22 June 2011

AfPak Exit Is Pashtun For Vietnamization

During a prime time White House speech, President Obama sought to  to declare victory for our military efforts in Afghanistan and pave the road home for American combat forces.  The current Commander-In-Chief sounded self congratulatory about focusing American efforts against our original enemies stemming from what he would call the man-caused disaster of September 11th, 2001.  President Obama noted that he staffed a surge in Afghanistan that eventually resulted in the elimination of Usama bin Laden. Now that al Qaeda’s leadership in shambles, America’s job is down and we should draw down our presence in the region, starting with 33,000 troops by next summer and a complete withdrawal by 2014.

President Obama redefined the mission in Afghanistan not as victory but as a responsible end. Obama stressed that Afghan security forces have been well trained and should be plentiful by the time America exits. President Obama proposed a convening a conference next year in Chicago which includes our international allies, the current Afghan government and the Taliban (the faction who sponsored al Qaeda and our involvement) to facilitate future peace in Afghanistan. 

By drawing down America’s involvement in Afghanistan, Obama believes that he placates a war weary public, extricates the country from a foreign policy quagmire and allows us to do what he called “nation building” at home.

President Obama has pursued his own counsel in conducting military affairs.  When planning for a surge in Afghanistan, the commander on the ground General David Petreus recommended sending 60,000 troops to effectively get the job done.  But in the end, President Obama only authorized 30,000 troops.  General Petreus’ strategy was to “win the people” rather than just kill the enemy.  CINCPAC Commanders would not be so recalcitrant to use the term victory for a mission aim instead of “a responsible end” to the conflict. 

Clearly, the President is proud that he got bin Laden.  Now that al Qaeda’s leadership is in flux, he basically believes that it’s mission accomplished and it’s time to leave.  The Obama Administration’s shift from armed nation building strategy is a victory for voices like Vice President Joe Biden.

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon sought to end America’s prolonged involvement in Vietnam.  American military forces won significant battle with the North Vietnamese forces. But the problem was to stop the spread of insurgent influence of the Viet-Kong.  Nixon engaged a policy of Vietnamization, which would transition responsibility to the South Vietnamese.  America orchestrated the Paris Peace Accords in January, 1973 which guaranteed the self-determination of the South Vietnamese people. But as Bruce Hirshensohn recounts in An America Amnesia, doves dominated the Congress in the midst of the Watergate scandal, which resulted in America abandoning its erstwhile South Vietnamese ally.  This neglect in rearming our allies led to the fall of Saigon in April, 1975, which undermined stability in Indochina and haunted American foreign policy for a decade.

It seems that we are making the same mistakes again in Central Asia.  After suffering the loss of 4,500 troops and nearly a  half trillion dollars, America seems to be cutting and running.  Unlike the Soviet exit in 1989 after the collapse of the communist government, American troops will not be immediately withdrawing.  Additionally, the Chicago Symposia will provide a Potemkin village of stability amongst regional stakeholders.  But President Obama has arbitrarily established a withdrawal date. Basically, we have told American enemies to lay low until after we leave and then have at it.   

Afghanistan continues to be a tribal society that has been in internal conflict for centuries.  Continued American presence will not instantaneously turn it into a model Western democracy. President Obama is determined to keep to his 2008 campaign promise about an Afghan troop withdrawal, as it seems that the bulk of combat troops will be exiting just before the vote for his re-election.  It would seem prudent to follow General Petreus’ prescription of delaying a drawdown if that’s what is called for by conditions on the ground. But Petreus has been shifted to the CIA.  And President Obama has a habit of shopping for opinions on military matters that flatter him, as exhibited by seeking sympathetic legal counsel regarding non-compliance with the War Powers Act for the kinetic military activity (sic) in Libya. 

Despite the dangers of reestablishing a Taliban government which tolerates al Qaeda operating in its territory and the instability of a nuclear armed Pakistan, Obama made no mention about maintaining future forward basing or strong relations with the Afghan government.  After a dozen years in Afghanistan, Obama’s ignominious retreat risks losing the regional stability, walks away from our friends and demonstrates to the world that in the end America is a weak player on the foreign stage.  Can we say Vietnam redux?

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