Afghanistan: Worse than Vietnam?

Why are we there? Ostensibly to prevent the Taliban/Al Qaida from training terrorists to attack us. Other unspoken reason 1: To try to prop up the nuclear armed government of Pakistan by denying those same groups bases to attack Paki from.Other possible reason: Have a nearby base from which we can launch a mission to secure said nukes if/when Paki gov’t falls apart.

quicksand What is the solution currently offered? Increase the number of troops on the ground to establish a safe zone within Afghanistan so Afghanis can set up a functioning government with hope that this will extend out into all of Afghanistan.


  1. This solution achieves neither of the first two objectives.
  2. There is no objective criteria for success.
  3. Like Vietnam there is no direct US interest in the outcome of this war. Denying bases to terrorists is close to the same thing as the old domino theory that was used to rationalize Vietnam. Look at US history: We win wars that are either important to the national interests or in which we are so much larger than the opposition that a small portion of our military can overwhelm them. (See Grenada and Panama, Invasions of)
  4. We are running a military operation literally on the opposite side of the world. Supply lines are much more of a problem than even in Vietnam. Afghanistan is the nation that the Soviet Union – which shared a common border and had far fewer scruples about inflicting disproportionate damage – could not win. The Russians could not have been happier than the day we asked if we could run our supplies through their nation. They just followed Napoleon’s advice to "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." They probably view it as payback. We bankrupted them to win the Cold War, so they’ll help us bankrupt ourselves.
  5. Because there is no objective criteria for success no one has any idea how long even the proposed solution will take to implement.
  6. It will damage NATO permanently. Either the member nations will continue to commit token amounts of troops and poison the water for any future necessary deployments as casualties turn the public further against joint operations with the US; or the other nations will cease to deploy troops and NATO will be turned into a shell of itself. NATO has a very clear reason to exist: To protect member states from attack by another government. That clear reason is why NATO has survived even the end of the threat is originally designed for. Using NATO to respond to and suppress insurgent, non-government actors is a very dangerous dilution of that mission. Mission creep will make NATO useless.
  7. We can’t afford the current size of the wars we’re already in — in either money or manpower. Afghanistan and the George Bush Desert Classic together have come close to breaking our ground forces. They are being worn out by too many deployments. Too many of them are being regularly asked to do missions that they are ill-trained to do. I have an incredibly high opinion of the American soldier. I have met many and am related to one. No military can take this kind of long-term open-ended deployments. And that is without even going in to the cost in terms of arms and armor. As a nation the US is effectively broke. We are funding the government on debt piled on top of debt piled on top of debt. Our banking system is the dead mouse on the kitchen floor of the US economy.* Both the bankers and the government are terrified of what will happen when/if the banks state the size of their losses. WE HAVE NO MONEY! This is my real problem with the entire health care debate. I am all in favor of national health care. I think this will save the nation a considerable amount of money in the end and extend the length and quality of its citizens’ lives. One problem: WE HAVE NO MONEY! How many wars have we paid for while not addressing this basic need? Just since the start of the New Deal there have been five major conflicts, the Cold War and I have no idea how many minor wars. We will spend billions on the military at the drop of a hat even when there is no actual threat to the safety and well-being of our nation. But some sort of national health insurance – which would cost far less than any of the major wars — has been blocked for more than 50 years.
  8. The Afghani government (and I use term liberally) remains in place because of corruption and rigged elections. You can’t win the hearts and minds battle with a government that looks like every other corrupt national government the Afghanis have ever had. Yeah the Taliban are murderous thugs but you have to make an argument to the people that more than “We’re less capricious than they are.”

If I were Hamad Kharzai I wouldn’t be buying any green bananas right now. The US has a long record of replacing its hand-picked leaders with extreme prejudice at times like this. (See Vietnam war, changes of government during for examples.)

Which brings me to my final point: If this isn’t another Vietnam, it will do until the real thing comes along. It is far too easy to imagine someone saying about an Afghani town: “We must destroy the village in order to save it.” That is not a slap at our military. It is meant to point out that under these extreme circumstances humans are likely to react in extreme ways. What seems like crazy on a normal day …

Unfortunately we do not have the option we should have used in Vietnam, declaring victory and go home. To do so almost certainly would make matters worse. We have added to the mess in an incredibly dangerous part of the world. This is the 21st century’s Balkans not because it may spark another world war but because it could involve the world in a cataclysmic war. I do hope Archduke Ferdinand is not already on his way.



