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Afghanistan: Mission not Accomplished

Britain’s prime minister David Cameron rambled a bit on his visit to Afghanistan last December, but ended up sounding just as deluded as U.S. president George W. Bush had been when he proclaimed “Mission accomplished” six weeks after the invasion of Iraq. British troops were sent to Afghanistan, Cameron said, “so it doesn’t become a haven for terror. That is the mission…and I think we will have accomplished that mission.”

 Prime Minister Stephen Harper was equally upbeat when addressing Canadian troops just before they pulled out in 2011. Afghanistan no longer represents a “geostrategic risk to the world (and) is no longer a source of global terrorism,” he said. Both men are technically correct, since Afghanistan never was a “geostrategic risk to the world” or “a haven for terror”, but they must both know that the whole war was really a pointless waste of lives.

Obviously, neither man can afford to say that the soldiers who died in obedience to the orders of their government (448 British troops, 158 Canadians) died in vain, but Barack Obama has found a better way to address the dilemma: he just doesn’t offer any assessment of the campaign’s success. “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission,” wrote former defence secretary Robert Gates, and he was right.

So was Obama, in the sense that he realized the mission, whatever its purpose (the definitions kept changing), was neither doable nor worth doing. But in fact he did support it, at least to the extent of not pulling the plug on it—and 1,685 of the 2,315 American soldiers killed in Afghanistan died on his watch. Could do better.

Now there’s another “election” coming up in Afghanistan (on April 5); at least three-quarters of the remaining foreign troops (perhaps all of them) will be gone from the country by the end of this year, and the whole thing is getting ready to fall apart. This will pose no threat to the rest of the world, but it’s going to be deeply embarrassing for the Western leaders who nailed their flags to this particular mast.

The election is to replace President Hamid Karzai, who has served two full terms and cannot run again. It will be at least as crooked as the last one in 2009: 20.7 million voters’ cards have already been distributed in a country where there are only 13.5 million people over the age of 18. Karzai is so confident of remaining the power behind the throne that he is building his “retirement” residence next to the presidential palace, but he’s probably wrong.

His confidence is based on his skill as a manipulator of tribal politics. Indeed, his insistence that the U.S. hand over control of Bagram jail, and his subsequent release of 72 hardcore Taliban prisoners, was designed to rebuild ties with the prisoners’ families and clans before the election. But it is that same Taliban organization that will probably make all Karzai’s plans and plots irrelevant.

It’s not that the Taliban will sweep back to power all over Afghanistan once Western troops leave. They really only controlled the Pashtun-majority areas of the east and south and the area around the capital even when they were “in power” in 1996-2001, while the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras of the “Northern Alliance” ruled the rest.

That pattern is likely to reappear, with the Taliban and the northern warlords pushing politicians like Karzai aside—probably not at once, when most or all of the Western troops go home at the end of this year, but a while later, when the flow of aid (which accounts for 97 percent of Afghan government spending) finally stops.

The U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam did not collapse when American troops went home in 1973, but two years later, when Congress cut the aid to Saigon. The Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan did not collapse when Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, but three years later, after the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia cut the aid. It will happen that way again.

The new part-Taliban Afghanistan that emerges will be no more a source of international terrorism than the old part-Taliban Afghanistan was. It was Osama bin Laden and his merry men, mostly Arabs and a few Pakistanis, who plotted and carried out the 9/11 attacks, not the Taliban.

True, bin Laden et al. were guests on Afghan soil at the time, but it is highly unlikely that they told the Taliban about the attacks in advance. After all, they were probably going to get their hosts’ country invaded by the United States; best not to bring it up. And there have been no international terrorist attacks coming out of Afghanistan in the past eight years, although the Taliban already control a fair chunk of the country.

The election will unfold as Karzai wishes, and his preferred candidate (exactly who is still not clear) will probably emerge as the new president, but this truly is a case of rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic. The second long foreign occupation of Afghanistan in half a century is drawing to a close, and Afghanistan’s own politics and history are about to resume.

The Shadow of Tet

27 January 2008

The Shadow of Tet

By Gwynne Dyer

Forty years ago this week, the American public realised that the United States was not going to win the Vietnam war. Lulled by assurances that “progress” was being made in the fight against the insurgents, Americans had patiently borne five years of growing military casualties in Vietnam, but the Tet offensive shattered their illusions. Could the same thing happen this year in Iraq?

Paradoxically, the Tet offensive was a military disaster for the Viet Cong, the locally based Communist rebels who had borne the brunt of the fighting in South Vietnam until then. They threw 45,000 of their most experienced soldiers into simultaneous attacks in more than a hundred cities and towns on 31 January, 1968, believing that they could trigger a nationwide popular uprising against the Americans and their local collaborators.

Intense fighting raged all through February of 1968. In the first hours of the offensive, a Viet Cong suicide squad fought its way into the US embassy compound in Saigon. South Vietnam’s third-biggest city, Hue, fell to the insurgents on the first day, and US forces did not reconquer it for over three weeks. But in the end, the Viet Cong lost all the ground they had gained, and at least half of their best troops were killed.

There was no national uprising in South Vietnam; the Communists had overestimated their support in the cities. After Tet, the Viet Cong was so weakened that the North Vietnamese regular army had to take over more and more of the fighting, infiltrating its troops south down the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was a grave military defeat for the Vietnamese Communists — but it was a decisive political defeat for the United States.

1968, like 2008, was an election year in the US, and Tet made it plain to American voters that, while the Vietnamese insurgents might not be able to drive the Americans out, they could go on fighting them indefinitely. By the end of March, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson had abandoned his re-election campaign and offered to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese. When Richard Nixon won the presidency that November, he did so on a promise to withdraw American troops from Vietnam (although it took him five years to keep it).

Many people in the West believed at the time that the wily Vietnamese Communists had foreseen all this, but they didn’t. General Tran Do, one of the planners of Tet, later said: “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South….As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention — but it turned out to be a fortunate result.”

The lesson of Tet, incorporated into the doctrine of every insurgent movement on the planet and taught in every military staff college, is that Western troops fighting in “Third World” countries can win every battle with their superior technology, but they are terribly vulnerable on the political front.

The insurgents don’t have to win. They only have to show that they can go on fighting indefinitely, because the Western country involved always has the option of cutting its losses and bringing its troops home. The insurgents are not really going to “follow us home” (as President Bush occasionally argues), so sooner or later the option to withdraw will be exercised.

Something like the Tet offensive, even if it fails militarily, can be a catalyst for that kind of shift in opinion on the occupying power’s home front. So who in Iraq might be tempted to try a “Tet” offensive in this US election year?

Not the Sunni Arabs who did most of the fighting against the US occupation in 2003-2007, for they have now been drawn into anti-al-Qaeda, anti-Shia militias that are backed and paid for by the US. They may turn on their paymasters again eventually, but not yet.

Not the traditional Shia religious parties that now dominate the Iraqi government, either. They already have most of what they want, and they still need American protection from their many enemies. Certainly not the Kurds, the one pro-American group in Iraq. But how about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, the largest militia in the country?

Iraq, with all its ethnic and sectarian divisions, lends itself far more readily to imperial policies of “divide and rule” than the homogeneous Vietnamese did, but al-Sadr embodies the aspirations and resentments of the poorer Shias, who probably account for almost half of the entire population. They are not persuaded that the current government shares their agenda, and they could be mobilised for revolt.

Al-Sadr will go on being marginalised by the conservative Shia establishment unless he can position himself as the patriot who defied the Americans while everybody else was playing along with them. His Mahdi army has observed a self-imposed cease-fire since last August, but he could break it at any time.

If the Mahdi army launched an Iraqi version of the Tet offensive, it would be defeated as badly as the Viet Cong were, but everybody who knows that history understands that military defeat can lead to political victory. The temptation is there, but al-Sadr won’t do it now. August or September, however, could be another matter entirely.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. (“Intense…killed”; and “Iraq…revolt”)

What Would Kerry Do

26 July 2004

What Would Kerry Do?

