United States President Barack Obama banned all references to the Vietnam war when discussing Afghanistan, according to the late Richard Holbrooke. The latter, who died on the job in 2010 as Obama’s “AfPak” envoy, is poised to return from the grave in a moving HBO documentary, The Diplomat. Its premiere next month is one of those ironies of timing. Holbrooke made it plain that Obama’s time-limited Afghan surge could not work. US troops would be stretched too thin for too short a time to stabilise the country. The White House froze him out. Last week, Obama implicitly conceded Holbrooke’s point. US troops will now stay on in Afghanistan beyond the end of his presidency. Who knows where that will end?
Parallels with the war in Vietnam may be overdone. At its height in 1968, the US had more than half a million troops there. Obama will keep the existing 9,800 US troop level in Afghanistan for most of the next year. Just under 2,500 US soldiers have so far lost their lives there against almost 60,000 in Vietnam.
Yet, there are troubling echoes. In Saigon, as in Kabul, the US struggled to shore up an ineffective civilian government against a single-minded guerrilla enemy. Afghan President Ashraf Gani’s Afghan government may be less corrupt than his predecessor Hamid Karzai’s — and far less venal than the succession of US-backed strongmen in Saigon. But there is still no Afghan air force worth mentioning. Meanwhile, the US-trained Afghan army is as prone to desertion as ever. Nobody trains the Taliban. Yet, it continues to reclaim territory across the country.
More importantly, there is no credible end game to Obama’s new plan. That headache will be inherited by his successor. This is where the Vietnam parallel strikes the hardest. South Vietnam was where Holbrooke began his career. As the thrusting young diplomat kept telling his superiors, America refused to grasp that the loss of thousands of lives was not justified by its national interest. Unless it could stop outside powers, notably the USSR and China, from fuelling the Viet Cong insurgency, it would lose.
The same applies to Afghanistan. There is no Afghan strategy worth the paper it is written on without a plan for turning Pakistan into a real partner. Holbrooke insisted his job include both countries. AfPak must be weighted equally. Obama cited Afghanistan 28 times in his address last Thursday. He mentioned Pakistan twice.
Why should this latest Afghan plan have a greater impact than earlier ones? The answer is that it will not. Nor is it meant to. Obama’s partial reversal is aimed at shoring up the highly fragile gains of the 14-year US presence. His decision was pressured by military commanders — notably John Campbell, the head of US forces in Afghanistan.
The Taliban are making territorial gains, Gen Campbell told Congress earlier this month. There is also evidence Iran is now funding the Taliban to fight off Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which is rapidly spreading its franchise to Afghanistan. Does that make Iran an ally or an enemy? That is a hard one to answer. Whatever it is, Afghanistan threatens to turn into the new Syria — except that it is the US, rather than Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with its boots on the ground.
Afghanistan has taught Obama some painful lessons. The first is that it pays no heed to US political considerations. Obama rode to power on the promise of ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. All US troops would come home. Last week, he showed courage in walking away from that pledge. When he leaves office, there will be several thousand US military personnel in both countries. Given the fragility of the Iraq and Afghan governments — and the strength of the extremist threat to both — the next president is unlikely to fulfil Obama’s promise either. Obama’s time in office is more likely to be remembered as a confused — though well-intentioned — pause in the generational struggle with religious extremism.
Second, Afghanistan is mostly a symptom. Pakistan is a far bigger problem. This week, Obama will meet Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s Prime Minister. Islamabad remains as confounding as ever. On the one hand, it has turned into a victim of the Taliban Frankenstein it created. The barbaric attack on the military school in Peshawar last year was a turning point. On the other, Sharif’s civilian government remains at the mercy of the Pakistan military, which is showing growing impatience with his haphazard record. The military is still a state within a state. While Pakistan’s generals may be less tolerant of extremist forces at home, they remain obsessed with “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. Nobody believes the military has given up its sponsorship of the Afghan Taliban. Obama has no plan to turn Pakistan around. Nor does anyone else. Meanwhile, Pakistan is stepping up its nuclear weapons production. The fact that this is not front-page news is disturbing in itself.
Third, Holbrooke’s historical analogies make sense. The lessons from Vietnam are relevant. So too are those from Afghanistan since 2001. “During the golden period after the Taliban left, when everything seemed possible, the US failed to explain what we were doing there,” Holbrooke says in the movie.
Washington still has not spelt that out. The generals continue to drive the decisions. The Taliban’s reach is growing. And America’s leaders remain at the mercy of events they have little ability to control.
— Financial Times