The Vietnam Objective

What is emerging from the Obama administration on Afghanistan is the same objective we had for our involvement in Vietnam.

In this seemingly endless period of indecision, all critiques of the Obama administration’s emerging (or not) approach to Afghanistan require the caveat:  If this is what they decide to do.

So consider the caveat posted.  In the interest of fairness, we must also note that it took George W. Bush time to decide to adopt the surge strategy in Iraq; although that situation is an imperfect analogy with Obama and Afghanistan in some key ways.  Unlike Obama, Bush had not announced a new strategy in Iraq only to begin backtracking on it when presented with the requirements for executing it.  Even more important, Bush did not at any point between 2003 and 2009 revise his objective for the campaign in Iraq.  All the deliberations in the period between the first battle of Fallujah and implementation of the surge strategy centered on what strategy to use, to achieve that constant objective.

Which leads me to the import of the deliberations currently underway in the top circle of Obama’s advisors.  I made the point at Commentary’s “contentions” blog that the real debate is over our objective in Afghanistan.  If Obama sends substantially fewer additional troops than McChrystal is asking for, he perforce chooses against the objective of securing the Afghan countryside from exploitation by the Taliban.  That choice carries decisive consequences:  the Taliban will own the countryside, they will use it to lay siege to the cities – through isolating them from the agricultural heartland as much as through rocket attacks on them and predation against the trade routes – and the Taliban will be waiting to fall on any trained Afghan security force that tries to protect the cities, once NATO forces leave.

The difference can’t be split on this one; it’s either the 40K troops General McChrystal is asking for, or it’s a decision to relinquish the Afghan countryside to the Taliban.  There is no middle way.

But there’s another point we must not miss.  Throwing it into relief for us is the fact that the “Biden faction” in the Afghanistan deliberations has expressly questioned the need for or utility of securing the Afghan countryside.  It has been my impression that, however administration officials couch the issues for public consumption, the key players do understand that they are not merely discussing strategy.  The outcome of this decision will be either one objective or another.

The point we mustn’t miss is that the objective favored by the Biden faction – protecting key cities but not trying to either hold the countryside or defeat the Taliban – was the perennial objective in Vietnam from 1954 to 1969.  The reason we never defeated North Vietnam was that we were never trying to.

The key to this comparison is that both of the objectives – the Vietnam objective and the emerging Afghanistan objective of the Obama administration – omit the element of defeating the enemy or denying him the territory he needs as an operational base.  Here, for your perusal, is the Obama administration on the objective shaking out of its current deliberations:

At the heart of this strategy is the conclusion that the United States cannot completely eradicate the insurgency in a nation where the Taliban is an indigenous force — nor does it need to in order to protect American national security. Instead, the focus would be on preventing Al Qaeda from returning in force while containing and weakening the Taliban long enough to build Afghan security forces that would eventually take over the mission.

A strategy of protecting major Afghan population centers would be “McChrystal for the city, Biden for the country,” as one administration official put it.

This formulation, of course, misses the point that “Biden for the country” means no “McChrystal for the city,” since in McChrystal’s plan, securing the countryside is essential to strengthening the viability of civil government in the cities.  But for our purposes, the passages above are what compare so well with the following statements of US objectives in Vietnam.  First, from the Eisenhower administration in 1954 (the following passages are quoted from a 1998 article by Stephen B. Young from Vietnam magazine, available online here):

In a letter to South Vietnam’s new leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, dated October 1, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower explained the rationale for his support of South Vietnam: ‘The purpose of this offer is to assist the Government of Vietnam in developing and maintaining a strong, viable state, capable of resisting attempted subversion or aggression through military means … . Such a government would, I hope, be so responsive to the nationalist aspirations of its people, so enlightened in purpose and effective in performance, that it will be respected both at home and abroad and discourage any who might wish to impose a foreign ideology on your free people.’

The Kennedy administration’s policy on the Vietnam objective:

National Security Action Memorandum 52, issued on May 11, 1961, set forth the Kennedy administration’s policy for South Vietnam, essentially affirming the previous Eisenhower policy. It stated, ‘The U.S. objective and concept of operations stated in the report are approved: to prevent communist domination of South Vietnam; to create in that country a viable and increasingly democratic society, and to initiate, on an accelerated basis, a series of mutually supporting actions of a military, political, economic, psychological and covert character designed to achieve this objective.’

Young goes on to describe how the diplomacy of Ellsworth Bunker and the military planning of General Westmoreland were designed to comport with the objective stated by Lyndon Johnson in his April 1965 policy speech on Vietnam:

Our objective is the independence of South Vietnam, and its freedom from attack. We want nothing for ourselves, only that the people of South Vietnam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way.

We will do everything necessary to reach that objective. And we will do only what is absolutely necessary.

In recent months, attacks on South Vietnam were stepped up. Thus it became necessary to increase our response and to make attacks by air. This is not a change of purpose. It is a change in what we believe that purpose requires.

We do this in order to slow down aggression.

We do this to increase the confidence of the brave people of South Vietnam who have bravely borne this brutal battle for so many years and with so many casualties.

And we do this to convince the leaders of North Vietnam, and all who seek to share their conquest, of a very simple fact:
We will not be defeated.
We will not grow tired.
We will not withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.