By Gwynne Dyer

The Democratic presidential convention in Boston is more an infomercial than a political contest, but a key piece of information is missing. A majority of the Americans who plan to vote for John Kerry in November assume that he will pull US troops out of Iraq quickly if he becomes president, and is only refusing to say so now to avoid being vilified by the Republican machine for failing to support American soldiers in action overseas. But it is possible that he actually means what he says – and what he says is that he would stay in Iraq indefinitely.

“Extremists appear to be gaining confidence and have vowed to drive our troops from the country,” Kerry said in the midst of the April uprising in Iraq. “We cannot and will not let that happen. It would be unthinkable for us to retreat in disarray and leave behind a society deep in strife and dominated by radicals.”

Two weeks later, Kerry declared: “If our commanders need more American troops, they should say so and they should get them….But more and more American soldiers cannot be the only solution….The coalition should organise an expanded international security force, preferably with NATO, but clearly under US command.”

And how was the US going to persuade those feckless Europeans to send their troops into the Iraqi meat-grinder? “For the Europeans, Iraq’s failure could endanger the security of their oil supplies, further radicalise their large Muslim populations, threaten destabilising refugee flows, and seed a huge new source of terrorism.” Even if the Europeans believed that they would be safer if American troops stayed in Iraq rather than going home (which most of them do not), didn’t Kerry realise how impudent his remarks were?

He was arguing that countries that had opposed the US invasion of Iraq precisely because it would unleash the dangers he listed, should now pull America’s chestnuts out of the fire because its invasion had indeed unleashed them. It was the same tone that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon used to adopt when demanding that the NATO allies in Europe send troops to Vietnam, and it was just as likely to get a warm response.

“Our goal,” said Kerry, “should be an alliance commitment to deploy a major portion of the peacekeeping force that will be needed in Iraq for a long time to come.” Perhaps he was lying to his audience or perhaps he was lying to himself, but he certainly didn’t sound like a man laying the groundwork for an early pull-out. It’s a safe bet that he still won’t have made any commitment to bring the troops home when the convention ends.

Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich’s comment that there is “no prominent figure in American public life who finds fault with the notion of the United States remaining the world’s sole military superpower until the end of time” certainly applies to Kerry. He has consciously played up to the militaristic strand in American public discourse during the campaign. He probably wouldn’t have been foolish enough to invade Iraq, but that doesn’t mean he would easily leave. If he is the peace candidate, he is in deep cover.

So is the United States doomed to recapitulate the whole miserable Vietnam experience in Iraq? Probably not, although the parallels are alarming.

There are already more American troops in Iraq than there were in South Vietnam in 1964, just before Lyndon Johnson decided to “escalate” the commitment in a fruitless search for victory, and more Americans have already died in Iraq. The guerrillas and ‘terrorists’ in Iraq — a distinction without a difference; all guerrillas use terrorist methods — are less united than the Viet Cong were in South Vietnam, but they are managing to cooperate effectively against the occupiers and they have the sympathy of the whole Arab world.

The government the US has installed in Baghdad is probably less corrupt than the one President Kennedy put in place in Saigon after he overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1962, but it also has far less to work with, because Paul Bremer disbanded the entire Iraqi army and fired most senior government employees last year in his first decisions as pro-consul. Most importantly, neither a victorious President Bush nor an incoming President Kerry would have the option of following President Johnson’s example and flooding Iraq with troops.

By scraping the bottom of the barrel, either president could find around another 20,000 troops for Iraq, for a total of 160,000 American soldiers — but after that, they would have to bring back the draft, which would be political suicide. Besides, escalating the war in Vietnam didn’t solve the problem: even with 550,000 American soldiers, the US was unable to defeat the guerrillas in a country with a smaller population than Iraq’s.

What the United States was up against in both countries, behind the screen of ideological cant about Communism or Islamism, was nationalism. Once a majority of local nationalists decide that America’s motives for being in their country are not good — whether they are or not — then the game is hopeless.

That point had already passed in South Vietnam by 1964, although the US military involvement there lasted another nine years, and it has already passed in Iraq. But it won’t take nine further years for the US to pull out this time, no matter who wins next November or what he does next. It probably won’t take two.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9 and 10. (“There are…troops”)