Afghanistan: Vietnam 2 — And Still We Have Not Learned
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
~ George Santayana (The Life of Reason)
We don’t need to make this post any longer than necessary – the title makes the message plain enough. Just as it is obvious to anyone with common sense that the war in Afghanistan is pointless (if not suicidal) and should end.
Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 and a prime architect of the Vietnam war, admitted that the Vietnam war was a mistake, and had the good sense to reflect on where the nation went wrong in pursuing it. In 1995, he published his reflections in a book, titled, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Vintage Books, 1996. ISBN: 0679767495). The chapter titled, “The Lessons of Vietnam” (pp. 319–336) explained eleven specific mistakes. These mistakes are summarized below, along with obvious parallels to the current US involvement in Afghanistan. [Note: McNamara’s words are italicized and in quotes; headings and bold text are my additions.]
“If we are to learn from our experience in Vietnam, we must first pinpoint our failures. There were eleven major causes for our disaster in Vietnam.”
1. Exaggerated dangers
“We misjudged … the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries (in this case, North Vietnam and the Vietcong, supported by China and the Soviet Union).”
The common assumption is that we are fighting in Afghanistan to prevent terrorist attacks here. Yet Al Qaeda is effectively removed from Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden is dead. We are now fighting the Taliban, an Afghan cultural and political faction, which has never attacked the US, and would appear to be only concerned with affairs in Afghanistan.
2. Misjudged people and leaders
“We totally misjudged the political forces within the country…. We [mistakenly] saw in them a thirst for – and a determination to fight for – freedom and democracy.”
What do we know about the intentions and determination of the political leaders in Kabul, except that all evidence points towards their corruption and greed?
3. Underestimated patriotism
“We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people (in this case, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong) to fight and die for their beliefs and values.”
The common assumption is that the Taliban is merely a front for warlords who wish to exploit and oppress the people of Afghanistan. But would it not conform with common sense to suppose that they see the US as an imperialistic invader, and are at this point strongly motivated by a genuine and realistic sense of nationalism and patriotism? Our government and political system is today so plainly out of control that we ourselves seem unable to control its vicious advances. Who, then, could doubt that there are people in Afghanistan who would fight to the death to prevent this same machine from taking over their country and subjecting them to the same dehumanizing institutional forces. We shouldn’t suppose that the Taliban are saints, or that their motives are completely honorable. But whatever their other failings, they are human beings, and human beings are well known to die rather than surrender their homeland to an invading force.
4. Ignorance of history and culture
“Our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.”
What do we know about the culture and politics of Afghanistan? Are we truly so naive as to think that the cultural dynamics are as simple as the formula “Taliban = bad guys, anti-Taliban = good guys”? In what area of life is such primitive, black-and-white thinking correct or adequate to solve a problem?
5. Machines vs. men
“We failed … to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine in confronting unconventional, highly motivated people’s movements.”
All available evidence and testimony points to the rural and rugged terrain of Afghanistan as decisively favoring the guerilla tactics of the Taliban, and making our approach there, based on superior technology and conventional troop actions, an impossible logistical nightmare.
6. No honest debate
“We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia before we initiated the action.”
The American public bought into the Afghanistan operation under the stated premise that it was to be a short-term operation (e.g., 90 days), designed to destroy terrorist training camps and to capture Osama bin Laden. Since then there has been no “full and frank discussion” about our goals, objectives, and strategy. Rather, the war has dragged on by institutional momentum, and by the irrational yet widespread belief that we should continue precisely because we began, and to leave would be unpatriotic or a sign of weakness.
7. No public communication
“We failed to retain popular support in part because we did not explain fully what was happening and why we were doing what we did…. A nation’s deepest strength lies not in its military prowess, but, rather, in the unity of its people. We failed to maintain it.”
The war has created (or, we should say, increased) a deep chasm between citizens and government. At present, polls show (as they have for some time) that most Americans oppose our continued involvement in Afghanistan.
