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05 August 2009


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Bill Wade, NH

LBJ didn't make it past his first term, looks like President Obama may be in the same mess. He should place a call to Congressman Ron Paul and get his advice.

John Minnerath

But, you knew this was coming, didn't you?
Many of us who were in uniform 46 years ago are now considered past our prime.
Our memories of what happened are skewed and faulty.
This is a different time. The world is different now.
Is history required reading anywhere, any more?



I read this piece early this morning and immediately began an email to solicit your thoughts, but I restrained myself because I found it unfair to you. I now see that I was not mistaken, so I must thank you for taking the initiative.

I had three questions, however, that I will endeavor to pose now:

1) What are we to do when Peter Bergen is, as I believe is still the case, generally considered to be a relatively informed, objective, and professional observer of this conflict?

2) Presuming you are now only slightly less dependent than the rest of us on publicly available sources of information and expertise when you follow the conflict(s) in Afghanistan and Pakistan as they continue to evolve, what and/or whom do you consider the most reliable sources?

3) Are you prepared to place a bet on which of the following two outcomes is more likely: Iraq will degenerate significantly before US forces can be substantially withdrawn or Afghanistan will become truly intractable before the presence is expanded to the next level(s)? I'm frankly just curious...

For what it is worth, I still have a degree of confidence that certain members of Congress who experienced the Vietnam era first hand, not to mention Obama and that part of his entourage who I believe are not enamored of nation-building (other than domestically, that is...), will see 1963 before it can devolve into 1968. However, a substantive shift in the collective perspective (a la Romney) will require a symbolic lever such as the capture or proven demise of OBL... and yet there is always the risk of a countervailing event, whether concrete or not, that could reinforce or even expand upon the current misguided course...


Great analogy, and every month/year will see greater correlation to the Vietnam War. For those who think the 6+ year war in Iraq and our impending departure in seemingly victorious fashion is to be duplicated in Afghanistan - think again.
The difference here has nothing to do with OUR approach, and everything to do with the vast differences between the two countries (society, natural resources, history, terrain, etc. etc.)
Civil war could very possibly ignite again in Iraq, but we really are on our way out, so that will be a moot prospect for the USA.
On the other hand, civil war IS breaking out across Afganistan. And like Vietnam, the red flags are going up everywhere ("gotta SAVE that country with however much and many it takes"). Boy, don't you just see it coming?
As my high school girlfriend's father told me back in '67, "Johnson isn't getting my son for that damn war of his." (And he didn't get his son - but he got me.) Now, I have a teenage boy(I'm a blessed "older" dad) and I can only repeat: Obama isn't getting my son for that damn war of his! Besides, he thinks he wants to join the Coast Guard and REALLY save people.

Patrick Lang


I actually do have a lot of inside sources, but you can do quite well with what is in the open media.

I do not consider Iraq to be a victory but more on that tomorrow. pl


"How is it our fight? How?" Yes, that is the question. And no one feels compelled to answer it.

As in the Iraq adventure, when all Bush's rationales were proven to be false, the press stopped asking, "How is it our fight? How?"

When you have scum like John Kerry chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Kerry learned all the lessons of Vietnam and then forgot them for political expedience), the tough questions will simply not be asked.

The system has been closed to men of integrity. People like Wayne Morse and William Fulbright can no longer run for office.

William R. Cumming

Brainwashed! That's the word Romney used and ended his campaign for the highest office in the land! That word directly reflected on the honest and competence of the not the US political structure by the military high command. Hey 30 members of the class of 1976 as West Point have made flag rank. Warfare has been good for those careers but let's look closely at the beneficiaries domestically. Hey certain large corporations profited. DOD in general has gotten larger and larger budgets. It still seems to be operating as the employer of last resort. But the US of 2009 is far far different than the US of 1976, and West Point also. Not sure when first women enter West Point but believe after this class of generals graduated. Those who argue the US national government should not pick losers and winners in the economy are right. But due to campaign contributions and corruption that is exactly what has happened. And the sinews of the country have withered. Health care, education, manufacturing, environment, transportation etc. What we have done is invest most heavily in those sectors of the economy that provide the least return on invested capital. And a skilled labor force is not what the US has at this point in time. I would argue back to basics and that does not mean more boots on the ground in AF-PAK even though there are clearly dangerous types there who would harm the US in any way if they can. But more boots is not the answer! The answer is more brains and probably not deployed in AF-PAK! In the winter of 1970-1971 Viet Nam not too popular with US society writ large. So interesting as to what the Class of 1976 really was made up of at to brains and judgement. Are they good or just bureacratic survivors able to sell their approach to the politicians? Time will give US the answer, and maybe sooner than we think.

