Kipling Haunts Obama's Afghan War

The White Man's Burden, a phrase immortalized
by English poet Rudyard Kipling as an excuse for European-American imperialism,
was front and center Thursday morning at a RAND-sponsored discussion
of Afghanistan in the Russell Senate Office Building.

The agenda was top-heavy with RAND speakers,
and the thinking was decidedly "inside the box" -- so much so,
that I found myself repeating a verse from Kipling, who recognized the
dangers of imperialism, to remind me of the real world:

The White Man's Burden, a phrase immortalized
by English poet Rudyard Kipling as an excuse for European-American imperialism,
was front and center Thursday morning at a RAND-sponsored discussion
of Afghanistan in the Russell Senate Office Building.

The agenda was top-heavy with RAND speakers,
and the thinking was decidedly "inside the box" -- so much so,
that I found myself repeating a verse from Kipling, who recognized the
dangers of imperialism, to remind me of the real world:

It is not wise for the Christian white
To hustle the Asian brown;
For the Christian riles

And the Asian smiles
And weareth the Christian down.

At the end of the fight
Lies a tombstone white
With the name of the late deceased;

And the epitaph drear,
A fool lies here,
Who tried to hustle the East.

With a few notable exceptions, the RAND
event offered conventional wisdom to a fare-thee-well. There was a certain
poetic justice that President Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew
Brzezinski, who has chaired RAND's Middle East Advisory Board, was
chosen to keynote the proceedings.

As national security adviser under President
Carter, Brzezinski thought it a good idea to mousetrap the Soviets into
their own Vietnam debacle by baiting them into invading Afghanistan
in 1979, the war that was the precursor to the great-power quagmire
in Afghanistan now, three decades later.

On Thursday, Brzezinski disclosed that
he had advised the Bush/Cheney administration to invade Afghanistan
in 2001, but insisted that he told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
that the U.S. military should not stay "as an alien force" once
American objectives were achieved.

Exuding his customary confidence, Brzezinski
first addressed -- and ruled out -- several "No's," the things
that the U.S. must not do:

-Withdrawal is
"not in the range of policy options."
-The U.S. must not repeat the Soviet experience in going it alone, but
rather must "use all our leverage" to make NATO's commitment stick.
-The U.S. should not neglect the need to include
"Islamic" groups in the coalition.

Brzezinski offered a much longer litany
of "Yeses" -- but his list was disappointingly bereft of new ideas.
Indeed, it was notable only for his insistence that the U.S. ought to
be more actively engaged in promoting a north-south pipeline through
Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. He said, for example, that India needs
access to the resources of central Asia, an area especially rich in
natural gas, as well as oil.

Without batting an eyelash, Brzezinski
noted that within three months the war in Afghanistan will be the "longest
war in U.S. history," and warned that the United States could be "bogged
down there for another decade or so." At the same time, he argued,
the world impact of an early U.S. departure "would be utterly devastating."

Quagmire, anyone?

Questioned about growing opposition to
the war, he conceded condescendingly that "public fatigue" is understandable,
but expressed confidence that adoption of his recommended policies would
be "persuasive" enough to turn public opinion around.

Outsiders Impinge

One must give RAND credit for inviting
a few outsiders whose remarks came closer to reflecting reality. Former
national intelligence officer for the Middle East, Paul Pillar, and
Harvard professor Stephen Walt offered observations that, though eminently
sensible, somehow seemed oddly out of step -- "out of the box,"
as we say in Washington.

Pillar asked if what the U.S. was doing
in Afghanistan is enhancing the security of the American people. Are
the costs justified, given the amount of change and the "direction
of change" that U.S. policies can be realistically expected to produce?

Even if the U.S. and NATO effort is,
as they say, "properly resourced," large parts of Afghanistan will
remain open to the Taliban, and perhaps al Qaeda -- not to mention
alternative locales like Somalia and Yemen.

And then there are the counterproductive

It is a given, said Pillar, that sending
more troops perceived as occupation forces will -- more than any other
step -- bring more and more recruits to the Taliban. As for the cost,
Pillar cited the recent congressional testimony by Stephen Biddle, a
defense policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Biddle, though supportive of Gen. Stanley
McChrystal's counterinsurgency approach, said it would incur "Iraq-war-scale
cost for three to five years." Pillar asked if that kind of anticipated
cost was worth what he suggested would be "at best, a slight reduction
in the danger from terrorism." Whether the game is worth the candle
is, he said, the calculation that the President has to make.

No Alternative?

Stephen Walt picked up on Pillar's
themes, pleading for a realistic assessment of benefits against cost.
As for U.S. troop casualties, 850 have already been killed. At a rate
of 50 deaths a month, five more years would bring 3,000 dead -- not
to mention the many thousands more who have been wounded.

