Afghanistan: Obama at the Precipice

Published on
by
The New York Times

Afghanistan: Obama at the Precipice

THE most intriguing, and possibly most fateful, news of last week could not be found in the health care horse-trading in Congress, or in the international zoo at the United Nations, or in the Iran slapdown in Pittsburgh. It was an item tucked into a blog at ABCNews.com. George Stephanopoulos reported that the new "must-read book" for President Obama's war team is "Lessons in Disaster" by Gordon M. Goldstein, a foreign-policy scholar who had collaborated with McGeorge Bundy, the Kennedy-Johnson national security adviser, on writing a Robert McNamara-style mea culpa about his role as an architect of the Vietnam War.

Bundy left his memoir unfinished at his death in 1996. Goldstein's book, drawn from Bundy's ruminations and deep new research, is full of fresh information on how the best and the brightest led America into the fiasco. "Lessons in Disaster" caused only a modest stir when published in November, but The Times Book Review cheered it as "an extraordinary cautionary tale for all Americans." The reviewer was, of all people, the diplomat Richard Holbrooke, whose career began in Vietnam and who would later be charged with the Afghanistan-Pakistan crisis by the new Obama administration.

Holbrooke's verdict on "Lessons in Disaster" was not only correct but more prescient than even he could have imagined. This book's intimate account of White House decision-making is almost literally being replayed in Washington (with Holbrooke himself as a principal actor) as the new president sets a course for the war in Afghanistan. The time for all Americans to catch up with this extraordinary cautionary tale is now.

Analogies between Vietnam and Afghanistan are the rage these days. Some are wrong, inexact or speculative. We don't know whether Afghanistan would be a quagmire, let alone that it could remotely bulk up to the war in Vietnam, which, at its peak, involved 535,000 American troops. But what happened after L.B.J. Americanized the war in 1965 is Vietnam's apocalyptic climax. What's most relevant to our moment is the war's and Goldstein's first chapter, set in 1961. That's where we see the hawkish young President Kennedy wrestling with Vietnam during his first months in office.

The remarkable parallels to 2009 became clear last week, when the Obama administration's internal conflicts about Afghanistan spilled onto the front page. On Monday The Washington Post published Bob Woodward's account of a confidential assessment by the top United States and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, warning that there could be "mission failure" if more troops aren't added in the next 12 months. In Wednesday's Times White House officials implicitly pushed back against the leak of McChrystal's report by saying that the president is "exploring alternatives to a major troop increase in Afghanistan."

As Goldstein said to me last week, it's "eerie" how closely even these political maneuvers track those of a half-century ago, when J.F.K. was weighing whether to send combat troops to Vietnam. Military leaders lobbied for their new mission by planting leaks in the press. Kennedy fired back by authorizing his own leaks, which, like Obama's, indicated his reservations about whether American combat forces could turn a counterinsurgency strategy into a winnable war.

Within Kennedy's administration, most supported the Joint Chiefs' repeated call for combat troops, including the secretaries of defense (McNamara) and state (Dean Rusk) and Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the president's special military adviser. The highest-ranking dissenter was George Ball, the undersecretary of state. Mindful of the French folly in Vietnam, he predicted that "within five years we'll have 300,000 men in the paddies and jungles and never find them again." In the current administration's internal Afghanistan debate, Goldstein observes, Joe Biden uncannily echoes Ball's dissenting role.

Though Kennedy was outnumbered in his own White House - and though he had once called Vietnam "the cornerstone of the free world in Southeast Asia" - he ultimately refused to authorize combat troops. He instead limited America's military role to advisory missions. That policy, set in November 1961, would only be reversed, to tragic ends, after his death. As Bundy wrote in a memo that year, the new president had learned the hard way, from the Bay of Pigs disaster in April, that he "must second-guess even military plans." Or, as Goldstein crystallizes the overall lesson of J.F.K.'s lonely call on Vietnam strategy: "Counselors advise but presidents decide."

