Vietnamistan

Not from a grad student writing in a regional political journal, nor from those who would soon fill the streets, nor even from so respected a personage as Walter Cronkite, who eventually pronounced the president’s mission a fool’s errand. His failure to listen cost Johnson the presidency. We’ve since learned that he knew he couldn’t win the war in Vietnam but kept pushing forward because he didn’t want to be remembered as the one who lost it. His hubris left him a tragic figure who scored great domestic victories, then squandered his political capital and his career.

I write today hoping that another president listens to the kind of voices Johnson ignored. I certainly don’t expect this column to be required reading in the White House, but mine is not the only voice suggesting that more of the same is not the right policy in Afghanistan.

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George Will, a man whose intellect I admire even though I often disagree with his policies, has made a cogent argument that escalating our troop commitment in Afghanistan is the wrong policy. As Will wrote last week, “Genius, said de Gaulle, recalling Bismarck’s decision to halt German forces short of Paris in 1870, sometimes consists of knowing when to stop. Genius is not required to recognize that in Afghanistan, when means now … ”

Putting another 20,000-plus troops into the country seems painfully like the incremental escalation that led to half a million Americans in Vietnam. Fifty thousand of those young men and women now have their names engraved on the black slabs of a solemn memorial in the heart of this city. This nation will not stand for another such outcome to a war that seems to be propping up a corrupt regime rather than making the homeland safer.

Most Americans, including this one, supported America’s initial invasion of Afghanistan. We were chasing al Qaeda, the terrorist gang that launched a brutal attack on our country. We were told we had to engage and defeat the Taliban as part of that mission, and we supported it because the Taliban supported our enemy. Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden slipped through our hands into Pakistan, where they remain today. The Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq and pretty much ignored what was left of our enemy in Afghanistan. Turning away from that initial mission was a mistake — but it happened, and we are now in a very different conflict there.

The Taliban is back. They and local warlords have retaken control of critical territory, particularly in Helmand Province, the source of three-quarters of the poppies that feed an ever-increasing flow of heroin out of the country. There, the Taliban is fighting fiercely because that poppy production pays for its troops and their weapons. Its soldiers are now better trained and more deadly than at any time in history — making this graveyard of empires ever more dangerous and less likely to submit. We have some 4,000 Marines trying to control an area the size of West Virginia. It would take many times that number to “clear, hold and build” viable local governments in Helmand.

And just how did “clear, hold and build” become U.S. strategy? What began as a mission to run al Qaeda into the ground has devolved into a protect-the-population, nation-building, counterinsurgency strategy. It is, in the opinion of a growing number of Americans, the wrong strategy.

Hamid Karzai’s government is widely seen as being incompetent at best. It is riddled with corruption — his vice presidential running mate in the recent election is a well-known drug trafficker, and his family is reputed to be heavily involved in drug-running and siphoning off millions from government programs often paid for by U.S. taxpayers. At best, the central government controls about a third of the country, and the word “control” is used advisedly. As Will points out in his column, The Economist describes the regime as “so ‘inept, corrupt and predatory’ that people sometimes yearn for restoration of the warlords, ‘who were less venal and less brutal than Mr. Karzai’s lot.’ ”

A creeping mission, a corrupt regime and generals who can’t do the job without more troops — it’s déjà vu all over again. Candidate Obama said he was not opposed to all wars, just stupid wars. Millions of Americans agree with him and hope Obama gets the message that our strategy in Afghanistan is beginning to seem every bit as stupid as Vietnam.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.  E-mail: ben@gcsa.com

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