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Militants blow up Pakistan bridge, severing key NATO supply route into Afghanistan

Image: Bridge destroyed in Pakistan
Islamist militants blew up a bridge in northwestern Pakistan on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009, cutting a major supply line for Western troops in Afghanistan in the latest in a series of attacks on the Khyber Pass by insurgents seeking to hamper the U.S.-led mission against the Taliban. (Photo credit: Mohammad Sajjad / AP)



Obama’s Vietnam

The analogy isn’t exact. But the war in Afghanistan is starting to look disturbingly familiar.

By John Barry and Evan Thomas
Newsweek logo 
Online Jan. 31, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Feb. 9, 2009


About a year ago, Charlie Rose, the nighttime talk-show host, was interviewing Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the military adviser at the White House coordinating efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We have never been beaten tactically in a fire fight in Afghanistan,” Lute said.

To even casual students of the Vietnam War, his statement has an eerie echo. One of the iconic exchanges of Vietnam came, some years after the war, between Col. Harry Summers, a military historian, and a counterpart in the North Vietnamese Army. As Summers recalled it, he said, “You never defeated us in the field.” To which the NVA officer replied: “That may be true. It is also irrelevant.”

Vietnam analogies can be tiresome. To critics, especially those on the left, all American interventions after Vietnam have been potential “quagmires.” But sometimes clichés come true, and, especially lately, it seems that the war in Afghanistan is shaping up in all-too-familiar ways.

The parallels are disturbing: the president, eager to show his toughness, vows to do what it takes to “win.” The nation that we are supposedly rescuing is no nation at all but rather a deeply divided, semi-failed state with an incompetent, corrupt government held to be illegitimate by a large portion of its population.

The enemy is well accustomed to resisting foreign invaders and can escape into convenient refuges across the border. There are constraints on America striking those sanctuaries. Meanwhile, neighboring countries may see a chance to bog America down in a costly war.

Last, there is no easy way out.

True, there are important differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam. The Taliban is not as powerful or unified a foe as the Viet Cong. On the other hand, Vietnam did not pose a direct national-security threat; even believers in the “domino theory” did not expect to see the Viet Cong fighting in San Francisco.

By contrast, while not Taliban themselves, terrorists who trained in Afghanistan did attack New York and Washington in 2001. Afghanistan has always been seen as the right and necessary war to fight — unlike, for many, Iraq. Conceivably, Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the successful surge in Iraq and now, as the head of Central Command in charge of the fight in Afghanistan, could pull off another miraculous transformation.

Privately, Petraeus is said to reject comparisons with Vietnam; he distrusts “history by analogy” as an excuse not to come to grips with the intricacies of Afghanistan itself. But there is this stark similarity: in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, we may now be facing a situation where we can win every battle and still not win the war — at least not within a time frame and at a cost that is acceptable to the American people.

A wave of reports, official and unofficial, from American and foreign (including Afghan) diplomats and soldiers, present and former, all seem to agree: the situation in Afghanistan is bad and getting worse.

Some four decades ago, American presidents became accustomed to hearing gloomy reports like that from Vietnam, although the public pronouncements were usually rosier. John F. Kennedy worried to his dying day about getting stuck in a land war in Asia; LBJ was haunted by nightmares about “Uncle Ho.” In the military, now as then, there are a growing number of doubters. …

In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, when in doubt, escalate. There are now about 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration appear to agree that the number should be twice that a year or so from now.

To be sure, even 60,000 troops is a long way from the half million American soldiers sent to Vietnam at the war’s peak; the 642 U.S. deaths sustained so far pale in comparison to the 58,000 lost in Vietnam. Still, consider this: that’s a higher death toll than after the first nine years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. …

It’s still too early to say exactly what President Obama will do in Afghanistan. But there are some signs — difficult to read with certainty, yet nonetheless suggestive — that reality is sinking in, at least in some important corners of the new administration.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the one Bush cabinet holdover, worries that increasing the size of the U.S. military’s footprint in Afghanistan will merely fan the locals’ antipathy toward foreigners. “We need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan,” he told a congressional committee last week. “My worry is that the Afghans come to see us as part of the problem, rather than as part of the solution. And then we are lost.”