More fundamentally, the public has no idea (and, likely, neither do members of Congress) as to the true reasons for our involvement. Upon repeated inquiry to my US Senator (Barbara Boxer D-CA), I finally received a short response alluding to “geopolitical objectives.” In the face of such vague government communications, the public can only speculate. Are our “geopolitical objectives” to place a US-style democracy adjacent to Iran? ; or next to China? Is it to get our foot in the door of the mineral-rich Caspian Sea area?
And why have we let the war spill over into Pakistan with drone strikes? Are we trying to keep Pakistan’s nuclear arms out of the hands of Pakistani terrorists? Have factions of the Pakistani government secretly asked our help to control their internal terrorist problem in exchange for other concessions, while at the same time they publicly denounce our drone strikes to quell the indignation of their citizens?
Or do the AfPak military operations continue merely because they line the pockets of war profiteers, who, by making large campaign contributions, control US foreign policy?
8. False sense of omniscience
“We did not recognize that neither our own people nor our leaders are omniscient. Where our own security is not directly at stake, our judgment of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.”
Clearly the US government still labors under the burden of a false sense of omniscience. And while our leaders continue to say that the Afghanistan war is not an effort in nation building, our actions and massive siphoning off of US funds – while our own infrastructure deteriorates – shows beyond doubt that this is exactly what we are attempting.
“We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action – other than in response to direct threats to our own security – should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.”
It is no secret that the so-called multinational effort in Afghanistan is indeed merely cosmetic. Several members of the original coalition have at least had the decency to withdraw their support.
10. No easy solutions
“We failed to recognize that … there may be problems for which there are not immediate solutions…. At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.”
Perhaps we don’t like the Taliban, and perhaps with good reason. But, ultimately, what happens in Afghanistan is not our business. Can we not trust the innate capacity of the Afghan people to gradually work out their problems? And if we wish to save the world, why not do so with positive efforts, like ending famine or eradicating disease – goals which, unlike a military victory in Afghanistan, are attainable?
11. Executive branch disorganization
“Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues… Such organizational weakness would have been costly had this been the only task confronting the president and his advisers…. [But] it coexisted with the wide array of other domestic and international problems confronting us. We … failed to analyze and debate our actions in Southeast Asia – our objectives, the risks and costs of alternative ways of dealing with them.”
Two successive administrations have shown an utter lack of ability to confront the war in Afghanistan in an honest and sensible way. And today we have even more pressing social problems than existed during the Vietnam era, problems which demand an even greater proportion of government attention.
McNamara followed his list of these errors by noting how they all interacted in a negatively synergistic fashion:
“These were our major failures, in their essence. Though set forth separately, they are all in some way linked: failure in one area contributed to or compounded failure in another. Each became a turn in a terrible knot.”
He then concluded with important observations that modern Americans should take to heart:
“Above all else, the criteria governing intervention should recognize that, as we learned in Vietnam, military force has only a limited capacity to facilitate the process of nation building. Military force by itself cannot rebuild a ‘failed state.’… External military force cannot substitute for the political order and stability that must be forged by a people for themselves.”
“We must recognize that the consequences of large-scale military operations – particularly in this age of highly sophisticated and destructive weapons – are inherently difficult to predict and to control. Therefore, they must be avoided, excepting only when our nation’s security is clearly and directly threatened.”
“These are the lessons of Vietnam. Pray God we learn them.”
Finally, he said:
“Can we not go beyond the culture of war that saw so many deaths from war in the 20’th century? Surely that must be not only our hope, not only our dream, but our steadfast objective. Some may consider such a statement so naive, so simplistic, and so idealistic as to be quixotic. But as human beings, citizens of a great nation with the power to influence events in the world, can we be at peace with ourselves if we strive for less?”
These last words deserve special attention. As mankind has never found the ability to learn from history, we should not be greatly surprised that the same myopia afflicts the current generation. But there is a radical difference between Americans today and during the Vietnam era. At least then people were able to set peace – and an eventual end to war – as a conscious, if distant objective. Now the voice of conscience is utterly absent in the news media and in social discourse. We must not compound our present errors by succumbing to the further sin of what psychologists call learned helplessness. While under the oppression of the present political system, let us at least denounce it, and work by whatever avenues – including but not limited to prayer – are available to us to build a better world.