what cost?

The late economist Milton Friedman, when shown evidence of market failure, would always calmly reply that that may be true, but the government “solution” would be even worse. If we have come to accept his skepticism here in recent times, why, I wonder, do we not apply the same logic abroad?

A troop surge would indeed create more problems than it solves. Afghanistan’s problems lie in a corrupt government, anti-Western sentiment from years of unconscionable treatment, and an underdeveloped economy—all problems that would worsen with more troops and improve with humanitarian assistance and open relations with its neighbors, especially Iran and Pakistan.

When Barack Obama steps into the White House, he should rally international support for anti-terrorism policing, economic development, and cross-ethnic negotiations across the Middle East. Less casualties, more security, a sustainable peace. That is what honor really means.