The U.S. diplomatic/war record has not been exactly stellar the past few decades: Korea – a tie (but almost a complete catastrophe); Vietnam, sorry to say, but a stunning defeat; and now Iraq – just simply a chaotic mess. I say “diplomatic/ war record” to draw a distinction between our U.S. soldiers who have been courageous warriors in each of the above and our policymakers. Often these brave young men were sent to their deaths by arrogant and, I fear, ignorant high-level leaders. Douglas MacArthur (see David Halberstam’s magnificent last book, The Coldest Winter – a history of the Korean conflict) simply ignored inconvenient intelligence, never even spent a night in Korea, and issued edicts which he assumed were infallible because he issued them. Consequently, thousands of Americans died when the Chinese entered the war – MacArthur ignoring all warnings.Lyndon Baines Johnson came to see the Vietnam War as a mistake, but pride would not let him admit this and end the war. So thousands more Americans and more than a million Vietnamese died after LBJ’s revelations but inaction.Then, of course, there is the swaggering “mission accomplished” George W. Bush who sent over 4,000 Americans to death in a war against the wrong enemy. He, too, ignored inconvenient truths and virtually declared that the lack of evidence of the weapons of mass destruction’s existence proved their existence. Again, arrogance combined with ignorance.So where is this article heading? I fear down to the marrow of my bones that President Obama is about to enter into another one of those American quagmires – another unwinnable war in a terrain and situation which virtually guarantees ultimate stalemate or defeat. This time – Afghanistan. Back up for a moment:Korea – When MacArthur pushed up into North Korea, he faced freezing weather, on the enemies’ own terrain, in high mountains, with long supply lines, and he virtually invited a Chinese invasion.Vietnam – Even carpet and saturation bombing failed. The enemy had extensive tunnels and melted into the jungle.Iraq – how can we tell the civilians apart from the terrorists, and how do we define victory in the midst of ancient tribal conflicts?So, in light of past blunders, when we look at Afghanistan, we see more red flags. We have an elusive enemy who can melt into the mountains or retreat to neighboring sanctuaries, and hence can fight U.S. troops indefinitely. Each of our past combatants has known that ultimately we would leave. Time is their ally; it is our economic and human nemesis.Furthermore, before committing troops anywhere, there needs to be clear goals and a reasonable chance of winning. But, as in Vietnam and Iraq, “winning” in Afghanistan is a complex, hard-to-crystallize concept. Inevitably, innocent citizens die – in each of the above (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq) thousands of civilians were killed and displaced. Amidst all the self-congratulation over the minimal successes of “the Surge,” we continue to carefully ignore several realities of the conflict: well over 100,000 Iraqis dead – maybe as high as 300,000 – and four million citizens displaced from their homes, two million within Iraq and two million having fled the country. So how can we pretend we have “won” anything in Iraq? And what do we hope to “win” in Afghanistan?I admire President Obama. I believe he has vision, intelligence, and compassion. I can only hope he will have the wisdom to not add Afghanistan to our list of foreign blunders and tragedies.
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