And the longer the United States stays,
the more it looks like a foreign occupier and the more various Afghan
factions are pushed together by giving them a common enemy. Plus, al
Qaeda will have a safe haven -- in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, even Europe
-- no matter the degree of "success" the U.S. achieves in Afghanistan.

Walt opined that it is the epitome of
hubris for the U.S. to take on the monumental task of "social engineering"
the 200 million people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that the chances
of succeeding are "not great." He questioned the disproportionate
attention in resources directed toward Afghanistan when there is little
reason to send more U.S. troops, except for the fact that there are
already U.S. troops there with too much to handle.

Walt pointed also to a significant "opportunity
cost" in the drain on President Barack Obama's time, noting there
are lots of other problems -- domestic as well as foreign -- that
crave his attention.

Remarkably, among virtually all the speakers
there was broad consensus that Brzezinski's first No-No would prevail
-- that is, that no U.S. troop withdrawal will be in the cards. Walt
put it bluntly, saying the President "painted himself into a corner"
last spring and would probably not be able to change course to address
"one of the world's most intractable problems" in a sensible way.
The Harvard professor predicted that in just a few years the Obama administration
will look back with huge regret on how badly it erred.

The Cato Institute's Christopher Preble
took strong issue with the notion that "a country like ours would
have no alternative" to escalation. He, too, asked if adding to the
U.S. presence in Afghanistan is essential to U.S. national security.
Or, Preble wondered, has the conflict there simply become an interest
in itself -- "that we must win this war because it is the war we
are in?" He, too, gave U.S. policy makers a failing grade on "the
cost-benefit test."

RAND and the Establishment

The biggest surprise for me came in the
remarks of well-respected diplomat James Dobbins, director of RAND's
International Security and Defense Policy Center. Dobbins provided no
supporting data or reasoning to support what seemed -- to me, at least
-- to be scare tactics. His words were the kind that a diplomat would
use in selling a policy aimed at avoiding the worst.

Addressing the possibility of U.S. departure
from Afghanistan, Dobbins predicted a long list of calamities: civil
war (as if one isn't already under way), the involvement not only
of Pakistan but of Iran, Russia and China; millions of refugees, widespread
disease, negative economic growth, increased extremism and use of Afghanistan
for more terrorism.

As for the administration's public
posture, Dobbins pointed to a need to "expand the explanation for
our presence in Afghanistan," so that the rationale will appear more
commensurate with an increased commitment" -- read, more troops justified
by more rhetorical flourishes.

Although Dobbins performed yeoman service,
for example, in securing Iranian cooperation in setting up the Karzai
government in Kabul, his experience with Asian insurgencies appears
paper-thin. I was painfully reminded of this by his gratuitous remark
that "in Vietnam we had neutralized the Viet Cong" (sic), and only
when the North Vietnamese came into the fray, and the U.S. commitment
slackened, did we lose that war.

With that faux history as background,
it is less surprising that Dobbins would tout, as he did, the "Powell
doctrine" of overwhelming force and advocate for a still deeper U.S.
commitment in Afghanistan, to be accompanied by a more persuasive rationale
to explain it.

Professor Walt pointed out that, applying
the insurgent-to-population ratio Dobbins has used for Bosnia, 600,000
troops would be needed to defeat the insurgents in Afghanistan.

RAND veteran and former U.S. ambassador
to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, addressed the public perception problem
regarding the Afghan war with unusual candor: "People don't believe
we know what we're doing." Still, endorsing the Brzezinski No-No
dictum, Khalilzad said that "no serious person" would contemplate
U.S. withdrawal thus enabling "extremism" to prevail.

Khalilzad argued for playing to U.S.
strengths with a "purchasing power" approach -- the United States
comes up with the money to pay potential or actual insurgents more than
they earn fighting for the Taliban. And he stressed that the U.S. needs
to expand Afghan forces.

Speaking last, Senate Armed Services
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, also emphasized the need
for building up Afghan forces, as the administration considers increasing
the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. Levin spoke of the need for
a 400,000-strong Afghan army and police force by 2012, trained by U.S.
and NATO specialists.

Training the Indigenous: Panacea or

I am reminded of what former CENTCOM
commander, General John Abizaid, described to the Senate Armed Services
Committee three years ago as a "major change" in the Iraq war --
namely, new emphasis on training Iraqis.

The final returns are not yet in for
Iraq, but in my experience this is almost always an unfruitful exercise,
as many of us learned from Vietnam. Been there; done that; should have
known that.