Young outlines clearly how these ringing words were compatible with the absence of any intention to defeat the North Vietnamese so that they could not fight another day – and indeed, with the preparation for withdrawal of US forces.

The emphasis in statements from the Obama administration so far has been on precisely the elements of the Vietnam objective:  protecting a seat of government that is to be strengthened and enabled to defend itself, but not – as Johnson might have put it – doing more than necessary to achieve that objective.  Not, in other words, defeating the attacking enemy, or denying him territory, but only fending him off from an area we have staked out – until we decide to leave.

38 thoughts on “The Vietnam Objective”

  1. Well Optimist , the differences for me between the Vietnam War and the current Afghanistan mess are three: the general public has Internet access, the U.S. has an all volunteer armed services, and women like you are thoroughly trained to give professional evaluations to the rest of us civilians.So I say to the Democrat elites bring it on, we’ll see how they all fare this time around. Female and 64!

  2. Fun coincidence, Orcas–I too am female and 64.

    The Optimist has a clear view of the difference between objectives and strategy, but it seems that the Obama administration does not. I think in the case of Vietnam it was easy for poltiicians who were very much attuned to popular mood to lose sight of the distinction between “not letting the North Vietnamese win” and “defeating the North Vietnamese.” We seem to have a similar elision in thinking going on in the Obama camp now. Partly I think it is caused by an odd kind of national narcissism, a belief that of course the U.S. is very powerful, always and everywhere, and therefore can take half measures and still succeed.

  3. Orcas, Margo — I hope enough of the people to matter will be attuned to the essential truth of what’s going on.

    It helps immeasurably to have Vietnam to compare it to. Back in 1965, people had no way to visualize what you were talking about if you said that compromising the STRATEGY would inevitably mean pursuing a different OBJECTIVE.

    It was really easy to let the unique problems presented by guerrilla warfare assume away the idea of victory as the objective — with hardly any kind of rhetorical fight against that.

    But now we have an example of what the outcome is when you assume victory away and decide that your objective is, basically, “holding the enemy off until we get tired of it.” North Vietnam read that objective of ours very, very clearly from as early as 1954. Hanoi’s leadership was much less deceived on the whole matter than our media and our national political debate were.

    In 1954 we sent the signal “Wait us out.” So North Vietnam did. It took 20 more years, but in the end, they waited longer, and they won.

    Obama would be sending the same signal by going with a hybrid “McChrystal lite” option.

  4. Yes, it is a seeming period.
    Any idea why the administration said it wanted to wait until after the Afghan election to announce anything?

  5. Our objective is to secure Afghanistan against being a secure base for transnational terrorist forces, not necessarily to secure it against the Afghans.

  6. I would guess it’s not just the Afghan election they had to outwait. The scattered U.S. elections are also relevant. And the hoped-for passage of the health care bill. Don’t want to make a sizeable group of Americans hate what you are doing before that all-important takeover of health care.

    While we’re remembering Vietnam, we should remember the conviction that I among many of my peers suffered from that the South Vietnamese population supported the Viet Cong. There was little scrutiny given to this “support,” about whether it arose from positive enthusiasm or fear. The boat people drove home that distinction. I’m afraid now too there is very little question about the exact relationship between the Afghan population in the countryside and the Taliban, beyond an assumption that of course, they don’t want foreigners in their country. Glad we didn’t think that way before the Normandy invasion.

  7. I fear that Obama is more concerned about domestic politics than the Afghan war. I understand that a President must weigh all issues that confront the country and that requires expending political capital with the big picture in mind. It’d be nice to be able to treat each issue completely separately from all other issues, but that’s not the way it works in politics.

    This all being said, I’m worried that Obama is going to try to find a way to “solve” the Afghanistan war rather than win it. Not that he necessarily doesn’t want to win the war, but not winning it (or “solving” it, which equals a loss to me), isn’t as bad to Obama as it is to most of us in my opinion. For starters, I think part of him feels that America is to blame for much of the world’s ills (judging by his apology tour), and that an America humbled by a non-victory in Afghanistan would be a “corrective” of sorts. This wouldn’t be so acceptable if he started the war, but since he can blame GWB for starting it, it’s not so bad. More over, there won’t be an immediate tangible pain associated with not winning the war. Kind of like with Vietnam. It’s not like the European countries getting run over by the Nazis.

    I don’t like how he’s waiting for the Afghan run-off election to pass before making a decision (again) on Afghanistan. My fear is that he’ll claim that the Afghan govt is corrupt (which has always been the case) and use that excuse to dial things back and do some sort of half measure. I wonder if Abdullah Abdullah’s decision to not participate in the run-off complicates things for Obama here.

    I think Obama’s domestic agenda trumps all else. Foreign policy is a necessary evil, but it gets in the way of health care, cap & trade, education, etc… If he can make it “go away” so he can focus on his economy ruining domestic plans, that would be great.

    To me, there is nothing more important than winning a war. If Obama decides to half-ass things with Afghanistan and we lose that war because of it, I will never forgive him. Especially if/when we suffer another terrorist attack that has fingerprints from Afghanistan (or Pakistan) on it.

    By the way, I’m not 64. And I’m not female. Just thought I’d clear that up for everyone.

  8. “Our objective is to secure Afghanistan against being a secure base for transnational terrorist forces, not necessarily to secure it against the Afghans.”

    Manifestly, the objective has to be to secure it against SOME Afghans.

