Afghanistan: Still Losing

Mary McCarthy
Mary McCarthy

W.J. Astore

In April of 2009, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com on the situation in Afghanistan.  During his 2008 campaign for President, Obama had claimed that Afghanistan was the right war to be fighting, and that Bush and Company had taken their eye off the Afghan ball when they chose to invade Iraq in 2003.

Here we are in August 2014 and the news from Afghanistan is about as grim as one could expect.  This week has witnessed costly “insider” attacks that killed an American major general as well as eleven Afghan police officers.  Progress toward democratic reforms and political stability remains elusive.  U.S. efforts to reshape and rebuild Afghanistan have cost more than $100 billion, exceeding the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II, but without corresponding results.

Obama appears to be channeling Richard Nixon.  Publicly, he’s seeking “peace with honor” in Afghanistan.  Privately, he’s seeking a “decent interval” between when the U.S. exits Afghanistan for good and when Afghanistan returns to Taliban and tribal control, i.e. chaos, or at least that’s my guess.  The “fall” of Afghanistan will then become a political football, with Republicans attempting to paint Democrats as being spineless in leaving Afghanistan, whereas the Democrats will likely paint Afghan leaders as corrupt and incompetent and ungrateful.  Perhaps a Democratic candidate will emerge in 2020 to explain to Americans that our failed efforts in Afghanistan were nevertheless part of a “noble cause” in the global war on terror.

What follows is my article from April of 2009.  I think lesson (2) below will be especially telling in the weeks and months ahead.

Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan

Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President
By William Astore

In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country’s role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy’s accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.

Those who’d say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist’s keen eye to America’s activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam — she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon — her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.

Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama’s next press conference should consider asking him:

1. McCarthy’s most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply “technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.” At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as “wicked” because of its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives” to the Vietnamese people.

Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.

In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.

Questions for President Obama: Aren’t we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to “solve” complex political and religious struggles? Aren’t we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we’re using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren’t we still morally culpable when these “precision-guided munitions” miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected “terrorists” who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C’est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?

2. As Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 by calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, McCarthy offered her own warning about the dangers that arose when the office of the presidency collided with an American desire never to be labeled a loser: “The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.”

Questions for President Obama: Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?

3. Though critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam, McCarthy was even more critical of American civilian officials there. “On the whole,” she wrote, they “behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious ‘growth’ stock they were brokering.” At least military men were often more forthright than the civilians, if not necessarily more self-aware, McCarthy noted, because they were part of the war — the product, so to speak — not its salesmen.

Questions for President Obama: In promising to send a new “surge” of State Department personnel and other civilians into Afghanistan, are you prepared as well to parse their words? Are you braced in case they sell you a false bill of goods, even if the sellers themselves, in their eagerness to speak fairy tales to power, continually ignore the Fantasyland nature of their tale?

4. Well before Bush administration officials boasted about creating their own reality and new “facts on the ground” in Iraq, Mary McCarthy recognized the danger of another type of “fact”: “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”

Questions for President Obama: If your surge in Afghanistan fails, will you be able to de-escalate as quickly as you escalated? Or will the fact that you’ve put more troops in harm’s way (with all their equipment and all the money that will go into new base and airfield and road construction), and committed more of your prestige to prevailing, make it even harder to consider leaving?

5. A cursory reading of The Pentagon Papers, the famously secret government documents on Vietnam leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, reveals how skeptical America’s top officials were, early on, in pursuing a military solution to the situation in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, knowing better, the “best and brightest,” as journalist David Halberstam termed them in his famous, ironic book title, still talked themselves into it; and they did so, as McCarthy noted, because they set seemingly meaningful goals (“metrics” or “benchmarks,” we’d say today), which they then convinced themselves they were actually achieving. When you trick yourself into believing that you’re meeting your goals, as Halberstam noted, there’s no reason to reexamine your course of action.

Questions for President Obama: Much has been written about an internal struggle within your administration over the wisdom of surging in Afghanistan. Now, you, too, have called for the setting of “benchmarks” for your new strategy’s success. Are you wise enough to set them to capture the complexities of political realities on the ground rather than playing to American strengths? Are you capable of re-examining them, even when your advisors assure you that they are being achieved?

6. In her day, Mary McCarthy recognized the inequities of burden-sharing at home when it came to the war in Vietnam: “Casualty figures, still low [in 1967], seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups — the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices [among the privileged classes] has had its effect on the opposition [to the war], which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices — what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it — a connection that is more evident to a low-grade G.I. in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.”

Questions for President Obama: Are you willing to listen to the common G.I. as well as to the generals who have your ear? Are you willing to insist on greater equity in burden-sharing, since once again most of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on “the silent part of society”? Are you able to recognize that the “best and brightest” in the corridors of power may not be the wisest exactly because they have so little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from our “overseas contingency operations”?

7. McCarthy was remarkably perceptive when it came to the seductiveness of American technological prowess. Our technological superiority, she wrote, was a large part of “our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there… The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.”

Questions for President Obama: Rather than providing us with a war-winning edge, might our robot drones, satellite imagery, and all our other gadgetry of war seduce us into believing that we can “prevail” at a reasonable and sustainable cost? Indeed, do we think we should prevail precisely because our high-tech military brags of “full spectrum dominance”?

One bonus lesson from Mary McCarthy before we take our leave of her: Even now, we speak too often of “Bush’s war” or, more recently, “Obama’s war.” Before we start chattering mindlessly about Iraq and Afghanistan as American tragedies, we would do well to recall what McCarthy had to say about the war in Vietnam: “There is something distasteful,” she wrote, “in the very notion of approaching [Vietnam] as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan [President Lyndon Baines Johnson].”