Afghanistan resisted colonization, dispatching 19th-century British and 20th-century Russian soldiers with equal efficiency. “Afghanistan is not a nation, it is a collection of tribes,” according to a Saudi diplomat who did not wish to publicly disparage a Muslim neighbor. …

Nation-building in Afghanistan may be a hopeless cause. Periods of peace under centralized rule have been few and far between. Violence has been the norm …

Last month, the sober and respected International Council on Security and Development reported that the Taliban “now holds a permanent presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan, up from 54 percent a year ago.” They are moving in on Kabul; according to the ICOS report, “three of the four main highways in Kabul are now compromised by Taliban activity.” …

The Afghan Army is getting better, but slowly. U.S. commanders privately think it may be five years before most units are able to operate on their own. The Afghan police remain a disaster — leaving U.S. forces to fill the vacuum. …

At times … the United States can seem like its own worst enemy in Afghanistan. Lacking enough troops, forced to cover vast areas, U.S. forces depend far too heavily on strikes by A-10s, F-15s, even B-1 bombers. In 2004, the U.S. Air Force flew 86 strike sorties against targets in Afghanistan. By 2007, the number was up to 2,926 — and that doesn’t count rocket or cannon fire from helicopters. U.S. commanders have become much more careful about collateral damage since Vietnam. There are no more “free fire zones” or Marines using Zippo lighters to torch villages.

But innocents die in the most carefully planned raids, especially when the enemy cynically uses civilians as cover — as the Viet Cong did, and the Taliban does. Already, civilian casualties have climbed from 929 in 2006 to close to 2,000 in 2008, according to the United Nations. “When we kill innocents, especially women and children, you lose that village forever,” says Thomas Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

In the dominant Pashtun tribe, revenge is a duty. Kill one Pashtun tribesman, sadly observes a U.S. Special Forces colonel who spoke anonymously to be more frank, and you make three more your sworn enemy.

This, then, is the mess that faces General Petraeus. He was a near-miracle worker in Iraq, and it may be that just as Lincoln eventually found Grant, Obama will have been lucky to inherit Petraeus. So far, Petraeus is not signaling a new grand strategy, instead letting various policy reviews go forward. A shrewd politician, he may be seeking to quietly educate the new president on the high cost and many years required to “win” in Afghanistan — if such a thing is even possible. …

Petraeus will work closely with Richard Holbrooke, a veteran diplomat who helped broker peace in the Balkans. Holbrooke is being sent by the State Department to coordinate the scattered and easily corrupted foreign-aid programs and to knock heads to make sure the diplomats, politicians and soldiers are on the same page. Holbrooke is a force of nature; still, he could wind up like Robert (Blowtorch Bob) Komer in Vietnam in the late 1960s — brilliant, capable and too late.

In some ways, there is no mystery to what must be done to fight a successful counterinsurgency. As Petraeus himself has said, the United States cannot kill its way to success. Foreign troops cannot defeat insurgents. Only local forces with popular support can do that. (A RAND study of 90 insurgencies since World War II showed that “governments defeated less than a third of the insurgencies when their competence was medium or low.”)

It is a good bet that Petraeus will want American soldiers to train local village militias to fight the Taliban. The catch is that the Soviets already tried this (nothing is really new in counterinsurgency) and failed. In Afghanistan, local warlords quickly turn to fighting each other. The local saying is that they can be rented, not bought. And who wants to kill a Taliban fighter if the result is a blood feud?

Americans are appropriately skeptical about the chances of success in Afghanistan. A recent NEWSWEEK Poll shows that while 71 percent of the people believe that Obama can turn around the cratering economy, only 48 percent think he can make progress in Afghanistan.

Deploying a U.S. force of 60,000 will cost about $70 billion a year. Training and supporting the 130,000 to 200,000 troops required for a proper Afghan Army would take another decade and could cost at least $20 billion.

Petraeus has consistently warned that Afghanistan will be “the longest campaign in the long war” against Islamic extremism. But it’s far from clear that Americans have the appetite for such a commitment: after the economy, their top priority is health care (36 percent). Only 10 percent put Afghanistan at the top of their list, even fewer than nominate Iraq. If there is no real improvement on the ground, by the 2010 midterm elections, candidates for office may be decrying “Obama’s war.”

