Sunday, February 8

For One Thing, Afghans Walk Like This, While Vietnamese Walk Like This.

Fred Kaplan, "We're still figuring out our goals in Afghanistan. That's a good thing." February 5

I DON'T know what the sort of people who openly wish for a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate expect they'd actually get out of a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate; the whole thing's of a species with pondering the effect Oprah's Book Club has on literacy. One thing we can safely say, though, is that such an arrangement still would not have resulted in newly-opened Gitmo living quarters being reserved for people who compare Afghanistan and Vietnam in print, and conclude they're different.

Probably just as well, since some smart-ass ACLU lawyer would get the entire Slate corps off due to insanity, or on the grounds that everything they say actually means the opposite, and then everybody'd start doin' it.
Not long ago, Afghanistan was known as "the good war." Now some are calling it "Obama's Vietnam." Both tags exaggerate. Across hundreds of years of sorrowful history, no war in Afghanistan has ever been good. And Vietnam was different in so many ways that parallels with the war against the Taliban tend to muddy more than clarify. (Ho Chi Minh was the legitimate leader of a unified polity, the United States violated international law by blocking countrywide elections, U.S. troop levels grew to 500,000 at their peak, etc.)

Golly. I can't decide if it's more convenient for the people who manufacture, package, and conduct wars that there's always someone around to explain why the current one is just and essential, unlike some earlier, regrettable example, or it's more convenient for those people that phony termini can be so easily constructed in order to make one appear to occupy some reasonable middle ground. At any rate, I realize we're just getting in a few warmup tosses, but fer chrissakes: whatever else we screwed up in Vietnam, it wasn't not having a widely-touted Good Reason for Being There, and it ain't like being a Communist wasn't enough to call Ho Chi Minh's legitimacy into question by the standards of domestic American politics. Sheesh, half the voting population thinks Hugo Chavez is illegitimate, just because he hated George Bush and said so. (And most of the rest have no idea who he is.) Let alone the fact that, for the life of me, I can't understand what the matter of "troop levels" is supposed to mean. That Afghanistan can be only 1/14th like Vietnam? Conversely, what would a hundred previously unsuccessful Afghanistan wars mean to the present one?
But the specter of Vietnam does, or should, haunt us in one compelling sense: the reasonable fear that we are about to step into a bigger, thicker pile of mud—a more all-enveloping quagmire, if you will—than the first step of escalation might suggest.

But then this is the aspect of the Vietnam war we've mostly been in agreement about all this time. No one has ever argued that the incremental application of force is a good plan (aside from Johnson's political advisors, and they were arguing PR, not Grand Tactics). What we differ on is the question of getting into such situations in the first place. And we've gotten ourselves into not one but two ill-conceived and drawn out conflicts in the Naughts despite understanding this, precisely because we imagined we could let Having A Good Reason trump using reason.
Unlike those who got us into Vietnam, today's top officials—including President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates—at least see the specter. Both have emphasized that their goals in Afghanistan are limited; daydreams of turning the place into a democratic republic—"some central Asian Valhalla," as Gates snorted in recent hearings—are over.

Let's say this again: it would be a really interesting experiment sometime to discuss the lessons of Vietnam based on what actually happened.

For pity's sake, if you don't want to bother with checking the record, try a minute or two's consideration. Lyndon Johnson knew Vietnam had the potential to be, and very likely would be, a sucking mudhole of disaster before he committed US combat troops. The Chinese were already promising to match escalation for escalation, and to refuse to let the US fight another Korean-style limited war.

Treating Vietnam like some enormous Asian frog-boiling exercise completely misses the point. By the time the Johnson administration decided to commit troops--after considerable debate, it should go without saying--the issue was whether it, and the Democratic party in general, could survive being blamed for "losing" Vietnam the way it had been blamed fifteen years earlier for "losing" China. Johnson, like Kennedy, had to deal with a Joints Chiefs of Staff dominated by Cold War psychopaths, and a collection of civilian advisors (McNamara, Rusk, Ellsworth Bunker, Clark Clifford, the Bundy Boys) who were their sickly, more intellectual cousins. (Of course he also heard from George Ball and Paul Kattenberg, the one member of the National Security Council with actual experience of Southeast Asia, both of whom argued against the Americanization of the war.  Like we say, it wasn't all about the stupidity. Just like Iraq.)

