Afghanistan, an­other Viet­nam?

The Pak Banker - - Editorial - Jonathan Power

Rud­yard Ki­pling, one of the truly great Vic­to­rian writ­ers, wrote in 1915, fol­low­ing the death of his only son in the mis­be­got­ten World War 1, "If any ques­tion why we died, tell them, be­cause our fa­thers lied". Dur­ing the Viet­nam War some­one coined the phrase: "old men send­ing young men to die."

How should we put it to­day in Afghanistan? No one yet has come up with a pithy line or two. They will.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has been con­duct­ing a promised re­view of the war, yet his gen­er­als have long been pre-empt­ing him, do­ing what Gen­eral Dou­glas MacArthur did with Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower at the time of the Korean War, try­ing by pub­lic com­ment to steam­roller the pres­i­dent into the poli­cies he wanted. Even af­ter the pres­i­dent fired MacArthur the gen­er­als were not quiet for long. Eisen­hower said in a se­cretly taped con­ver­sa­tion with news­pa­per pub­lisher, Roy Howard, "I was the only one around here who was against Amer­i­can forces go­ing in [to Viet­nam], I tell you, and the boys were putting the heat on me".

His suc­ces­sor, John F. Kennedy, faced the same prob­lem. Time and time again, se­nior mil­i­tary and na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials rec­om­mended to the pres­i­dent that he should de­ploy ground troops in Viet­nam. In one memo to the pres­i­dent the Joint Chiefs of Staff ob­served, " As­sum­ing that the po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion is to hold South­east Asia out­side the Com­mu­nist sphere, we are of the opin­ion that US forces should be de­ployed im­me­di­ately to South Viet­nam."

The Sec­re­tary of De­fence, Robert McNamara, who was later to de­scribe him­self as a war crim­i­nal and who spent his late years try­ing to find clo­sure on the Viet­nam war, and cam­paign­ing hard against nu­clear weapons, told the pres­i­dent he must "tell the world and the US what our com­mit­ment re­ally is; the [present] 8,000 man force does not con­vince any­one of our re­solve." McNamara wanted 200,000 troops im­me­di­ately on the ground.

With all his ad­vi­sors against him, Kennedy was re­duced to leak­ing sto­ries to dis­credit the pro­posal in the press.

Ig­nor­ing Kennedy's un­am­bigu­ous and in­creas­ingly pub­lic op­po­si­tion McNamara ploughed ahead. In one mem­o­ran­dum sent to Kennedy he ar­gued that, "The chances are against, prob­a­bly sharply against, pre­vent­ing the fall [of South Viet­nam] by any mea­sures short of the in­tro­duc­tion of US forces on a sub­stan­tial scale."

McGe­orge Bundy, Kennedy's Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor and for­merly a pro­fes­sor at Har­vard, told Kennedy that "Laos was never re­ally ours af­ter 1954. South Viet­nam is and wants to be." "Ours?" For a highly ed­u­cated man to talk so ar­ro­gantly demon­strates all too well what a mind set he and oth- ers had.

Al­though sur­rounded Kennedy was not in­tim­i­dat­edKennedy had learnt from his de­ba­cle with the at­tempted Bay of Pigs in­va­sion of Cuba to trust his own judge­ment more than he did that of his ad­vi­sors.

Bundy, decades af­ter, re­flect­ing why things went so badly wrong, re-read David Hal­ber­stam's sem­i­nal his­tory of the war. "One of the lessons for civil­ians who thought they could run small wars with great con­trol," wrote Hal­ber­stam, "was that to har­ness the mil­i­tary, you had to har­ness them com­pletely; that once in, even par­tially, ev­ery­thing be­gan to work in their favour. Once ac­ti­vated, even in a small way at first, they would soon dom­i­nate the play. Once started, no mat­ter how small the ini­tial step, a pol­icy has life and a thrust of its own, it is an or­ganic thing. More, its thrust and its drive may not be in any way akin to the de­sires of the pres­i­dent who ini­ti­ated it".

The cut and thrust be­tween Kennedy and his ad­vi­sors stretched over many months. Only his murder ended the de­bate. It quickly re­sumed un­der his suc­ces­sor, Lyndon John­son who, more pli­ant and less self-con­fi­dent than Kennedy, gave the mil­i­tary nearly ev­ery­thing they wanted.

Amer­ica ended up in a quag­mire and then a de­feat. John­son, a near bro­ken man, de­cided not to run for of­fice again. Obama and his ad­vi­sors were too young to know or to re­mem­ber all this. I don't know but I won­der if Obama ever saught to talk with McNamara or Hal­ber­stam about what hap­pened. I won­der how much his present day ad­vi­sors and mil­i­tary men have read up in de­tail on what hap­pened and why it turned out the way it did.

Some­things don't changenot least, the mil­i­tary's abil­ity to take con­trol of pol­icy. This we have clearly seen in the way that se­nior mil­i­tary men, over the last six months, have gone pub­lic with their ar­gu­ment that the US must stay the course in Afghanistan even if it means ig­nor­ing the pres­i­dent's com­mit­ment to start with­drawal in mid 2011. Are the mil­i­tary and some of his ad­vi­sors at­tempt­ing to roll the young and in­ex­pe­ri­enced pres­i­dent, as they tried to do with Kennedy? I won­der.

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