So why not just get out? As always, it’s not so simple. If the Americans pull their troops out, the already shaky Afghan Army could collapse. (Once they lost U.S. air support, South Vietnamese troops sometimes refused to take the field and fight.)

Afghanistan could well plunge into civil war, just as it did after the Soviets left in 1989. Already, the Pashtuns in the south regard the American-backed Tajiks who dominate Karzai’s administration as the enemy. The winning side would likely be the one backed by Pakistan, which may end up being the Taliban — just as it was in the last civil war.

Some argue this wouldn’t be such a bad outcome, if the Taliban could be bribed or persuaded to not let Al Qaeda set up terrorist training bases on Afghan territory. According to one senior Taliban leader, a former deputy minister in Mullah Mohammed Omar’s government who would only speak anonymously, some Pakistani officials are urging the insurgents to do something like this now — in return for talks with the Americans.

On the other hand, Islamabad could be playing with fire. Given the longstanding ties between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, a jihadist state on its border is a threat to Pakistan, too. And here, U.S. national-security interests definitely do come into play.

Some problems do not have a solution, or any good solution. Two studies of the Afghanistan mess cochaired by retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, now President Obama’s national-security adviser, asserted last year that America cannot afford to lose in Afghanistan. Who wants to be the American president who allows jihadists to claim that they defeated and drove out American forces?

Daniel Ellsberg, the government contractor who leaked the Pentagon papers, used to say about Vietnam, “It was always a bad year to get out of Vietnam.” The same is all too true for Afghanistan.


12/11/10 Update

U.S. Envoy Holbrooke in Critical Condition


Reports: Holbrooke in critical condition (MSNBC, Dec. 11, 2010) — Richard Holbrooke is reportedly in critical condition following surgery to repair a tear in his aorta. Holbrooke is the president’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. (01:25)

Dec. 11, 2010

WASHINGTON — Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was in critical condition on Saturday after doctors performed surgery to repair a tear in his aorta, the State Department said.

The 69-year-old veteran U.S. diplomat, who brokered the 1995 accord that ended the Balkans war, has been a key player in Obama’s efforts to turn around the 9-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Holbrooke fell ill at the State Department on Friday. The department issued a statement saying Holbrooke was admitted to nearby George Washington University hospital on Friday. …

With a meteoric career that included stints in Vietnam as well as serving as the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, for Europe and at the United Nations, Holbrooke’s most notable achievement has been bringing all sides in the Bosnia conflict to the negotiating table at an air base in Dayton, Ohio. The resulting 1995 Dayton accords ended the conflict. …

During congressional testimony on July 28, Holbrooke conceded that fighting a resurgent Taliban and helping to rebuild Afghanistan were massive tasks. But he repeatedly defended the Obama administration’s strategy.

He called the Afghanistan mission “the most difficult job I’ve had in my career.” But, he said, “Number one, on a personal note, I wouldn’t be in this job if I thought it was impossible to succeed.”

“We’re not delusional,” Holbrooke added, listing problems in Afghanistan from high illiteracy to trying to help its government be accountable to its own people.

A book by journalist Bob Woodward published this year depicted an internal battle over Afghan policy among members of Obama’s national security team.

The book quoted Holbrooke as saying Obama’s approach “can’t work,” while Vice President Joe Biden called Holbrooke “the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met.”

Violence in Afghanistan has soared to its highest levels since the Taliban was ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001.

Obama a year ago ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but has said American troops will start coming home in July 2011.


Follow-up report on this site

Richard Holbrooke Dead at 69 (Dec. 14, 2010)



Iraq orders vehicle ban fearing election anger (AP, Feb. 2, 2009) — An Iraqi military official says authorities have ordered a nighttime vehicle ban across the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar after tribal leaders who turned against al-Qaida claimed fraud in last weekend’s provincial election. … Full story 


2/4/09 Update

Sunni tribal leader says he can prove election fraud (AP, Feb. 4, 2009) — A senior Sunni tribal leader claimed to have hundreds of documents proving fraud in elections in Anbar province, escalating a crisis that has threatened to reignite violence in the former insurgent stronghold. … Full story


Minnesota U.S. Senate Recount Trial — Live Coverage

Coleman-Franken recount trial: Link to news updates from the Star Tribune and live streaming video or on-demand viewing from The UpTake.

6 Responses to “Afghanistan — Obama’s Vietnam?”
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