  9. Margo — I think you’re right that the US election on Tuesday also figures into the administration’s decision process.

    My endeavor here, though, is to separate the independent truths about the nature of the objective and strategy we are considering, from other kinds of conclusions about the exigencies of politics.

    Obama would, in fact, face some serious opposition in Congress to simply approving the McChrystal plan. That doesn’t mean the plan is a bad one, and it doesn’t mean the objective it posits — the one based on Obama’s policy statements in March — is infeasible. It does mean Obama would pay a real cost on the Hill for going with it.

    Bush was able to make his case to a hostile Congress and get the resources he asked for, and if Obama believed in an approach the way Bush did, he could probably do the same. That he doesn’t believe in tough-sell approaches should be informative for the American people, about who it is they voted for.

    The pundits who conclude that Obama cares more about national health insurance than about Afghanistan are no doubt right. What the people need to keep straight in our minds is that greater domestic political feasibility is not a feature that makes a strategy work better in the theater of war, nor does it make an objective more obtainable.

    “Making the Taliban go away” by fortifying cities and holding out against them cannot work. The method will not achieve the outcome: making the Taliban go away. There is no point in debating the issue as if it can. Obama’s orientation to domestic politics will probably be the deciding factor here, but it’s vital for us to understand that the central disconnect is between strategy and objective.

  10. The only way to secure Afghanistan so that it cannot be used by and for transnational terrorist groups is to decisively crush the Taliban.

    Nothing else will do. Otherwise the Taliban will eventually use Pakistan and Afghanistan as terrorist bases.

    Obama has already made his choice. His entire focus during recent discussions with his National Security Council was to establish that it is Al Qaeda who are our real enemy. In his view, the Taliban are not. He’s decided (magical thinking) that over time he can persuade the Taliban to abandon support for Al Qaeda and that we can eventually reach an accommodation with the Taliban.

    This is hubris and ignorance of the highest order, fueled by an innate tendency toward appeasement couched in the terms of reasonable negotiation and diplomacy.

    That hubris, international naivete and ignorance coupled with an intrinsic impulse to seek and use appeasement to reach accommodation with people uninterested in power-sharing will have several disastrous International consequences:

    Iran shall gain the bomb.

    The Taliban will seize Pakistan. It will then make no sense to continue the fight in Afghanistan and it too shall fall to the Taliban.

    Venezuela will gain the bomb.

    Regional arms races will explode across the Middle East, South America and the Far East resulting in vastly increased nuclear proliferation.

    A nuclear black market will emerge and terrorist groups will acquire nukes.

    Terrorist nukes will be used against Israel, American and European cities.

    None of this has to happen but just as in the 30’s with Chamberlain and Europe’s liberal pacifist majorities seeking to appease Hitler, so to is all of this quite predictable and increasingly likely.

  11. GB — unfortunately, there isn’t a lot to hope for other than friction to slow down the march of events you outline. Some things do end up taking longer than the most dedicated predators hope they will (e.g., North Korea developing a nuclear weapon that works reliably, on command).

    Other things, like the Russians developing a ‘tude, occur even faster than one might have predicted. VDH suggested in his latest Pajamas post that one of the world’s fun-n-frisky guys — A’jad, Putin, Chavez — might be trying something in 18 months or so. But I’m not so sure we’ll have to wait that long.

    It’s hardly overreaching to be concerned at this point that an increasingly precarious world order won’t survive until January 2013. Obama shows every sign of wanting to dismantle it himself.

    RE — looks like we were making the same point at about the same time. I duly note the information that you’re not a 64-year-old woman. Thanks for clearing that up. 🙂

  12. The difference between America then(the 60’s), and America now is the access all Americans have to the Internet. It would not have been imaginable in the early 60’s that the central gov. powers in the U.S. would play the American people with propaganda. Also because of the real diversity in our armed services personnel you can’t play the American people with “war is something men do because they’re chemically unbalanced” again. I think all of us civilians have a real opportunity here to protect our
    armed forces by starting polite discussions with our acquaintances on what is going on in Afghanistan. My main point is that never again should our armed forces be used as political pawns by crooked politicians. The men and women of our armed services will be needed as they are always needed to protect our families and our constitution. It’s up to us civilians to bring up topics in our every day life that might not be pleasant . Printing out some pictures from Michael Yon’s web site for example to show people the conditions on the ground visually could be a start.The statement that we’re going to defend Afghan cities sounds reasonable until you take a look at some pictures. I think most Americans response would be “What city, I don’t see any city in the photo?” If the central bureaucracy is sending out propaganda we can send out ground up propaganda from supper market check out lines on up.

  13. Geoffrey, your point about Obama making the distinction between the Taliban and Al Quaida rings true. Again, Vietnam gives us the precedent, the distinction between the Viet Cong (indigenous!) and the North Vietnamese (allies of the indigenous). The working assumption was that somehow the one wouldn’t help the other.

    The left has always preferred to see the conflict in terms of pursuing and “bringing to justice” al Quaida, formulating the whole problem as one of law enforcement. It’s interesting to see that this objective too has shifted, when faced with complex reality, from “catching” them to simply preventing them from setting up training camps. Of course, identifying an Al Quaida camp from the air, when no friendly Afghanis on the ground are available to us, will be a hopeless task.