Yes, there is something distasteful about a media that blithely refers to Bush’s or Obama’s war as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans suffer. For American troops, after all, are not the only ones paying the ultimate price when the U.S. fights foreign wars for ill-considered reasons and misguided goals.

Copyright 2009 William Astore

7 thoughts on “Afghanistan: Still Losing

  1. Good post, Bill! I feel that, since POTUS is viewed as THE leader of the nation as well as, technically, THE Commander-in-Chief of all US forces, it IS proper to label a war as “belonging” to he (or someday, she) on whose desk the buck supposedly stops. These entities will be blamed for political/military failures eventually–as they desperately spin and try to wriggle off the hook of culpability–though they’d dreamed of entering history books as conquering heros. And if there was any real justice in this world, those who foist these criminal wars upon us WOULD indeed end up in the docket to be tried for their crimes against humanity. And so, Iraq and Afghanistan ARE Dick Cheney’s wars, and Obama signed on with enthusiasm to continue hostilities in the latter country. Thus Afghanistan is now Cheney AND Obama’s war. Let the cards of fate fall where they will and let these leaders take their lumps.

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    1. As historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in her classic book of misgovernment, The March of Folly, Richard Nixon, upon winning election to the Presidency in 1968, privately told a journalist: “If the war goes on six months after I become President, it will be my war. … I’m going to stop that war — fast.” President Nixon understood perfectly well that the American people would only give him half a year to liquidate his predecessor’s bungled war crime before rightly attributing the war crime to him for not wrapping it up when they expected him to do so. The same goes for President Obama. The American people elected him to liquidate both the bungled U.S. War Crime in Iraq and the bungled U.S. War Crime in Afghanistan. That he still hasn’t done so going on six years after his election 1n 2008 only shows that, like President Nixon demonstrated before him, “common sense … has a hard time surviving in high office.” So President Obama’s two bungled war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, augmented by others popping up all over the globe — not to mention at home in America — rightfully belong to him for either not liquidating them when he could have or for starting them in the first place.

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  2. UPDATE: Because Obama has had no push back from the American people on his war making he is again flirting with going back into Iraq. It sounds like he is considering either a “humanitarian” mission to drop water to the 40,000 Iraqis isolated from ISIS on a hill top or going, gung ho, to “bomb” ISIS, or both.
    The worst decision the Nobel Committee ever made was to give him the “Peace” prize based on his rhetoric. Now we must suffer from the cover that his given his war making decisions.
    It’s time for the American people to take to the streets as they did for Bush’s ill fated war making. Obama has been the warrior in chief to oversee the absolute mess the entire Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan are in today. Bush just opened the curtain on this tragedy but Obama has directed the play since then.

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    1. Absolutely, b. traven, that “Peace Prize” goes down as one of the most egregious miscalculations in memory. A black man gaining the US presidency was, of course, remarkable, but what does that have to do with the Nobel committee?? Presidents with no personal experience with the military seem easily seduced. Bill Clinton took office and called in the brass-hat big boys to tell them he wanted to end discrimination against homosexuals. Instead THEY laid down the law to HIM and we got the worthless “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Now that ISIS (or ISIL if you prefer) has been painted by the propaganda machine as outright devils, the Pentagon will have no difficulty persuading Obama that a few “surgical strikes” will take out the leadership and demoralize what’s left. ISIS does appear to be a nasty lot, but again…IN WAR, TRUTH IS THE FIRST CASUALTY. Who knows what’s really going on on the ground in northern Iraq? I do anticipate that the Kurds will find a military means to halt the marauders at the border of their turf. After all the decades (centuries?) that those people have been abused, I expect they will offer stiff resistance now that Iraq’s de facto break-up has given them hope for increased autonomy.

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      1. I would believe in the fabled “stiff resistance” of the Kurds, Greg, if they didn’t keep demanding that the United States come back into the former Iraq and do their “resisting” for them. Especially since the United States helped create and sustain these same Jihadi “terrorists” in Syria so that they could hopefully overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad — who has proven very hard to overthrow. So now the sectarian “terrorists” that we helped to create have decided to branch out on their own and threaten the Kurds who, until now, have opportunistically seized coveted properties — like Kirkuk — when the U.S. advised and trained Iraqi Army dropped their weapons, took off their uniforms, and disappeared into nowhere (like the now defunct U.S. trained and advised Army of South Vietnam). Now the Kurds want the United States to help them defend their latest opportunistic theft against the U.S. created (and still supported) “terrorists” that supposedly want to take back what the Kurds have seized for themselves. Essentially, the Kurds and the Iraqi Government want the United States to fight its own terrorist proxies so that they can concentrate on looting whatever of value one can still find in Iraq.

        President Obama, naturally, claims that the United States cannot just “stand by” or “turn a blind eye” or — heaven forbid — “mind its own business” while the Kurds and the Iraqi government go on stealing whatever they want while leaving everyone else in Iraq and Syria to suffer from the thieving. If the Kurds have any “stiff resistance” in them, then I say let them demonstrate that. If they need the United States to kill their enemies for them, then they don’t really have any resistance in them worth speculating about.

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      2. Of course, I have no “inside info” on what weaponry the Kurds possess or how many properly trained troops. I only know from history that these people have been abused and despised by all the “nations”–per the boundaries carved out for “Iraq,” “Syria,” “Jordan,” etc. by the imperialist powers after defeat of the Ottoman Empire–their traditional domain reaches into. Thus my sympathy for “Kurdistan,” a nation waiting to be born and recognized. These are my gut feelings. I hope the Kurds can prevent their territory being overrun by “ISIS/ISIL.” If any ethnic group/proto-nation should have learned to trust no one but themselves, surely it’s the Kurds!!

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  3. Great post, Bill. I was leery from the start about Obama calling Afghanistan the “right war.” If was the right war, it ceased to be after Osama bin Laden was killed.

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