Obama finds himself at that same lonely decision point now. Though he came to the presidency declaring Afghanistan a "war of necessity," circumstances have since changed. While the Taliban thrives there, Al Qaeda's ground zero is next-door in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Last month's blatantly corrupt, and arguably stolen, Afghanistan election ended any pretense that Hamid Karzai is a credible counter to the Taliban or a legitimate partner for America in a counterinsurgency project of enormous risk and cost. Indeed, Karzai, whose brother is a reputed narcotics trafficker, is a double for Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt South Vietnamese president whose brother also presided over a vast, government-sanctioned criminal enterprise in the early 1960s. And unlike Kennedy, whose C.I.A. helped take out the Diem brothers, Obama doesn't have a coup in his toolbox.

Goldstein points out there are other indisputable then-and-now analogies as well. Much as Vietnam could not be secured over the centuries by China, France, Japan or the United States, so Afghanistan has been a notorious graveyard for the ambitions of Alexander the Great, the British and the Soviets. "Some states in world politics are simply not susceptible to intervention by the great powers," Goldstein told me. He also notes that the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Vietnam share the same geographical advantage. As the porous border of neighboring North Vietnam provided sanctuary and facilitated support to our enemy then, so Pakistan serves our enemy today.

Most worrisome, in Goldstein's view, is the notion that a recycling of America's failed "clear and hold" strategy in Vietnam could work in Afghanistan. How can American forces protect the population, let alone help build a functioning nation, in a tribal narco-state consisting of some 40,000 mostly rural villages over an area larger than California and New York combined?

Even if we routed the Taliban in another decade or two, after countless casualties and billions of dollars, how would that stop Al Qaeda from coalescing in Somalia or some other criminal host state? How would a Taliban-free Afghanistan stop a jihadist trained in Pakistan's Qaeda camps from mounting a terrorist plot in Denver and Queens?

Already hawks are arguing that any deviation from McChrystal's combat-troop requests is tantamount to surrender and "immediate withdrawal." But that all-in or all-out argument, a fixture of the Iraq debate, is just as false a choice here. Obama is not contemplating either surrender to terrorists or withdrawal from Afghanistan. One prime alternative is the counterterrorism plan championed by Biden. As The Times reported, it would scale back American forces in Afghanistan to "focus more on rooting out Al Qaeda there and in Pakistan."

Obama's decision, whichever it is, will demand all the wisdom and political courage he can muster. If he adds combat troops, he'll be extending a deteriorating eight-year-long war without a majority of his country or his own party behind him. He'll have to explain why more American lives should be yoked to the Karzai "government." He'll have to be honest in estimating the cost. (The Iraq war, which the Bush administration priced at $50 to $60 billion, is at roughly $1 trillion and counting.) He will have to finally ask recession-battered Americans what his predecessor never did: How much - and what - are you willing to sacrifice in blood and treasure for the mission?

If Obama instead decides to embrace some variation on the Biden option, he'll have a different challenge. He'll face even more violent attacks than he did this summer. When George Will wrote a recent column titled "Time to Get Out of Afghanistan," he was accused of "urging retreat and accepting defeat" (by William Kristol) and of "waving the bloody shirt" (by Fred Kagan, an official adviser to McChrystal who, incredibly enough, freelances as a blogger at National Review). The editorial page at Will's home paper, The Washington Post, declared that deviating from McChrystal's demand for more troops "would both dishonor and endanger this country." If a conservative columnist can provoke neocon invective this hysterical, just imagine what will be hurled at Obama.

But the author of "Lessons in Disaster" does not believe that a change in course in Afghanistan would be a disaster for Obama's young presidency. "His greatest qualities as president," Goldstein says, "are his quality of mind and his quality of judgment - his dispassionate ability to analyze a situation. If he was able to do that here, he might more than survive a short-term hit from the military and right-wing pundits. He would establish his credibility as a president who will override his advisers when a strategy doesn't make sense."

Either way, it's up to the president to decide what he thinks is right for the country's security, the politics be damned. That he has temporarily pressed the pause button to think it through while others, including some of his own generals, try to lock him in is not a sign of indecisiveness but of confidence and strength. It is, perhaps, Obama's most significant down payment yet on being, in the most patriotic sense, Kennedyesque.

Frank Rich

Frank Rich is a staff writer for New York Magazine.  He is the author of many books, including The Great Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina.

Share This Article

More in: