Afghanistan as Vietnam: Heeding George Kennan's Wise Advice

I can't remember how many times I have said
that the U.S. military adventure in Afghanistan is a fool's errand.

reaction I frequently encounter includes some variant of, "How can you blithely
acquiesce in the chaos that will inevitably ensue if we and our NATO allies
withdraw our troops?" While the "inevitable chaos" part is open to doubt, the
question itself is a fair one.

I can't remember how many times I have said
that the U.S. military adventure in Afghanistan is a fool's errand.

reaction I frequently encounter includes some variant of, "How can you blithely
acquiesce in the chaos that will inevitably ensue if we and our NATO allies
withdraw our troops?" While the "inevitable chaos" part is open to doubt, the
question itself is a fair one.

way of full disclosure, my answer is based largely on the fact that I asked the
equivalent question 43 years ago regarding a place named Vietnam. Been
there; done that.

a young Army infantry/intelligence officer turned junior CIA analyst in 1963, I
was given responsibility for reporting on Soviet policy toward China and
Southeast Asia and was just beginning to get a feel for the complexities. My
degrees were in Russian studies; I knew something about Communist expansion,
but very little about Vietnam.

should have listened to my brother Joe at Princeton, who tried to help me see
that it was mainly a civil war in Vietnam, that the Vietnamese had ample reason
to hate both the Russians and Chinese (and now us), and that the "domino
effect" was a canard.

was openly impatient to find me such a slow learner - so susceptible to the
Red-menace fear mongering of the time.

Enter George Kennan

my studies of Russia and of U.S. foreign policy had given me an idol, it was
George Kennan, former ambassador to the U.S.S.R. and to Yugoslavia, and author
of the successful post-war containment policy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.
He returned to the Princeton campus in 1963.

in the Vietnam War, I was delighted to discover one Sunday morning that Kennan
had written a
feature article on Vietnam
for the Washington
. Good, I said to myself, Kennan has finally ended his silence.
Surely he will have something instructive to say.

Kennan wrote on Vietnam was not at all what I expected. Ouch; an idol turns out
to have clay feet, I thought. Had Kennan not heard of the dominoes? I am
embarrassed to admit that it took me another year or so to see clearly that
Kennan was, as usual, spot on.

was Dec. 12, 1965, and there it was on the front page of the "Outlook" section
- George Kennan calling for a major reality check on our involvement in
Vietnam, and arguing for what he called a "simmering down" of our military
adventure there as "the most promising of all the possibilities we face." He

"I would not
know what 'victory' means. ... In this sort of war, one controls what one
can take and hold and police with ground forces; one does not control what one
bombs. And it seems to me the most unlikely of all contingencies that anyone
should come to us on his knees and inquire our terms, whatever the escalation
of our effort. ...

"If we can
find nothing better to do than embark upon a further open-ended increase in the
level of our commitment simply because the alternatives seem humiliating and
frustrating, one will have to ask whether we have not become enslaved to the
dynamics of a single unmanageable situation - to the point where we have lost
much of the power of initiative and control over our own policy, not just
locally but on a world scale."

was harshly critical of those asserting that the U.S. had no choice other than
to "live up to its commitments." Commitments to whom? he asked. More pointed
still, he asked if the "commitment" was conceived as "something unrelated to
[South Vietnam's] own performance, to its ability to command the confidence of
its people?"

prescription of "simmering down" involved letting negotiations begin, "quite
privately and without elbow-jogging on our part, by our friends and others who
have an interest in the termination of the conflict...We must be prepared,
depending on such advice as we receive from them, to place limited restraints
at some point on our military efforts, and to do so quietly and without published
time limits or ultimatums."


bottom line:

"The most
disturbing aspect of our involvement in Vietnam is its relationship to our
interests and responsibilities in other areas of world affairs. Whatever
justification this involvement might have had if Vietnam had been the only
important problem, or even the outstanding problem, we faced in the world
today, this not being the case, its present dimensions can only be said to
represent a grievous disbalance of American policy."

article was no academic exercise. Washington was abuzz with talk of further
escalation in Vietnam. (To offer some current context, Gen. Stanley McChrystal
was 11 years old; Vietnam was not in the history books, apparently, until well
after he left West Point in 1976.)

"Outlook" front-page piece
by the Washington
Chalmers Roberts opened with, "One of history's undated
moments for great decisions is at hand. President Johnson must decide
where to lead the nation in the war in Vietnam."

reported the prevailing thinking that, given Hanoi's obduracy, "the United
States will have no alternative but to pour in more and more manpower, to widen
the bombing in the North and to intensify the military struggle in the South."
Chalmers continued:

"Thus, as an
increasingly bloody year draws to a close, as mounting casualty lists appear...
the President faces momentous decisions. What should he do?"

that there was "confusion over the aims of this war," Roberts asked:

"What should
he [President Johnson] tell his fellow Americans? How can he prevent the loss
of the consensus he so far has had on the war? How can he restrain the
increasingly vocal war hawks? ... Is the United States simply to slide into the
next phase of the war?"

added that, "Looking back, it is evident that both Presidents Kennedy and
Johnson upped the ante bit by bit without really telling the American public
where it [the war] was heading.