Cloned Poster

What really gets me down, is the wealth squandered in Iraq/Afghanistan.

F B Ali

In her analysis of the Vietnam debacle, Barbara Tuchman (in The March of Folly) had this to say:

“The folly consisted not in pursuit of a goal in ignorance of the obstacles but in persistence in the pursuit despite accumulating evidence that the goal was unattainable, and the effect disproportionate to the American interest.....This is the classic symptom of folly: refusal to draw conclusions from the evidence”.

Someone above has referred to Peter Bergen as a “relatively informed, objective, and professional observer of this conflict”. Based on this piece of his I would say he is neither informed nor objective. He appears to be pushing a line fed to him by those who want more troops so that they can continue this war for a long time. Though the US will suffer, many people have much to gain from this (contractors and generals not the least among them).

Hannah K. O'Luthon

Thanks and congratulations to Col. Lang for stating what needs to be said about the emerging folly of Obama's Afghan policy. More generally, it's time for a new look at isolationism and a critique of the "internationalist orthodoxy" that has by now played out its useful role in American polity.


"Taliban" is now being used as a descriptive shortcut for every conceivable kind of dissident Pushtun rabble.

I didn't support the war in Afghanistan, admittedly, on purely ethical grounds, although I had to confront the paradox that I was very concerned about the Taliban's treatment of women and somehow wished the Taliban away.

Nowhere--not even in Bergen--could I find evidence that the Taliban could be held responsible for 911.

From the very start it should have been a very focused enterprise. Focused on Al Qaeda, focused on OBL. ...

The loose network paradigm is intriguing, as is the dry out the state sponsors of terrorism, but paradoxically Afghanistan and Iraq seems to produce what the War on Terrorism purports to fight. As the loose network suggests that the more you kill, the more "martyrs" you create the more you probably attract others into a new cause-and-effect dynamic. At one point I asked myself, if this really could be the underlying strategy. Feeding the Rage.

When will the world have access to what the administration knew and be able to compare it to what we were told and what happened? Will we ever?


One thing I will never forget. During her visit to Germany Condoleeza Rice was (among others/Feb. 2005?) interviewed by the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel. In the article she was quoted saying analogously:

After 1989 everyone wondered who the next enemy would be, then, she added, 911 happened and everyone knew.

I couldn't help but just as Rumsfeld's arrogantly presented slim flexible failed states intervention armies it sounded more pleased about the chance provided by 911 than concerned.


Andrew Bacevich seems to think the Afghan campaign is fatal.
I agree.

Cold War Zoomie

Soon, it will be 1968 again, and then...

I don't think so, mainly because I do not see a large state "sponsor" for any of the groups in Afghanistan waging this free-for-all...a state actor that is relatively stable itself with deep pockets.

As an example, Vietnam was getting support from both China and the Soviets:

"In sum, North Vietnam in the years 1960-1961 achieved a new status of independence and influence within the Communist bloc. As a major beneficiary of the Sino-Soviet dispute in the form of vastly augmented economic and military assistance from both Moscow and Peiping during this period, the North Vietnamese party leadership have every reason to persist--if they can--in their chosen role of mediator and neutral in the deepening conflict between the Soviet Union and Communist China."

1961 Intel Staff Study

Reading through the paper above, it's pretty obvious that North Vietnam had a specific goal and had been organizing for years to attain it, and had developed relationships with outside power players to help.

I just don't see that in Afghanistan today.

Patrick Lang


I think you are overestimating the effect of foreign support. In many ways the lack of unity is the strength of the Taliban/Pushtun forces. It was ths in Iraq until we started buying them off. p

Brett J

One of my favorite posts you've done - classic mix of non-prominent history, playfulness, and straightforward, sensical analysis. Thanks again.