  14. God help us from armchair generals who would use Vietnam as a template for Afghanistan. In particular, God help our young people from those who see Afghanistan as a means of expurgating the catastrophy of Vietnam.

    We “lost” Vietnam because the cost and sacrifice involved in subduing a nation of almost 80 million people in a war few Americans saw as existential, lost popular support. However, had we been prepared to return to the total-war economy of the 1940s (and providing we didn’t manage to get into a “hot” war with Ho Chi Minh’s nuclear armed Soviet sponsors in the process) we could probably have beaten the communists, occupied North Vietnam, and replaced its leaders with some more palatable despot. Vietnam is a proper nation like, for example, Germany, whose people share a shared sense of nationhood and which has a history of coherent government. The Vietnam folly cost tens of thousands of young Americans their lives. More had their lives permanently blighted. We pushed the Tito-like nationalist Ho Chi Minh into the arms of the Russians, and made him a hero in the eyes of a nation that saw the US merely as a continuance of the hated French colonialists. Ultimately, communist Vietnam imploded like communism everywhere because of the inherent unfitness of communism for purpose. Vietnam is now a country that is slowly reforming and liberalizing its society and integrating itself into the international economy. This would have happened anyway without the war that cost millions of human beings their one only precious lives.

    Afghanistan is completely different from Vietnam. It is not a nation of people in the conventional sense. It is a vast geographical area between Iran and Pakistan inhabited by various and disparate ethnic and sub-ethnic groups with shifting alliances and little perceived common interest except profiting from the world’s insatiable appetite for opium – and a determined hatred of foreign invaders – British, Russian, and NATO. Short of several hundred thousand US and allied troops – sufficient to lock down the entire country – increasing troop numbers by the numbers proposed by General McChrystal will only provide more target practice for the insurgency. The Russians have showed that the insurgency is capable of expanding to meet challenges rather greater than the expansion posited by McChrystal. Needless to say, there is absolutely no political support at home for the sort of all-out effort and several hundred thousand troops needed to occupy and lock down Afghanistan. Moreover, even if we did manage to put in the required number of troops, we would have to keep them there forever. Afghanistan would almost certainly revert to its natural state when they were pulled out. As it will if we pull out now.

    Our reason for being in Afghanistan is to prevent Al Quaeda from using the country as a base and safe haven. The present troop level seems to be sufficient to keep the lid on the Taliban, and Al Quaeda in its caves or in Warizistan (And that is another story). We are taking casualties (a tragedy for too many young Americans and their families – and no level of casualties is “acceptable”) but which is not approaching anything like Vietnam levels.

    In this scenario, President Obama is wise in proceeding without undue haste. He is not pulling out of Afghanistan. Neither is he proceeding with a troop build-up which may only increase casualties without ever being adequate to turn Afghanistan into something it is not – nor is capable of ever being. It may be that the present level of committment is the best of a bad set of options available at present. Ultimately, our best option may be to arrive at some understanding with the various factions in Afghanistan (including the more sensible factions within the Taliban) that Afghanistan is their own business – except that if they allow Al Queada back in they can expect to be visited by a cruise missile personally addressed to them.

    As for the opium problem: if there were no consumers there would be no producers. Perhaps we should address the consumer end of the market first.

    I note that ex Vice President Cheney is accusing President Obama of “dithering” on sending more troops to Afghanistan. Cheney certainly knows something about war and “dithering”. He managed to “dither” out the Vietnam war by way of several draft deferments. He has never “dithered” when it comes to sending other people’s children to war. I am sure that President Obama will take his counsel from more reliable sources.

    1. The present troop level isn’t adequate for much at all and neither is the threat of personalized cruise missiles.
      There’s no cheap way out at present.

  15. “The present troop level seems to be sufficient to keep the lid on the Taliban.”

    Since this is the opposite of what McChrystal said in August when he asked for more troops, what is your basis for making this assertion, peterwise?

  16. See if they were smart, a critic would reference the retreat from Kabul in 1841 during the First Afghan War, where out of 10,000 only one survived, the sad tale of Dr. Bryden. That was a much definitive end that Saigon in ’75. The issue of strategy as well as sufficient troops are key. Obama seems willing to underestimate both with likely dramatic consequences

  17. What McCrystal envisages is merely a larger holding operation unless he is under the illusion that 40,000 troops is sufficient to attain lock-down on Afghanistan.

    To put some perspective on this. The British deployed 17,000 combat troops in Northern Ireland, backed up by an equal number of paramilitary and armed police without ever being able to completely subdue the IRA. Northern Ireland is about a tenth of the area of Helmand province alone. It has a well-educated population of 1 1/2 million – less than 25% of whom were ever sympathetic to the IRA. Afghanistan has about 30 million people spread out over a vast and inhospitable terrain. Most are implacable opposed to Western values and foreign invaders.

    Given that the present troop levels seem to be maintaining a reasonably low level of violence (and I am not trying to be callous or cynical) – and that the presence of NATO in itself seems to have displaced Al Quaeda to Pakistan, why increase the NATO presence to a level which is still woefully inadequate to pacify the country, and will only present more targets (and an even higher level of US casualties) for the local insurgency?

