BOSTON — President Barack Obama has returned from the sunsets of summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard and the sad Arlington Cemetery glow from the flame of the Kennedy torch. Now he faces the hard work required on what has become a looming foreign policy disaster: Afghanistan.
Much of the coverage of Sen. Edward M. Kennnedy’s funeral seemed bathed in the Cape Cod light that it is Obama to whom the torch of the highest ideals of President John F. Kennedy and his brothers has been passed.
But there’s another ghost of presidents past that must haunt Obama these days, and that is Lyndon B. Johnson and his war in Vietnam.
There have been too many tired, cliched references to Vietnam in the post-9/11 America. I never really gave them much stock. Not in Iraq, for sure. And not in Afghanistan. At least not when President George W. Bush gave it such scant attention.
But these days, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan does indeed seem to be headed down the road toward becoming America’s next Vietnam.
The comparison seems to hold more weight particularly because the architects of the policy are so damn smart. They carry the arrogance and hubris of “the best and the brightest,” as David Halberstam put it in his legendary book on the origins of the Vietnam war. They are cut from the same Brooks Brothers cloth as those who drew America so deeply into Southeast Asia with disastrous results.
Obama's best and brightest — Gen. David Petraeus, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — are just as brilliant and well-intentioned as their Kennedy and Johnson administration counterparts. And that’s what would make them so tragic if the situation does indeed go the way so many analysts and even military leaders themselves fear it could.
These architects of our involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is actually a more perilous place than even Afghanistan and begs comparison to Cambodia, are gifted thinkers and strong leaders with great records of success and a deep concern about the safety of the country. But they are still leading the U.S. into a conflict where the goals are ill-defined and the insurgency is winning. As in Vietnam, the U.S. troops are not being outfought, but they are being outsmarted and they are being out-governed, a point that David Kilcullen, a great counterinsurgency thinker from Australia and a senior adviser to Petraeus, made convincingly in a recent speech to Australia’s National Press Club.
Just as Kennedy handed the war in Vietnam to Johnson, President George W. Bush handed the war in Afghanistan to Obama.
And Afghanistan became Obama’s war — just as Vietnam became Johnson’s — the moment he laid out his policy plans for an increase of troops and a shift in strategy that made the argument that the conflict was a “war of necessity,” as Obama said in August at a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and that it was winnable.
And now U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, whom Obama’s Pentagon appointed as commander on the ground in Afghanistan overseeing more than 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops, is throwing up a red flag of warning, that the Obama strategy may not be working.
McChrystal has just delivered his long-awaited review to CENTCOM and it is expected to then be delivered on to the White House.
The review will form the basis for what several high-level military officials tell GlobalPost will likely be yet another request for even more troops in Afghanistan beyond the 21,000 that the administration is currently flowing into the dust and sands of southern Afghanistan.
The cost of a further expansion is no small consideration particularly with the ambitious — and expensive — goals Obama has set on the domestic front in bailing out the economy and pushing through health care reform. (The New York Times Week in Review did an excellent piece comparing Obama and Johnson on balancing massive spending on war with massive spending on social programs at home.)
The McChrystal policy review, which will be a critical document at a crossroads for the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, comes at a moment of high drama with the offensive heating up in Helmand Province and the pending election results simmering with corruption and dissatisfaction. The long, hot summer offensive in Helmand has yielded a higher U.S. military casualty rate than any time since the start of the U.S.-led war eight years ago in the wake of Sept. 11.
Afghanistan’s election returns are coming in along with the mounting allegations of voter fraud, and a victory — a contested victory — for the incumbent President Hamid Karzai seems inevitable.
And so U.S. policy in Afghanistan is at a critical crossroads and we will see whether Obama takes on board the lessons of history or pushes forward with what many fear will be an ill-fated strategy in a land that eats empires for lunch.
And that all along was Osama bin Laden’s great hope in orchestrating the attacks of Sept. 11, to draw us into a war in Afghanistan because he knew it was not winnable for the United States. Just as it was not winnable for the British or the Soviets.
So along with the ghostly presence of Lyndon Johnson staring down on Obama, there is also the doomed character of the president of the former Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. It was 20 years ago when he finally conceded defeat in Afghanistan after a nine-year occupation and pulled back the Soviet troops as another empire fell to Afghanistan’s impenetrable terrain and the resilience of its people.