*This sentence is a rip off of something Collateral Damage Sr. originally said about Nixon.


Robert McNamara: An appreciation … of sorts

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones

McNamara, dead today at 93, embodied The American Century.

Born two years after the start of World War I, he got his MBA from Harvard in 1937, in World War II he served in the Air Force in the Pacific Campaign, became president of Ford in 1960 – when that was still something to aspire to – then secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson during both the Cuba Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, finally president of the World Bank. He was neither Zelig nor Forrest Gump – he was in the foreground of the pictures Gump and Zelig snuck into.

He received – justly – a lot of blame for Vietnam. This is the man who, on his first visit to South Vietnam in 1962 said “every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war.” While McNamara had clear doubts about the war he lacked the courage of his convictions. He was unable to convince President Johnson – who also knew the war was unwinnable – to change his policies. He was unwilling to commit apostasy and tell the US public what he knew to be true.

Without setting any of that aside, let us acknowledge one thing: the war could have been a lot worse without McNamara.

Vietnam was a fiasco in large part because it was unwinnable. The US sent troops to try to preserve a fiction: the “Republic” of South Vietnam. It sent soldiers to fight over something that was of no importance to the nation whatsoever. The fall of South Vietnam to the Communists – who were certainly despotic and brutal – meant nothing to the US. At least the French had been fighting for a revenue-producing colony. As Yeats put it in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.

While Vietnam was a fiasco, at least – and I say this without irony or sarcasm – it was a well-run fiasco. McNamara, a brilliant logistician and administrator, saw to it that the troops were fed , armed, deployed, medically cared for and treated in as professional a manner as was possible. The mail was delivered on time to the soldiers, sailors and airmen. Let no one underestimate how important that is. If you think this is not a major accomplishment then look at our two current wars. Because Iraq was run from the White House by people with no idea of what was needed to run a war:

  • The wrong troops were sent to do the wrong jobs, thus the tragedy of Abu-Gharaib – a prisoner of war camp run by military police with no training or experience in running a prison.
  • Troops were sent into combat with inadequate supplies of water, body armor, ammunition and God know what else.
  • Soldiers were forced to weld metal plates onto vehicles in an attempt to give them the armor needed.
  • Because of a political decision overruling the military’s recommended troop requirements, the same units were and are repeatedly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan – whether or not they are combat ready and, at the same time, further degrading the combat readiness they already had.

Vietnam, by comparison, was renowned (and sometimes reviled) as one of the most over-supplied conflicts in history. In addition to those basic things like ammo and water, units in the field were even provided with everything from beer to ice cream. (As ice cream creates thirst rather than sakes it, this was a very dubious benefit.) McNamara stepped down as secretary of defense in 1968 and within four years the US Armed Forces were falling apart in Vietnam.

Also to McNamara’s credit – he took responsibility for his actions and mistakes. In his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam:

McNamara said he and his senior colleagues were “wrong, terribly wrong” to pursue the war as they did. He acknowledged that he failed to force the military to produce a rigorous justification for its strategy and tactics, misunderstood Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, and kept the war going long after he realized it was futile because he lacked the courage or the ability to turn President Johnson around.

He never said history would vindicate him or that he was just following orders.

In Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary Fog of War, McNamara became human for the first time for many people. During it he discusses Vietnam and the formative World War II incidents that shaped him. McNamara served under Gen. Curtis LeMay, who lead the bombing campaign against Japan. He quotes LeMay as saying  that had the U.S. lost the war, he fully expected to be tried for war crimes. Despite all that happened in Vietnam, I suspect that type of action was what McNamara was trying to avoid.

In one well-publicized incident, [McNamara] rejected a list of bombing targets that the military officers wanted to hit, including targets near Hanoi and other civilian population centers. The joint chiefs off staff went over his head to Johnson, and the president authorized the strikes.

It is easy to say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that certainly was the case here. However it is important to remember and learn from those intentions. The failure to live up to them had terrible costs for the US, Vietnam and Robert McNamara.