Monday, November 23, 2009

Vietnam and Afghanistan

Reasoning by historical analogy is dangerous. But the American approach to counterinsurgency wars didn't spring full-grown from the brow of David Petraeus. It is heavily conditioned, if not completely dominated, by the experience of the Vietnam War.

I've seen a couple of good analyses lately of the Vietnam War that provide useful critical perspective on Obama's current decision on how much to escalate the Afghanistan War. One is Bill Moyers Journal of 11/20/09, this past Friday, which looks at Lyndon Johnson's decision-making process from November 1963 when he assumed the Presidency to the decision to Americanize the war in 1965 by committing to a direct US ground combat role. Some of the background assumptions and habits of the military establishment from those pre-Internet days sound awfully familiar today.

The other is The Fifty-Year War by Jonathan Schell The Nation 11/11/09 (11/30/09 edition). Schell looks at the decision-making on the Vietnam War against the background of the Cold War that after the fall of the Soviet Union morphed into the Long War. He calls special attention to the effect of McCarthyism and the Republican hysteria after 1949 over "who lost China", the "lost" referring to the victory of the Chinese Communists in 1949 in mainland China.

He writes:

In short, in strictly political terms, the Vietnam dilemma has been handed down to Obama virtually intact. Now as then, the issue politically is whether the United States is able to fail in a war without coming unhinged. Does the American body politic have a reverse gear? Does it know how to cut losses? Is it capable of learning from experience? Or must it plunge unchecked over every cliff it approaches? And at the heart of these questions is another: must liberals and moderates always bow down before the crazy right when it comes to war and peace? Must presidents behave like Johnson, of whom his attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, later said, "It would not have made any difference what anybody advised him--he would have done what he did [in Vietnam].... It was fear of the right wing." What is the source of this raw power, this right-wing veto over presidents, Congresses and public opinion? The person who can answer these questions will have discovered one of the keys to a half-century of American history--and the forces that, even now, bear down on Obama as he considers what to do in Afghanistan. [my emphasis]
And because of that "right-wing veto", it appears that actually withdrawing from Afghanistan isn't even an option the White House is seriously considering.

William Polk in Let America be America, and Depart Afghanistan Informed Comment 11/22/09 writes about a different and more recent historical experience of counterinsurgency that is also worth considering around the American role in Afghanistan now. He's talking in particular about the historical role of village, tribal and national assemblies called jirga, or loya jirga at the national level:

The Russians were, obviously, opposed to the very concept of the loya jirga and managed to by-pass or suppress it. They did so, however, at great cost because without such a legitimating authority, they could not find an Afghan counterpart with which to negotiate an end to their occupation. The puppet government they set up lacked the imprimatur of the loya jirga and was not regarded by the people as legitimate. So the Russians left with their tail between their legs.

As the current Russian ambassador and long-time KBG expert on Afghan affairs, Zamir N. Kabulov, has commented, there is no mistake the Russians made that has not been copied by the Americans. He was right about the way we approached the jirga. In 2002, nearly 2/3rds of the delegates to a loya jirga signed a petition to make the exiled king, Zahir Shah, president of an interim government to give time for the Afghanis to work out their future. An interim government might have avoided the worst of the problems we have faced in the last seven years. But we had already decided that Hamid Kara was “our man in Kabul” and did not want the Afghanis [sic] to interfere with our choice. So, as Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason reported, “massive US interference behind the scenes in the form of bribes, secret deals, and arm twisting got the US-backed candidate for the job, Hamid Kara [Karzai], installed instead. [They] then rode shotgun over a constitutional process that eliminated the monarchy entirely. This was the Afghan equivalent to the 1964 Diem Coup in Vietnam; afterward, there was no possibility of creating a stable secular government.” While an Afghan king could have conferred legitimacy on an elected leader in Afghanistan; without one, as they put it, “an elected president is a on a one-legged stool.” Then, as Selig Harrison wrote in the New York Times, our proconsul, Zalmay Khalilzad, “had a bitter 40-minute showdown with the king, who then withdrew his candidacy.” [my emphasis]
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