As has been expressed in a variety of ways over the years, the specter of Vietnam weighs as an albatross on the American body politic. President Truman began supporting French colonialism in Indochina in 1950, funding eighty percent of the French war effort as part of the globalization of Cold War policy. After the French were defeated, the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s created a dictatorial, unpopular, and corrupt South Vietnamese government which was aided by military advisers and massive U.S. financial support. President Kennedy pursued a policy of building a “non-communist road to economic development,” with the addition of thousands more troops. Lyndon Johnson launched a massive air war and counterinsurgency campaign leading to 540,000 troops in country by 1968. And the Nixon administration engaged in a brutal bombing campaign hitting targets throughout North and South Vietnam. Each strategy was to be the last. Victory was near. In the end, millions of Vietnamese people died and thousands of Americans.
And all indicators are that the United States is doing it again in Afghanistan. In the 1980s the U.S. committed more than a billion dollars to support religious fundamentalists fighting to overthrow secular Kabul governments it opposed. In the 1990s, the U.S. briefly negotiated with a Taliban government it found abhorrent, but which it felt might become a potential economic ally in the production of oil pipelines running through Afghanistan. Finally the George W. Bush administration made war on dubious grounds on the Taliban government in the twenty-first century. The immediate enemy, Al Qaeda, the alleged perpetrator of the crimes of 9/11, was not delivered to the U.S. by the Afghanistan government as “ordered” by the Bush administration.
Since 9/11 we have been engaged in a nine year quagmire in Afghanistan fighting what is left of a dwindling Al Qaeda and a vast population of people who resent being bombed and occupied by a foreign power. The White House last week hosted Afghan president Hamid Karzai, by numerous accounts corrupt and unpopular. The most troubling information about the encounter between Obama and Karzai was reported by Helene Cooper in The New York Times. According to her, President Obama promised to Karzai that “…the United States would remain in Afghanistan for the long haul, even as he vowed to stick to his timetable to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011.” Cooper surmised that the weeklong visit constituted an effort “… to reassure Mr. Karzai and his government that the United States will not abandon Afghanistan…”
In another New York Times story by Alissa Rubin, the author warns that the hardest fighting is still ahead even though “the biggest challenge lies not on the battlefield but in the governing of Afghanistan itself.” A near future expansion of the counter-insurgency campaign will confront, the “corrosive distrust” of the Karzai government. In areas such as Marja, the population resents influential power brokers such as Karzai’s brother, local police, and other government officials. Rubin quotes an aid to General Stanley McChrystal, architect of the new counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan: “People are tired of the Taliban, but they also don’t want cops to shake them down, they don’t want power brokers who are so corrupt they impact their lives and livelihood.”
Gareth Porter in an Inter Press Service article points out that the Obama administration has balked at the Karzai effort to dialogue with sectors of the Taliban despite the obvious possibility that negotiations could lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops which would advantage the United States and at the same time bring peace to the Pashtun population of Southern Afghanistan. Porter quotes an administrative official: “Obama’s forceful opposition to any political approach to any Taliban leadership until after the counter-insurgency strategy has been tried appears to represent a policy that has been hammered out within the administration at the insistence of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.”
Meanwhile, Middle East expert Juan Cole writes that Obama’s master plan for Afghanistan has involved a “massive counter-insurgency effort,” involving tens of thousands of troops and massive combat. Cole estimates that the strategy has about a 10 percent possibility of success.
Forty-six years ago Lyndon Johnson won an enormous presidential electoral victory against conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. LBJ ran as the anti-war candidate. He embarked on a campaign to get Congress to support civil rights legislation that would at last end Jim Crow in the South. He constructed a variety of programs to address poverty in America, activate community participation in the political process, and launched a program to expand access to health care for the elderly. He promised the American people “A Great Society.”
Much of the Great Society agenda was destroyed as the Vietnam War escalated from 120,000 troops in 1965, to over 400,000 by 1967, and 540,000 in January, 1968. By 1967 the United States had dropped more bombs on Vietnamese targets than were dropped on enemy targets during World War II. And President Johnson was forced to withdraw from the 1968 campaign for the presidency.
The Obama/McChrystal counter-insurgency strategy may not yield the magnitude of escalation reached in Vietnam. However, the combination of support for a corrupt regime, placing foreign troops among a hostile population, indiscriminant killing of local civilians, and refusal to negotiate with adversaries, as Juan Cole suggests, surely will yield a Vietnam-style failure in Afghanistan.
Along with the pain and suffering of the Afghan people, the counter-insurgency strategy of this administration will dash the hopes and dreams of all the young people who worked so hard in 2008 to get the candidate committed to progressive social change, Barack Obama, elected president. The parallels with the young who worked to elect the “peace candidate” in 1964 are stark.