Three months after John Kennedy's death,
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sent President Lyndon Johnson a draft
of a major speech McNamara planned to give on defense policy. What follows
is a segment of an audiotape of a conversation between the two on Feb.
25, 1964:

Johnson: Your speech is good, but
I wonder if you shouldn't find two minutes to devote to Vietnam.

McNamara: The problem is what to say
about it.

Johnson: I'll tell you what to say about it. I would say we
have a commitment to Vietnamese freedom. We could pull out there; the
dominoes would fall and that part of the world would go to the Communists.
... Nobody really understands what is out there. ... Our purpose is
to train [the South Vietnamese] people, and our training's going good.

McNamara: All right, sir.

But the Vietnamese training wasn't "going
good." Before long, half a million American troops were in Vietnam
trying to save South Vietnam's government.

It is a forlorn hope that unwelcome occupation
troops can train indigenous soldiers and police to fight against their
own brothers and sisters. That the British also seem to have forgotten
these lessons, along with some of Kipling's cautionary poetry about
the risks of imperialism, is really no excuse.

If President Obama is depending on the
RAND folks and embedded neo-con pundits like the Washington Post's
David Ignatius, we are in trouble. In Friday's column Ignatius appeals
for more troops "to continue the mission," as the President and
his advisers attempt to figure out what the mission should be.

As I sat at the RAND event on Thursday,
I could not help wondering what would be the judgments of my former
colleagues in the intelligence community on these key issues? Specifically,
what might a National Intelligence Estimate on Prospects for Afghanistan

NIEs are the most authoritative genre
of analytical product, embodying key judgments on important national
security issues. They are coordinated throughout the 16-agency intelligence
community and then signed by the Director of National Intelligence in
his statutory capacity as chief intelligence adviser to the President.

An NIE can, and should, play an important
role. An estimate on Iran's nuclear program, for example, given to
President George W. Bush in November 2007, helped derail plans by Vice
President Dick Cheney and White House adviser Elliott Abrams for war
on Iran. The most senior U.S. military officers had realized what a
debacle that would be and insisted that this NIE's key judgments be
made public.

They anticipated, correctly, that public
knowledge that Iran had stopped working on developing a nuclear warhead
in 2003 (and had not resumed such work) would take the wind out of Cheney's,
Abrams', and Israel's sails. Bush and Cheney were not pleased; but
the NIE helped stop the juggernaut toward war with Iran.

There's Always an NIE, Right?

As one of the intelligence analysts watching
Vietnam in the Sixties and Seventies, I worked on several of the NIEs
produced before and during the war. All too many bore this title: "Probable
Reactions to Various Courses of Action With Respect to North Vietnam."

Typical of the kinds of question the
President and his advisers wanted addressed: Can we seal off the Ho
Chi Minh Trail by bombing it? If the U.S. were to introduce x thousand
additional troops into South Vietnam, will Hanoi quit? Okay, how about
xx thousand?

Our answers regularly earned us brickbats
from the White House for not being "good team players." But in those
days we labored under a strong ethos dictating that we give it to policymakers
straight, without fear or favor. We had career protection for doing
that. And -- truth be told -- we often took a perverse delight in
being the only show in town without a policy agenda.

Our judgments (the unwelcome ones, anyway)
were pooh-poohed as negativism; and policymakers, of course, were in
no way obliged to take them into account. The point is that they continued
to be sought. Not even Lyndon Johnson, nor Richard Nixon, would be likely
to decide on a significant escalation without seeking the best guess
of the intelligence community as to how U.S. adversaries would likely
react to this or that escalatory step.

Wrong: No NIE

Here's the thing. Would you believe
there is no current National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan? Rather,
Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal are running the show,
allowing professional intelligence analysts to be mostly straphangers
at planning and strategy meetings.

CIA Director Panetta, a self-described
"creature of Congress," is not going to risk putting any senior
military noses out of joint by objecting, and neither is his nominal
boss, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. And, sad to say,
National Security Adviser James Jones, in deferring to the military,
is serving President Obama just as poorly as Bush apparatchik Condoleezza
Rice served President Bush.

How many "militants" are there in
Afghanistan? How may "insurgents?" How do you draw a distinction
between a militant and an insurgent? Could it be that these combatants
are widely regarded, in many areas of Afghanistan, as resistance fighters?
What would be the implications of that?

When the Military Does the Packaging

Forty-two years ago, my CIA analyst colleague
Sam Adams was sent to Saigon to have it out with the Army intelligence
officers working there for Gen. William Westmoreland. After several
months of exhaustive analysis, Adams had connected a whole bunch of
dots, so to speak, and concluded that there were more than twice as
many Vietnamese Communists under arms as the Army would carry on its

Bewildered at first, Adams quickly learned
that Westmoreland had instructed his intelligence staff to falsify intelligence
on enemy strength, keeping the numbers low enough to promote an illusion
of progress in the war. After a prolonged knock-down-drag-out fight,
then-CIA Director Richard Helms decided to acquiesce in the Army's
arbitrary exclusion from its enemy aggregate total paramilitary and
other armed elements numbering up to 300,000.