process continues today as Mr. Johnson merely says ... that the United States
'will supply whatever men are needed to help the people of South Vietnam resist

Parallels, Anyone?

anyone see any parallels to Washington's parlor games - and its more serious
discussions - today regarding upcoming decisions on Afghanistan?

was not about to be the first U.S. President to lose a war - but, succumbing to
the Greek tragic flaw of hubris, he became exactly that. The result: Not only
were two to three million Vietnamese and 58,000 American troops killed, but
also his Great Society bit the dust.

for seniors like me, Johnson was able to sign Medicare into law (on July 30,
1965) before the bottom fell out. Most of the other promising reforms his
administration had in mind became unsung casualties of that ill-conceived war.

as costly as Vietnam turned out to be, the Treasury was not nearly as broke
then as it is now.

after his Washington Post Outlook article,
Kennan accepted an invitation from Sen. William Fulbright to testify before the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was February 1966. There were some
200,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam; two years later there would be 536,000.

minced few words:

is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and
courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of
extravagant or unpromising objectives. ...

"Our country
should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the main burden
of determining the political realities in any other country, and particularly
not in one remote from our shores, from our culture and from the experience of
our people.

"This is not
only not our business, but I don't think we can do it successfully. ... "Vietnam
is not a region of major military, industrial importance. It is difficult to
believe that any decisive developments of the world situation would be
determined ... by what happens on that territory. ...

"Even a
situation in which South Vietnam was controlled exclusively by the Viet Cong
... would not, in my opinion, present dangers great enough to justify our
military intervention."

concluded his Senate testimony with a familiar quotation from John Quincy
Adams. "[America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,"
said our sixth president. "She is the well-wisher to the freedom and
independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

added: "Now, gentlemen, I don't know exactly what John Quincy Adams had in
mind when he spoke those words. But I think that, without knowing it, he spoke
very directly and very pertinently to us here today."

to us here today.

Death Via Invincible Ignorance

than 55,000 of the eventual 58,220 American deaths in Vietnam came after Kennan
testified. It is yet to be known how many Americans will die in Afghanistan if
President Obama follows the advice of his generals - much as President Johnson
did - and escalates.

we not learn from history? Kennan (and John Quincy Adams) were, of course,
right on target. As for today, it is a pity that the United States lacks a statesman
of Kennan's caliber who would dare set aside concern about status within the
power circles and make as pointed a critique about Afghanistan as Kennan did
about Vietnam. [George Kennan died on March 17, 2005.]

it is a pity that West Point didn't teach much about the lessons of the Vietnam
War when McChrystal was studying there in the 1970s. [For a flavor of the
current elite "group think" on Afghanistan, see's
"Kipling Haunts
Obama's Afghan War

this not the lesson to apply to deliberations on Afghanistan? When it becomes
clear that current policies are not working or, worse, are self-defeating,
experienced folks with those insights need to find ways to say that - loudly.

is incumbent on them to make a stab at coming up with better alternative
policies, but - as in George Kennan's case - this is not a prior requirement.

powers can mitigate the effects of great mistakes, especially if they have the
good sense and humility to reach out for help. But the key decision to halt a
futile course can - and must - be made as soon as its futility is clear, even
if the details of a more promising alternative policy remain to be worked out.

think Kennan was right in his December 1965 article in proposing a multilateral
path toward a solution in Vietnam. Something similar might be possible for
Afghanistan today.

Sonali Kolhatkar suggested Monday in Foreign
Policy in Focus
, if the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan, the
Taliban's raison d'etre there would be
greatly weakened. She added:

the United States were to take the lead in regional talks between Pakistan,
India, Iran, Russia, and China to address the Pakistani government's fears of a
hostile regime in Afghanistan, it would go a very long way toward undermining
the Taliban."

Helicopters Down; Hawks Up

way of footnote: After an American Chinook helicopter was shot down over Iraq
on Nov. 2, 2003, killing 16 U.S. troops, I was reminded of a similar guerrilla
attack on U.S. forces in Pleiku, Vietnam, on Feb. 7, 1965.

Johnson seized on the Pleiku incident to start bombing North Vietnam and to
send 3,500 Marines to South Vietnam with orders to engage in combat (beyond the
earlier advisory role for U.S. troops), marking the beginning of the
Americanization of the war.

the Chinook went down in Iraq 38 years later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
made it a point to emphasize that the Iraq War was still "winnable." (It is
hard to know whether he really believed that - his reputation for candor being
somewhat tarnished.)

it to note that Rumsfeld's comment reminded me of Pleiku and spurred me to
write an article exactly six years ago right after the helicopter crash in
Iraq. I titled it "Helicopter Down."
And, in an attempt to warn against a Vietnam/Pleiku-style overreaction, I
wrote, five times, that the Iraq war was "unwinnable"-no matter how many more
U.S. troops might be sent into the fray.

seems an appropriate day, then, to remind ourselves that when choppers go down,
hawks go up in influence. Two more helicopters went down just last week. So,
for what it may be worth, let me state the same judgment today regarding

war in Afghanistan is UNWINNABLE.

Somebody please tell President Obama.

This article first appeared at Consortium News.

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