The disaster of US policy in Southeast Asia from 1946-1975 has little to do with how the war was fought. That's a post-facto exercise in excuse-mongering. There were times when the Viet Minh were vulnerable, militarily, but they don't coincide with direct US combat involvement, which came about only after the war had long been effectively lost politically, assuming it had ever been "winnable" in the Turning It Into a Pacific Catholic Resort sense. We could have turned the place into a nuclear wasteland; we could have expanded the war into Laos and Thailand in the early Sixties, and fought the Chinese and maybe the Russians. Considering what we accomplished with massive conventional bombing and all the troops large-scale military conscription could muster, perhaps it's actually best that we didn't.
Both have emphasized that their goals in Afghanistan are limited; daydreams of turning the place into a democratic republic—"some central Asian Valhalla," as Gates snorted in recent hearings—are over. Gates further stated at those hearings, before the Senate armed services committee, that he would endorse his commanders' request for three additional brigades—but that he'd be "deeply skeptical" of subsequent requests for more. The fighting needs to be done mainly by Afghan troops, he said, adding that if the Afghan people begin to see it as an American war, "we will go the way of other imperial occupiers."

This is reassuring. However, even "limited" goals can justify a vast military expansion.

Pffffft. Obama has been talking about "finishing the fight with al-Qaeda" since the 2008 campaign began late in the last century. His Vice-President just got done mouthing off about controlling the Safed Koh, which--and I'm going to go out on a limb here--you're not going to accomplish with 30,000 troops, or 120,000 troops, recycled from Iraq. And incidentally:
President Obama has talked of sending three extra brigades to Afghanistan. That means about 12,000 combat troops. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks of deploying 30,000 extra troops—doubling the 30,000 we have there now.
These numbers sound far apart, but they're not. Obama's three brigades would also require "enablers"—military jargon for the personnel who enable the combat brigades to fight. They would include an aviation brigade (already in place), a division headquarters, a support brigade, military police, medics, military engineers (to build the expanded barracks and bases), and so on. Add all this into the mix, and you get 30,000 extra troops. Obama and Mullen are talking about the same troop boost.

is just freakin' nonsense, Fred; three brigades is three brigades, and no brigade consists entirely of 9000-15,000 infantry. The modern ratio is about 8:1. Depending on circumstances an additional 30,000 troops might support ~12,000 combat troops, but that doesn't make three brigades equal 30,000.

LET'S just sorta glance up at that elephant in the corner, shall we? A bloodthirsty administration of delusional crackpots just past, backed by pure bullshit and blind rage over 9/11, could not manage to keep much over 160,000 troops in Iraq for any length of time, despite ignoring current doctrine, sensible practice, and the contracts we had with the Reserves and National Guard. The current administration is headed by a guy who portrayed himself as wiser than that (though, to be fair, he also made "finishing off al-Qaeda" "rebuilding our military", and, at least briefly, "hot pursuit into Pakistan" touchstones of his policy.) Call me cynical, but I'll believe that hundreds of thousands of young Americans will be lining up at recruiting stations, eager to fight bin-Laden at the Khyber Pass like some latter-day Spanish Loyalists, because Barak says this war is a Good One! when I have to detour around them to get to the Post Office. There isn't any way one could now create some mythical Vietnam incremental quagmire in Afghanistan; try introducing a conscription bill and see how popular the new President is by 3 PM that afternoon. The Bush administration broke our shit, and good; 2008 was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to abandon the entire mess and begin building a sensible defense strategy for the 21st century, but one was not about to get that from the cowardly Democrats. Instead it's a bunch of empty promises, and false dichotomies, and risible explanations of how Afghanistan isn't like Vietnam, because, y'know, this time we've got military superiority an' stuff. And we haven't yet admitted we lost. Although, come to think of it, that's one way they're exactly alike.

1 comment:

dave said...

Maybe I'm being simplistic, but if Joe the Afghan doesn't like the Taliban, perhaps he should pick up a gun and make his dislike known. If he doesn't mind the Taliban all that much, there's nothing we can do.