These categories had been included in
previous estimates because they were a key part of the combat force
of the Communists. The Adams/CIA best estimate was total Communist strength
of 500,000. However, it was the doctored estimate that went to the President
and his advisers in November 1967. That was just two months before the
countrywide Communist Tet offensive in late January/early February 1968
proved -- at great cost -- that Adams figures were far more accurate
than the Army's.

Years later, when Adams and CBS told
the story of this internal battle on "60 Minutes," Westmoreland
sued, giving Adams his day in court, literally. Subpoenaed documents
and the testimony of Westmoreland's own staff in Saigon established
the accuracy of Adams' charges, and Westmoreland withdrew his suit.

Yet, right up until his premature death
at age 55, Sam Adams could not dispel the remorse he felt at not having
gone public with his findings much earlier. He felt that, had he done
so, the entire left half of the Vietnam memorial would not be there,
because there would be no names to carve into the granite for those
later years of the war.

Ellsberg's Regret

In recent years, former Defense Department
and RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg also has expressed deep regret that
he waited too long; that he did not give the press the "Pentagon Papers"
history of the Vietnam War and its many deceptions until 1971.

What few people know is that a couple
of patriotic truth-tellers, including Ellsberg, did reveal key facts
about the war in the late Sixties, when they learned that the Johnson
administration was working on plans to expand the ground war into Cambodia,
Laos and right up to the Chinese border -- perhaps even beyond.

In 1967, the beribboned, bemedaled Petraeus
-- sorry, I mean Westmoreland -- addressed a joint session of Congress
during which he congratulated himself on the "great progress" being
made in the war. Congress was unaware that Westmoreland was on
the verge of getting President Johnson to agree to sending 206,000 more
troops for a widening of the war that threatened to bring China in as
an active combatant.

Two key leaks to the New York Times
helped put the kibosh on that escalation. The first, on March 10, 1968,
revealed the 206,000 escalation figure; and the second, on March 19--by
Ellsberg himself--disclosed the suppression of the CIA's higher,
accurate count of Vietnamese Communists under arms. On March 25, Johnson
complained to a small gathering of confidants:

"The leaks to the New York Times
hurt us. ... We have no support for the war. ... I would have given
Westy the 206,000 men."

I believe that President Obama wants
to make the right decision regarding Afghanistan. For me, his poignant
visit Thursday night to the U.S. Air Force Base at Dover, Delaware,
to receive the coffins of 18 Americans recently killed in Afghanistan
bespeaks an authentic desire to do the right thing and face into any
political repercussions.

It is clear, at the same time, that he
is under great military and political pressure to send more troops on
what those of us who experienced Vietnam are convinced is a fool's
errand. And, sadly, his national security adviser and his intelligence
chiefs seem to have gone AWOL.

For Intelligence Analyst Colleagues:

One clear lesson from what Ellsberg did
in March 1968--not to mention the November 2007 NIE on Iran--is that
patriotic truth telling, official or unofficial, can prevent wider wars.
And so I address you all--both my erstwhile colleagues and newer analysts
in the intelligence community:

Those of you working on Afghanistan and
Pakistan have your own educated estimates of the prospects for success
of various U.S. courses of action. If you have not been asked by now
to prepare a National Intelligence Estimate, wait no longer. Keeping
silent is not a responsible option.

The President should not be deprived
of your views.

Perhaps it was serendipity (or maybe
a reward for sitting through the entire RAND event Thursday morning),
but that evening I was privileged to attend the Washington premier of
an excellent documentary on Dan Ellsberg -- "The Most Dangerous Man
in America" -- the sobriquet he earned from Henry Kissinger when
Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other

The film contained hard-to-watch footage
of the war that took the lives of two-to-three million Vietnamese and
58,000 Americans--a very painful reminder. I was happy to see, though,
that the film did pick up, from Ellsberg's book Secrets, his
decision to begin revealing important facts to the New York Times

in early 1968 and help prevent a still more dangerous escalation and
widening of the war in Vietnam.

Think about it, friends. And don't
look just at one another. Visualize instead all those young people from
our country's inner cities and small towns who form the pool for the
de facto
poverty draft that provides the bulk of U.S. troops sent
off to bear the present-day White Man's Burden.

You may be in a position to help give
the President the wherewithal to resist pressure to escalate the war
in Afghanistan. Let's stop the Dover deliveries of the dead
headed to tombstones white, with the names of the late deceased.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.