    And just in case anyone thinks we are there to give Afghan women a better future – we aren’t. Outside Kabul, even in areas controlled by US-friendly warlords, tradition rules, and things remain unchanged from the days of the Taliban – and from the people who preceded the Taliban. The only part of the entire vast country, outside Kabul, where a semblance of female emancipation exists is along the western border which is inhabited by ethnic Iranians with Iranian values. If we are interested in helping women, a good place to start would be closer to home in some of our less savoury South and Central American allies where female life has become increasingly cheap.

    In the meantime, Afghanistan has become an increasingly irrelevant sideshow. The real battle is taking place in Pakistan – a huge country with a vast population – many of whose people have become radicalized by ill thought out Western interference in the region and the further Middle East. The fate of Pakistan is probably beyond the power of our military to influence.

  18. So when we look upon the world as it increasingly is, and some like Peters and Ferrigno and even Kratman spin their dystopian yarns, we see why.
    Of course he leaves out the ISI and Saudi general
    Intelligence as the real motivators for the unrest, because it is much more easy to blame this country.

    1. It isn’t much more easy to blame my country. And the problem with Afghanistan is that it is what it is – not what some of the commentators who imagine clearcut WWII type victories over conventional nation states like to think it is.
      In fact, given the sheer intractability of Afghanistan, we are doing about as well as could be expected. We are doing an awful lot better than the Brits and Russians did before us. At least we haven’t yet experienced the disasters and massive losses of manpower of our predecessors.
      We are keeping a lid on the place and keeping Al Quaeda in its caves and Pakistan. Remember, Al Qaeda only came to Afghanistan because it was one of the few places it could enjoy a bit of peace and quiet to train and recuperate. Al Qaeda itself is not an Afghani outfit (insofar as it ever was an organization as distinct from a franchise). It’s leaders are mainly from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern places, and their foot-soldiers motivated by Middle East grievances.
      While we should be slow to draw analogies with Vietnam, I believe that we are about to face our “Westmoreland” moment in Afghanistan. General McChrystal is looking for more troops which he deems necessary to expand the holding operation that is the NATO effort in Afghanistan. Note “holding operation”. Not even the good general can believe that the extra troops will suffice to bring the insurgency to heel – let alone enable the establishment of the rule of law, or a government whose write runs beyond a few neighbourhoods in Kabul. I would presume – dark shades of Vietnam – that General McChrystal will be back in several months time for an additional, equally essential, 40, 000 troops. And as the ‘King and I’ said: “etcetra, etcetra, etcetra”. His request should be politely refused.
      You are correct. We do need to deal with the real world. Unless the US electorate is happy to send the several hundred thousand troops necessary to sort out Afghanistan, we should get out. You know, I know, and the President knows that the American people under any administration are not behind such a huge effort. That is the real world. In the real world, 40,000 troops in Afghanistan are merely target practice for the insurgency.
      We are, due to the excellence of our troops and equipment, keeping the lid on the insurgency. We now need to devise the least worse exit strategy given the political and military facts of the real world.

  19. Aaron — I have a post up today at the contentions blog on the Russian exercises. Since the format is shorter there I kept it to major political points:

    As mentioned in that post, the inclusion of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces in an exercise focused on the retaking of Kaliningrad from “ethnic Poles and Lithuanian terrorists” is near-psychotic overkill, from a military operational standpoint. (For Yanks, see the link in that post to the Economist’s report on the exercises, for a good basic regional map.) Kaliningrad is not a slice of territory anyone in NATO has the slightest desire to deny to Russia, so the exercise’s notional escalation to fending off a NATO-like invasion force comes from cloud cuckoo-land.

    The exercise scenario, and the wildly inappropriate combination of forces to deal with it, served the real function of sending a message of warning and intimidation to Poland, the Baltic republics, Belarus, and the rest of Eastern Europe.

    I judge that Obama’s missile defense policy announcement, coming in the middle of an exercise that saw the most Russian troops deployed to Belarus since the fall of the USSR, influenced Lukashenka’s decision to reverse his course (literally right after the exercise) and join Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization. Belarus had been resisting that, and then suddenly couldn’t do it fast enough. There was an interesting period of a couple of days, right at the turn of the month (Sep-Oct) when the press in Minsk was reporting that Russian troops were not departing on the announced schedule. Lukashenka came out on 2 October with his startling policy announcement, that joining the CSTO was suddenly “very important” to Belarus, and magically, the Russian troops were leaving.

    The reason history doesn’t repeat itself is that it doesn’t have to: people remain the same over time, and will just apply their limitations and weaknesses to whatever the current scenario is. Of course “Russia 2009” isn’t “Germany 1933” (or ’36 or ’38, etc). Of course many features of the current scene are different.

    But as I suggested at the end of the contentions post, the next step for Russia is likely to be ignoring her CFE obligations, on the probably valid theory that an Obama-led West won’t do anything effective about it. It’s juvenile and superficial to insist that doing that would not be the equivalent of remilitarizing the Rhineland, because the geography and the players are different. What matters is that the test of the Western powers’ will would be the same.

    Neither Russia nor Iran will go around testing us — the West, the US and Western Europe — with the cartoonish obviousness or brinkmanship of literal nuclear threats. Their probes will come in the forms we have seen over the last 15 months or so, as with the invasion of Georgia, continued occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the bomber flights over the North Pole and into the North Sea (!), the threats to Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states, and of course, exercises that move troops into Eastern Europe.

