America’s unwise, unwarranted, and sadly unwinnable war in Afghanistan—hastily initiated and then abandoned for Iraq by President Barack Obama’s ideologically blinded predecessor and dumped into Obama’s lap in the worst possible way—is beginning increasingly to smell like the 1964-68 war in South Vietnam that swallowed up the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.
It all sounds familiar. A powerless leader (whether Vietnam’s Diem or Afghanistan’s Karzai) with a corrupt family and little support in the countryside, who refuses to undertake the reforms (land, tax, electoral, and administrative) that the U.S. president tries to press upon him, therefore endangering the regime’s stability against the guerrilla extremists (once communists, now Taliban). Repeatedly changing U.S. commanders and initiating open-ended increases in U.S. forces, without a clearly definable goal, does not help. A military strategy of “clear and hold” usually lasts about a day.
Too many of Obama’s advisers, ignoring Kennedy’s lesson, apparently think the answer in Afghanistan is sending more U.S. combat troops. The real question is not the number of American troops in Afghanistan but their mission—to win more deadly battles with the Afghan people, or to win their goodwill?
The Kennedy-Johnson team, like the Obama team, was called “the best and the brightest”—but nobody’s perfect. Indeed, Richard Holbrooke, a Vietnam veteran now charged with finding a solution for Afghanistan, once wrote about Kennedy-Johnson National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy: “The smartest man in the room is not always right.” If Holbrooke permits the current dead-end strategy to go forward, the same sentiment may someday be written about him. But it’s up to Obama, not Holbrooke or the generals, to make the final decision.
John F. Kennedy, a World War II hero in the South Pacific, did not need to prove himself “tough” to either the generals or the Republicans, and he refused to send combat troop divisions to Vietnam as urged by his own hawkish advisers. I hope Obama does not feel he needs to prove himself tough.
John F. Kennedy knew that “regime change” and related problems are political problems not solved by superior U.S. military force and technology. He had successfully weathered crises in Berlin, Laos, the Congo and even the Cuban Missile Crisis through negotiations and political solutions, not superior force as urged upon him in each case by his own “hawks.” One colorful hawk scornfully dismissed talk of seeking to “capture the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people: “Grab them by the short hairs and drag them across our line,” he said, “and their hearts and minds will follow!”
• Walter Russell Mead: Why We Need Deals With Shady People to Win in Afghanistan• Elise Jordan: Shattering Kabul’s Calm• Christopher Buckley: It’s Time For Us to Leave Afghanistan• Michael Smerconish: Musharraf on Fixing Pakistan and the Afghan SurgeBut the Vietnamese people, who had long resisted complete occupation and domination by the French, Japanese, and others, were not so easily grabbed, and were determined to drive any would-be occupying power from their land, just as Afghans, who resisted complete occupation and domination by Alexander the Great, the British, and the Russians, are equally determined to drive out the Americans today. Nor was rule by the Taliban and their al Qaeda friends popular among the Afghan people.
Even the rhetoric today is familiar—the dire warnings that an American loss would embolden our enemies and lead to a “domino effect” chain of setbacks across the region; that we must keep on sending fresh troops to kill or be killed, thereby expanding both America’s mission and stakes, even though Obama had no more initiated America’s role in Afghanistan than Kennedy initiated America’s role in South Vietnam. There was little the U.S. could do to stop the flow of arms and enemy combatants into South Vietnam across its porous border with North Vietnam, just as there is little the U.S. can do now to stem the flow of arms and enemy combatants pouring across Afghanistan’s porous border with Pakistan.
The United States was not responsible for Vietnam’s suffering under colonialism, nor was it responsible for Afghanistan’s suffering under colonialism; but in neither country did American soldiers or diplomats know much about the history, language, culture, traditions, or needs of people that the U.S. hoped to win over.
In addition to being repeatedly urged to bomb the trails into South Vietnam from the North (which he never did), Kennedy was repeatedly urged to send combat troop divisions (not merely instructors and advisers as Eisenhower had done before him) to supplement South Vietnam’s own troops. (But he never did.) As I advised him: “If ever there was a country that needed to save itself, that country is Vietnam.” Today that country is Afghanistan. But too many of Obama’s advisers, ignoring Kennedy’s lesson, apparently think the answer in Afghanistan is sending more U.S. combat troops. The real question is not the number of American troops in Afghanistan but their mission—to win more deadly battles with the Afghan people, or to win their goodwill?
As a United States senator, Kennedy had notably warned against futile American involvement in the attempt to suppress nationalism in either Algeria or Indochina. As president, he recalled those warnings and held his fire. Obama, as a presidential candidate, sounded much the same alarm against the dangers of another quagmire in Iraq and, by indirection, Afghanistan. He, too, should recall his earlier warnings.
America’s national security, much less its way of life, was never at stake in Vietnam, thousands of miles from our shores, nor is it in Afghanistan. U.S. leaders say we must win to establish sufficient control in Afghanistan to prevent our enemies from ever again meeting to plan, plot, and train anywhere in that vast, ungovernable country. Every bomb we drop, antagonizing more civilians, makes that goal more unrealizable. The main al Qaeda forces have already left Afghanistan—why haven’t we? The cost of Afghanistan in American lives and dollars has steadily risen to the point where the American people, as LBJ discovered regarding Vietnam, want no more. I erred in predicting at the outset of this essay that Afghanistan could become, in the future, Obama’s Vietnam. If hawkish advisers prevail, that will quickly become true.
Ted Sorensen, former special counsel and adviser to President John F. Kennedy, is the author most recently of Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.