/ 31 May 2010

Vietnam, minus the jungle

There is, said the American secretary of defence, no certainty “that a conventional military victory, as commonly defined, can be achieved here … We seem to have gotten caught in a sinkhole.” He’s talking about Afghanistan surely, as the thousandth US military death is recorded and coalition losses creep towards 2 000? No: that was Clark Clifford in 1968. And the sinkhole that finally cost more than 200 000 American dead and wounded was Vietnam.

It’s not a grisly comparison anyone wishes to make, of course. The scale of the casualties doesn’t equate, for one thing. The Afghan terrain is rocky and bare, not steaming, sapping jungle. But pause and shiver a little as some parallels grow. For Vietnamisation, as Richard Nixon’s last desperate excuse for calling the boys home, read Afghanisation. For President Thieu, illegitimate, distrusted, desperate, read President Karzai. For Vietcong troops operating across a fatally porous border, read the Pakistan-based Taliban (currently beginning their summer offensive). And as for “conventional military victory”, forget it. Just remember how Lyndon Johnson, towards the end, effed and blinded about staking so much on a no-account country far away.

He’d followed his generals, who had a plan. Send in hundreds of thousands more troops to “finish the job”. Drop many more bombs. Win hearts and minds (where applicable) or at least dish out zillions of extra dollars. But the dreadful truth for LBJ, as for General Westmoreland, was that once the cigarette smoke in the planning rooms cleared, no one was really in control. There wasn’t a plan, let alone a strategy.The top brass couldn’t counsel retreat, because that would mean their own defeat. The president couldn’t give up, because that would be letting his gallant troops down. So the bombing and killing rumbled haplessly on. Ashes to ashes.

‘Domino theory’
Meanwhile, back in 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron and his generals are having a country awayday this week to see what (apart from British deaths rising, too) comes next in Afghanistan. US forces prepare for another supposedly make-or-break operation, this time around Kandahar. American missions to Islamabad grow ever more outspoken about Pakistan’s failure to clamp down in north Waziristan, where the man who failed to blow up Times Square got his rather duff training. What lessons work now across four barren decades?

Start with the reality that, when Saigon fell, the “domino theory” beloved of the US right fell with it. Communism didn’t gobble up south-east Asia and set sail for San Francisco. Communism paused for thought and built a temple of capitalism in Shanghai. So the reason for going to war in the first place was delusion. Now look at the reason for invading — then staying in — Afghanistan at whatever cost. The 9/11 bombers trained there, didn’t they? We must rescue this failed, impossible state to prevent that happening again, to keep Russell Square and Manhattan free from attack.

But al-Qaeda doesn’t live in Afghanistan any longer. It promptly slipped over that damned elusive border into Pakistan. The bombers who’ve threatened Britain and America since the twin towers have done their O-levels in terrorist studies in the badlands of Pakistan’s north-west. The Taliban who very probably murdered more than 90 innocent Ahmadi worshippers in Lahore last week came down from there for their killing spree. The Taliban leadership that pulls the Afghan campaign strings puts its feet up in Karachi.

Why not attack Karachi instead of Kandahar, then? Why not bomb Peshawar, flatten Swat, knock the hell out of Quetta? Because it’s a ridiculous misreading of reality. Pakistan, population spiralling towards 200-million, is a huge, riven nation doing its best now to save itself, let alone Obama’s bacon. It needs help, not state department bullying. But it also needs wider understanding.

Simply: neither Islamabad nor Kabul can push some administrative button marked peace and harmony. The turbulence and the poverty don’t allow it. Religious extremism is endemic. Nationalism and resentment of foreign interference are deep rooted. Structured society doesn’t exist where it is most needed. There is no “victory” in one country. There is no Western security that can be secured by sending in more drones and CIA operatives. There is only time passing and a long internal march to stability.

In short, there is no continuing purpose to the Afghan war (except saving face and wasting more lives). Hey, hey, LBJ, how many lessons do you still fail to learn today? – guardian.co.uk