    1. These exercises have nothing to do with Poland, the late unlamented missile “shield”, or the US.
      The Russians, having lost an empire and suffered humiliation in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent in Chechnia, are conducting these silly exercises solely for purposes of domestic consumption where they are seen as a reassertion of national morale after the aforesaid humiliations. They have nothing whatsoever to do with the presence or absence of the equally silly missile shield the Bush administration was trying to force on the Poles. In fact, these exercises have nothing much to do with the US at all (You will find it difficult to comprehend that most people on the planet go about their business without giving a fig what the US thinks one way or the other).
      In fact the Russians are rather like ourselves. After the self-inflicted humiliation of Vietnam, and after we got over the shock, we began a period of “psychotic” (to use your label) assertion – nuclear exercises on the borders of the Warsaw Pact and the seas off Vladivostok et al. We even had a period of subverting non-compliant governments in our South and Central American backyard, and further afield in the Middle East.
      The Russians are doing the same in the Caucasus. Hope they get over it quicker than we did.

      Incidentally, the Bush administration told us the now ditched anti-missile missiles were to defend Europe against (non-existant) Iranian ballistic nuclear missiles. Thank you for admitting that their real purpose was merely cold war posturing.

  20. peterwise — you may well disagree with McChrystal, but from your words I’m not convinced you have read his proposal. It is simply not valid to characterize HIS proposal as either a holding action, or a mistaken view that 40K additional troops would enable him to secure the entire territory of Afghanistan.

    The latter is not his proposition. Rather, he intends to use the total force he would have, with the additional 40K troops, to secure key terrain in Afghanistan. 40K more troops would put the NATO total at about 145K.

    McChrystal does not envision merely holding on to what we have in the major cities. His assessment is precisely that that is an untenable objective, because not holding the surrounding countryside will mean losing the grip on the cities.

    Instead, he proposes to secure specific territory in Afghanistan against occupation and exploitation by the Taliban, using a combination of armed force and a multi-faceted approach to bolstering the performance of civil government. He outlines this as a first step, not as the total campaign that would secure all of Afghanistan. Preventing the Taliban from consolidating a base of operations would, in his view, deny it the momentum and mobility it needs to be effective, and slowly drive it back into enclaves without lines of communication to outside supply.

    The key terrain he proposes to take — which we do not hold now — is the hinterland of Kandahar, the Helmand River valley (Afghanistan’s main agricultural area), the area around Herat in western Afghanistan, where Taliban supply lines run into Iran, and more territory in southeastern Afghanistan, to enlarge the NATO stronghold that sits athwart the Taliban supply lines from Waziristan. Around the major cities, he would focus on securing the hinterland as well, since it’s from those hinterlands — either under menace or already lost to the Taliban — that civil life in the cities is threatened.

    These are portions of Afghanistan, not all of it. Together they probably represent only about a third of the territory. Holding ONLY that much of the country is not the end-state; it’s a beginning. McChrystal, and the US ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, have been very clear that they and their Afghan counterparts regard it as essential to begin retaking parts of Afghanistan that are not under government control, and establish trust in the central government and its ability to protect civil life, in the citizens — as the means of gradually bringing more of the county under control, and creating a situation that feasibly CAN be turned over to a trained Afghan security force.

    A couple of links. This is the plan Eikenberry and McChrystal forwarded for implementing Obama’s March 2009 objective of preventing the Taliban from providing territorial support to Al Qaeda:

    This is the McChrystal military assessment:

    If you read the actual documents you realize that McChrystal has not, in fact, proposed a holding action.

    The point that must be made again is that he WOULD NOT propose one, because he does not think a holding action would work. Our present position can’t be held because it’s untenable.

    This actually accords well with the proposal of the Biden faction to fall back to a handful of cities. They would probably agree that we can’t hold what we have. But McChrystal’s point about the necessity of securing the hinterlands around cities, and interdicting Taliban strongholds in the areas geograpically favorable for them, is that falling back to the cities won’t be a tenable position either. It will erode, because the cities can’t be held if they are under siege from their surrounding countryside.

    It’s important, in arguing against McChrystal, to argue against what he has actually said.

  21. If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it is probably a duck. What McChrystal is trying to sell is a holding operation – a bigger holding operation, certainly, but a holding operation nonetheless.
    The McChrystal proposal is a million miles from what is necessary to secure the rule of law and some sort of coherent and responsible administration beyond the suburbs of Kabul. Imposing a western style democracy on Afghanistan is a fantasy. Afghanistan just isn’t like that, and the recent farcical elections will have disabused all but the blindest ideologues of that illusion.
    The realities of Afghanistan are that we would require several hundred thousand troops to pacify the country followed by several decades of occupation to have any chance of turning Afghanistan into a normal country – let alone a democracy. The realities of US politics are that the American people have no appetite whatsoever for such a committment.
    In fact, the present level of committment has accomplished what we originally set out to do – to stop Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorist attacks on us and our allies. Our mere presence makes Afghanistan an unattractive base for Al Quaeda.
    We should now be looking for an exit strategy which ensures that the warlords and Taliban are incentivised to keep Al Quaeda out after we leave – (as we surely will, sooner or -many US casualties and tens of thousands of embittered and bereaved Afghanis – later).
    Some things just can’t be accomplished by throwing more and more guns at them.

      1. Think of it more as a neighborhood party instead of something going on only in Afghanistan. Things are over the line more than a little, and some of the guests lingering on both sides of the Durand Line need to be put to bed and/or encouraged to run along.
        As they move on, it’ll real nice to keep an eye on their progress.

  22. peterwise, repeatedly asserting that McChrystal wants to engage in a holding action doesn’t equate to demonstrating that he does. You don’t offer any arguments or discussion to substantiate your point of view.

    How is proposing to take Afghan territory we don’t control now, as a stepping stone to long-term stability for a centrally-governed Afghanistan, a “holding action”?

    1. What McChrystal envisages, taken at its height, would still leave about 90% of the country and 60% of the population beyond the reach of the NATO forces – other than brief raids into the boondocks before beating a hasty retreat back into the Laager. This is precisely what we are doing at the moment (Forays into the countryside, taking a few more casualties to IEDs, killing a few Afghanis – insurgents and (mistakenly) innocents -, and retreating back to base).

      Your continually re-asserting a nonsense doesn’t make that nonsense less nonsensical, nor does it change the reality of Afghanistan. In fact you continually contradict your own position by admitting just how limited McChrystal’s objectives are. Unless, that is, you envisage this being the first installment in a series of escalations (Shades of Vietnam).

      Incidentally, one of the Afghanistan security forces who you envisage taking over from NATO yesterday turned his gun on his British mentors and killed five of Her Majesty’s finest before heading off into the same boondocks on a stolen motorbike. It seems the first thing the Afghani security do after we have trained and armed them is hand over (or sell) their guns to the insurgents. We have the “Vietnamization” scenario all over again. The problem is the same old story. Our local mercenaries are never as committed to us as the insurgents are to getting rid of foreign invaders.

      Our British allies, with a far longer experience of Afghanistan than us, are gagging to do a deal with the locals – including the Taliban – and get out. 57% of them (up 20% from this time last year) believe that the war no longer serves a purpose other than to provide target practice for the insurgents, and that we should have our spooks and diplomats negotiate a deal which will ensure Al Quaeda remains unwelcome in Afghanistan.

      We were fully justified in going into Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban. After that it all went pear-shaped. After toppling the Taliban we should have sat the remaining leaders down – including the remaining Taliban leaders – and told them that we had no interest in involving ourselves in the running of their country, but that if they ever again provided a safe haven for Al Quaeda that we would be back pronto – repeatedly if necessary – with special forces and cruise missiles to emphasise the lesson. The Afghanistan vets who were interviewed on the BBC, British Sky, and Channel 4 in the aftermath of the latest British deaths all agreed that the Taliban insurgents and the warlords are far more interested in self-preservation and their local agendas than in assisting the mainly foreign Al Quaeda outfit.

      We may yet pay a horrible price for prolonging our stay in Afghanistan by contributing to the further destabilization of already precarious Pakistan next door. Subduing Afghanistan would probably require several hundred thousand troops and specialists. The fate of nuclear armed Pakistan, with a population of 175 million souls, is utterly beyond the ambit or capabilities of US military power.

  23. cm — I often think Spengler has good points, and he has some in this piece. But his framework for argument is flawed, in my view.

    The view that “realism” means giving up on self-determination for the peoples hegemons are always wanting to dominate — that view persists, and persists, and persists. And it’s wrong. Acting on the basis of it always means things get worse. The Cold War should have taught us that. We spent the period 1945 to 1981 being “realistic,” using a defensive strategy that involved gradually giving ground, and, sure enough, we lost literal territory to predatory Marxism, and gained nothing.

    It is ridiculous to think that if we’ll just give up Ukraine and Georgia to Russia, Putin will be satisfied and leave us alone. Russia will always, always couch everything she does in terms of her security; but her view of security is a very different one from what we would recognize. It’s already on a collision course with the idea the NATO nations hold of economic and political freedom.

    Just to take one example: the idea of the US and NATO about freedom of international trade and movement involves the quiescent administration of the Turkish Straits and the Black Sea. We have remained committed to the Montreux Convention, which dates to 1920 in its earliest incarnation. Under it, Turkey — naturally — monitors and administers the Straits. The regime under them, as the executor of the Convention, is free and safe passage of shipping for all comers: the Black Sea nations come and go without hindrance or toll, and so does other nations’ shipping.

    It would be very easy to close down the Turkish Straits. The narrows at the western end of the Sea of Marmara are very narrow indeed, less than a nautical mile across. Shipping is much more vulnerable there than it is in the Strait of Hormuz. If we wanted to bottle up Russia in the Black Sea, it would be easy.

    But we have never used that as a threat or bargaining chip with Russia, nor do we want to. We don’t think in those terms because our whole concept is that the world’s straits and waterways are to be free of access to all, period.

    Russia’s on the other hand, is not. Since the invasion of Georgia last year, regional observers are becoming increasingly uneasy that Russia is enforcing a naval-backed regime of control on the Black Sea, one that — for now — affects shipping to and from Georgia, but that may be used to intimidate Ukraine, which is heavily dependent on her Black Sea ports for commerce.

    The rapprochement between Russia and Turkey is also setting off alarm bells in the distance. The two of them have developed a tacit modus vivendi for dividing up maritime supervision in the Black Sea, in a manner more conciliatory than standoffish. For most of the two decades since the Cold War ended, the Black Sea nations that aren’t Russia, and their trading partners, have been able to operate on the basis of the Black Sea being an international body of water, with each coastal state’s military interest extending out 12 nautical miles. Russia, however, in the last 15 months, has been asserting a hegemonic control over more and more of the Black Sea, including control of Ukraine’s port of Sevastopol.

    Tacit collusion with Turkey on this is not a good sign. The nations with interests in Black Sea commerce are wholly dependent on Turkey’s goodwill and commitment to honest brokering. It’s because those things are “givens” that the Turkish Straits, and in fact the whole Eastern Med, remain passable and quiescent without constant military patrolling or enforcement.

    Our — the US’s — priority is always to reinforce and maintain such conditions, preferably with alliances and the mutual profitability of trade. Russia, however, has proven repeatedly, with her handling of the natural gas valve, that she is willing to use trade as a form of intimidation and extortion. (She has also proven it over the last couple of years with trade in all goods between herself and Belarus and Ukraine.)

    Russia would be utterly untrustworthy with a veto over other nations’ use of the Black Sea or the Turkish Straits. And to assume away any interest on Moscow’s part in having such a veto would be extremely foolish. In our modern commercial age — one in which container shipping is one of the fastest-growing and most profitable businesses on the planet — Russians like Putin will be even more inclined to pursue the objective of Czar Alexander I, who explicitly saw it as necessary for Russia to gain control over the Black Sea and the Turkish Straits, gateway to the Mediterranean. (Stalin and Brezhnev did too, BTW, and there remain Russian politicians who refer regularly to such aspirations when campaigning for office.)

    Russia wants much more than we would be willing to give up, in the Eastern Med. Spengler’s hand-wave at the sovereignty of Georgia and Ukraine, as if they are completely dispensable to our own security and geopolitical position, is shortsighted. For my own part, I remain convinced that the best guarantee against gradual encroachment by bad-tempered, saber-rattling powers is thriving, self-governing, PEACEFUL nations, wherever the local peoples manage them with a little outside help. Which, after all, is the threat to the Far Eastern region: South Korea, or North Korea?

    1. “If we give up Ukraine and Georgia to Russia…..” Perhaps you hadn’t heard – neither of these countries are ours to give up to Russia or anyone else.

      Russia has never interfered with sea-trade. In fact, with one of the largest trading merchant-marine fleets in the world (much larger than ours) the Russians have a bigger stake than us in the freedom of the seas.

      “It would be really easy to close down the Bosphorous”. It would be even easier to close down Suez and Panama if someone wanted to gratuitously cause an international crisis. No one does. So, what’s your point?

      “If we wanted to bottle up Russia in the Black Sea it would be easy”. Lets give ourselves a medal for not starting a pointless war with the Russians. Incidentally, you seem to have forgotton that we would be bottling up “our” Georgians and Ukranians rather than the nasty Russians. The Russians have access to the oceans of the world through the Baltic, Far East, and the Arctic. Most of their navy is based in the latter three. So, whats your point?

      The Turks control the Bosphorous. The Russians do not control Sevastopol. The whole Eastern (and Western) Med remains passable and peaceful (Except for the Israeli lockdown on Gaza) because thats how we, the littoral nations of the Med, and the Russians want it, because we are all maritime trading nations and it is in all our interests. So what’s your point?

      “Russia has proven repeatedly with the use of her natural gas valve that she is willing to use trade as a form of intimidation and extortion”. Really? I had thought that after two particular countries had defaulted on paying for gas supplied by Russia, Russia had (after waiting patiently for payment for several months without receiving a cent) stopped supplying gas for free, and resumed supplies (after accepting a rate well below the international market price for their gas from the countries concerned) as soon as payments resumed. Paying for the goods you use was, I had thought, normal business practice. I am not aware of any incidents where Russia has used trade as a form of intimidation or extortion. Perhaps you do? In fact, Russia (And teh USSR before her) has been a reliable supplier of gas to everyone who paid for it at the normal international market rate.

      Georgia and Ukraine indispensible to our security? Steady on there! Even during the cold war Georgia and Ukraine were not remotely indispensible to our security. Since when did these two countries suddenly become “indispensible” to the security of the US?

  24. Anyone who wants a considered opinion on Afghanistan by someone who knows the country at first hand should read Arnaud de Borchgrave in today’s Washington Times.

    1. There is a little lesson from history that those who would like to view the world as if it were some sort of war-game might consider.

      At the time of the Cuban missile crisis Airforce General Curtis LeMay consistently advised president Kennedy that his SAC bombers could “take out” the Soviet missiles sited in Cuba and that the Soviets wouldn’t dare retaliate because of our overwhelming strategic superiority. Wiser counsel prevailed, and LeMay would subsequently tell anyone who was prepared to listen to him that Kennedy was the “coward” who “lost” the Cuban missile crisis.
      LeMay died in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin war, but before historians gained access to the Soviet archives. When the records were released they showed that the Russian missiles in Cuba had been armed and ready for use, that the Russian crews had radar sets that were perfectly capable of detecting an incoming US attack, and that the same missile crews had “use ’em rather than lose ’em’ orders. We might well have “won” the body count after a nuclear exchange with the Russians. Had LeMay’s advice been heeded several million Americans in cities as far north as Washington D.C. wouldn’t have been around to savour the “victory”.
      After the crisis we and the Russians quietly co-operated in putting mechanisms and procedures in place to ensure that armageddon was on a rather longer fuse.

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