Carl O.

I just came from a discussion on Afghanistan strategy at a prominent washington, DC think tank. It was off the record so I won't name the think tank or the speaker except to say that he is likely someone known to many of you and is part of the David Kilcullen/John Nagl/Tom Ricks school of counterinsurgency doctrine/strategy. he recently returned from a visit in Afghanistan and had this to say:

His biggest concern is how little US intelligence catually knows about what is oging inside Afghanistan, and noted Kandahar in this regard. he said the Taliban could takeover kandahar with its fear and intimidation campaign, replace moderate mullahs with radical mullahs, and prevent the governent in kabul from even orating there, and this could happen in the next six months. "We know little about what's going on in Kandahar," he said, and that's because the US military has too little contact with the population. he alos said we have little intelligence about the corruption inside the government, espeically about the deals made by Ahmed Walid Karzai, the president's brother, who apparently is wheeling and dealing all over the place.

He also questioned the presence of the Marines in Helmand when Kandahar is the key piece of terrain.

Naturally, his position is that there are not enough US/NATO troops in Afghanistan, but argued that the real key is expanding the Afghan army and police, which he says is doable, but the partnering of Afghan and US forces needs to be rethought, which he said McChrystal and company are doing.


Huntington is most famous for "The Clash of Civilizations," but his scholarly reputation properly rests on his earlier work. His analysis of political order had immediate, real-world applications. While studying the topic, he was asked by Lyndon Johnson's administration to assess the progress of the Vietnam War. After touring the place he argued, in 1967 and 1968, that America's strategy in South Vietnam was fatally flawed. The Johnson administration was trying to buy the people's support through aid and development. But money wasn't the key, in Huntington's view. The segments of South Vietnam's population that had resisted the Viet Cong's efforts had done so because they were secure within effective local communities structured around religious or ethnic ties. The United States, however, wanted to create a modern Vietnamese nation and so refused to reinforce these "backward" sources of authority. This 40-year-old analysis describes our dilemma in Afghanistan today. Fareed Zakaria

I wasn't around in 63 nor 73, but is this quote a fair assessment of the situation?

Tim Bassett

Given that we are now spending >5x Afghanistan's GDP on military operations there. Maybe we should just bomb them with cash instead! This is madness


"The bad news is that an additional third of Afghanistan's territory was considered "high risk." "

I just flew back to the big D from Nashville, Terror condition Orange, still. As is every other location in the USA, from Long Island (home of JFK int'l airport) to Smith Island - feel free to google the latter and just why the risk of terror is identical.

Cold War Zoomie

I think you are overestimating the effect of foreign support.

Well, now my brain is in overdrive concerning the efficacy of foreign support for insurgencies in general. Must admit, I've always considered it a "given" that foreign support from countries like China and the Soviets were huge game changers. Maybe not.

Would we have won our revolution without assistance from the French, especially at Yorktown? Who knows?

And look at what happened in Latin America once the Soviets stopped sending money to Cuba to finance the fights in Central America. Within a matter of a couple of years we were shutting off the gear and Chinooks were picking it up!

On the other hand, all our assistance to South Vietnam didn't win them anything.

After reading that entire staff report, my impression is that North Vietnam needed assistance to get going even if foreign assistance didn't play a huge part once there was momentum.

Without large scale assistance from the outside, I still do not believe Afghanistan will ever reach the same scale as Vietnam. That does not mean it won't be ugly and, ultimately, fail to meet all these lofty goals of nation building.

David Habakkuk

Carl O.,

'Naturally, his position is that there are not enough US/NATO troops in Afghanistan, but argued that the real key is expanding the Afghan army and police, which he says is doable, but the partnering of Afghan and US forces needs to be rethought, which he said McChrystal and company are doing.'

Expanding the Afghan army and police may indeed be 'doable' -- but that is of limited relevance to the problem. As F.B. Ali brought out in his comments on Richard Sale's post a short while ago, the key question is not the number of recruits of the Afghan National Police, but whether those recruited have the kind of commitment to the notion of a Western-style 'nation' which is a necessary precondition for the effective operation of such a force.

His view -- and he has some claims to expertise in the matter -- is that anyone who thinks they do is in cloudcuckooland (my phrase -- not his!)

