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.