May 12, 2009
presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan were in Washington last week
telling President Barack Obama what he wanted to hear, things back home
were busy going from bad to worse.
Pakistani President Asif Ali
Zardari took the occasion to declare war on the homegrown version of
the radical Islamic Taliban and said he'd ordered the Pakistani
military to clear them out of the Swat valley and neighboring areas
near the frontier with Afghanistan.
100,000, and perhaps as many as 500,000, Pakistani civilians have now
fled for their lives, crossing the border into Afghanistan, of all
places, and seeking shelter in refugee camps in Pakistan.
as Afghan President Hamid Karzai made the rounds in Washington,
American military commanders scrambled to investigate Afghan and
International Red Cross reports that U.S. airstrikes had killed scores
of civilians while targeting Taliban insurgents in western Afghanistan.
initial U.S. response was to minimize the number killed, claiming that
only 50, not nearly 150, had been killed, and that most of them were
Taliban fighters. The unfortunate civilian casualties, commanders said,
were human shields the Taliban kept close to during the fighting.
Therein lies the rub. Civilian casualties infuriate the very people
whose hearts and minds we're attempting to win with our stated goal of
protecting the people and making their lives better.
they haven't yet begun to arrive, the U.S. military reinforcements
ordered in by President Obama can only make that situation worse as
they fan out into small remote outposts where their only recourse when
they're attacked is to call in airpower.
Everyone involved in the
Afghan riddle pays lip service to the fact that, as in Iraq, there's no
purely military solution. Eight years of Washington's benign neglect
have allowed the Taliban to grow stronger, fight smarter and become an
imminent threat to the government we installed in Kabul.
before any meaningful nation-building and improvement of the lives of
the long-suffering Afghan people can be accomplished outside Kabul and
Kandahar, U.S. strategists say we must establish security and at least
attempt to seal off the freeways for Taliban fighters commuting from
The chances of achieving anything remotely resembling
success with the 50,000-plus American troops that President Obama has
approved appear to be somewhere between slim and none.
then, are the chances that the Pakistani Army can succeed in its
reluctant war against Pakistani Taliban guerrillas in the rugged North
West Frontier Province? Since its inception with independence in 1947,
Pakistan's Army has been trained and equipped to fight a conventional
war with neighboring India, not the war it's grudgingly beginning
against the tough tribesmen in those never-conquered mountains.
has thrown in a lot of chips on this hand, acknowledging this week that
while ''there will be more violence, and there will be setbacks,'' we
will support the Pakistan and Afghanistan governments.
half a century ago, we had another new president who came to office
with an agenda of historic social change and a small, nagging guerrilla
war that he inherited from his predecessor. In the end, both the
presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and the man himself were devoured by
that war he couldn't win but seemingly couldn't find a way to end
without looking weak.
There are lessons aplenty to be learned
from Vietnam, which consumed the lives of 58,249 American troops, but
apparently most of them have now been forgotten. Here's a reminder:
* Lesson One: Don't get in the middle of another country's civil war.
* Lesson Two:
Know and assess your enemy first. Study his history and culture with a
sharp eye on his fighting ability -- and never underestimate him.
* Lesson Three: Arrogance and ignorance are almost always a fatal combination.
* Lesson Four:
If your enemy can seek shelter across an international border where you
can't chase him, then you have just ceded him the strategic initiative.
He'll decide when and where to fight and for how long, and all you can
do is react.
* Lesson Five: Don't begin a war without knowing what you hope to achieve and how you intend to get out.
* Lesson Six: War is too important to be left to the generals -- or to the politicians.
© 2023 McClatchy
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