Putting the point another way: there really is something in the philosopher Hegel's notion that many of the institutions and practices of a society should be seen as 'objective spirit' -- that is, as expressing ideas and values held by the members of that society. A corollary is that one cannot simply import 'Western' institutions, if the ideas and values they express -- and on which they depend for their successful operation -- are absent.

For 'nation-building' to work -- in Afghanistan as well as many other places -- those practicing it would need to be engineers of souls, before they could be engineers of institutions. And for that task they are -- to put it rather mildly -- hopelessly unqualified.

Although, like Jose, I do not feel qualified to assess the accuracy of the analysis of the U.S. failure in Vietnam by Samuel Huntingdon to which he refers, I note that it fits very well with this kind of 'Hegelian' view.


Everyone may find this article from the London Review of Books of interest:

"The Irresistible Illusion"

The author, Rory Stewart, is a youngish Scot who spent about a year walking around Afghanistan, in between stints as an officer in the Black Watch and as a British diplomat in Iraq.

I take his main point to be that the various ideas that are driving "AF-PAK" (COIN, development, counterterrorism, et al) can really be made to mean anything, and thus ultimately mean nothing. I especially like his observation that the "plan" in Afghanistan is really just a run down of everything we would like to exist but doesn't (e.g. development, rule of law, a functional (and liberal) Afghan government, etc etc).


I read an interview yesterday with Rory Stewart. Paraphrasing an anolgy here: he was consulted about driving over a cliff and they wanted to know if they should use the seatbelts or not. He suggested they not drive over the cliff, but was informed that was already decided. Very well, use the seat belts.

I really DO NOT want to live with a second Vietnam in my life. The body count is really ticking up in Afghanistan.

Mark Logan

Just watched McCaffery on CNN say "10 years". Asked if it was going to be worth it, "..I think so..."

What's the tab for 10 years? A trillion? After interest? Maybe before interest..?

Perhaps putting the price tag on this for public consideration is the best tack towards encourageing serious public debate and due consideration of the undertaking. I'm suspect Barry McCaffery is not thinking about this, and the risk of insolvency we are facing even without this extra trillion, when he's assessing the "worth". At least I hope not. He's got to be thinking about something else. I don't know what, but it's got to be something else.

Jon T

Col Lang, Thank you for keeping this open. I'm late to the thread, again and, despite not being so interested in parallels with 1963 on, I do have some serious heartfelt concerns for our soldiers in Helmand.

1. The Taleban are on their home turf. They don't have to carry gear: a drop at point A - force conflict - disembark & run over the mountain like a goat to point B where there is another drop of weapons, food, bullets, shelter.
2. Our men, from Kansas and Brooklyn, don't know the heat, the dust, the steep. They have to carry it all & it's heavy, no matter how big your arms are. They have to have the stuff trucked - and that is exposure to ambush.
3. Forgive the obvious.
4. Ahmed is 16. He's fed up and leaves for Taleban, or is co-opted, or stoned. Suleimah and Mukesh, Ma & Pa, stay home on the farm, as do two sisters, 14 and 12, and a little brother, 9.
5. Marine Capt Pete Johnson, Coeur D'Alene ID and 4th Platoon, Beta Company fight with Masood's group and kill Ahmed.
6. Capt Johnson next month comes to Suleimah's village and offers her daughters a DS, or cokes: let's be friends.
7. They know he killed their brother and are like well they smile but their heart is filled with hatred.
8. What would Linda Thomas, Niskayuna NY, feel like if her brother Billy had been killed by some guy in a long white dress who later brought chapatis and an oud, saying "Let's be friends now while I'm in your country. I can help you to improve things."
9. Long way around to say: I am concerned that the Marines and soldiers are in way over their heads, no matter how strong, well intentioned, well trained and well financed they are.
We're not in Kansas anymore Toto. This is Afghanistan, Where the fierce warriors live, the ones that have destroyed every civilization that has ever entered.
10. To what end indeed? Very good question.
11. Oh, an aside: Mountain guys in Afghanistan chew opium or smoke hash. Marines and soldiers drink beer, mostly. Not advocating trading here. Just asking Commanders to please note that there are pluses and minuses both ways and real different ways of seeing.

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