For US Afganistan Is Second Vietnam

For the US military, the Vietnam War ended on April 29, 1975 whenits last personnel were evacuated from the embassy roof in Saigon. Onlyhours later, the South Vietnamese government surrendered to theVietcong.

These were momentous events set in motion 25 years earlier when, inAugust 1950, the first shipload of US arms arrived in Vietnam,ostensibly to bolster France's ability to suppress a mountingCommunist-led insurgency against continued colonial rule.

But while that conflict is now just another part of history, thetragic events that culminated in the United States’ ignominious defeatthen might be instructive in its now almost decade-long war on the samecontinent. And, as the United States slips into anotherquagmire—committing ever more resources to try to quell theTaliban-al-Qaeda insurgency in Afghanistan—its policymakers would dowell to consider the increasingly obvious parallels with this earlierendeavour.

The most important of these similarities is almost certainly thecritical variable that eventually convinced the US public that theVietnam War was unwinnable and provoked growing and ultimately decisiveopposition to its continuation—mounting casualties.

When casualty rates rose from a relative handful per month to thelevel of scores and ultimately hundreds per month, no amount ofreassurance that there was light at the end of the tunnel—and thatperseverance would eventually carry the day—was going to convince asceptical US public it should continue.

This isn’t to say that the level of casualties has yet (or everwill) compare with the Vietnam fiasco. But relative to the scope of warnow being waged in the AfPak theatre, casualties are risinguncomfortably sharply and the US public is growing restive.

There’s considerable evidence that the jihadi quasi-state that nowembraces a significant portion of the tribal mountain region situatedbetween the Afghani and Pakistani heartlands has jelled into aformidable socio-political entity with significant militarycapabilities. This quasi-state is the reason why no matter how manyTaliban leaders have been killed by drones, insurgent attacks havepersisted and even escalated.

This ‘state’ possesses the fiscal,manpower and administrative and ideological resources to replace itsbattlefield losses, resupply its military equipment, and mountsustained and sophisticated attacks against US and NATO forces.

As a consequence of all this, public opposition to the war, ashappened with Vietnam, is trending toward critical mass, a shift likelyto be fanned by the public scepticism on display by key opinion formers.

Back in the 1960s, it was pronouncements like that from the late WalterCronkite, who declared in 1968 that ‘We have been too oftendisappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnamand Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings theyfind,’ which helped solidify opposition.

Now, concerns are being raised by leading foreign policy intellectualssuch as Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haas, formerlydirector of policy planning in the US State Department under Gen. ColinPowell, who had a cover story in Newsweek last month that effectivelydeclared the Afghan war a failure and called for a complete rethink.

And, while back in 1971 the release of the Pentagon Papers blew thelid off public confidence in its leaders, the WikiLeaks publication haslaid bare for all to see the mounting problems in Afghanistan

In the latter’s case, there’s too much in the 90,000 pages ofdocuments to quickly digest. But one element already stands out asparticularly troubling: the nefarious role that elements in Pakistanhave from the outset played in the conflict.

Pakistan has, in the words of the New York Times, been playingsomething of a ‘double game,' allowing ‘representatives of its spyservice to meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessionsto organize networks of militant groups that fight against Americansoldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghanleaders.’

So what should US policymakers take from this? It’s not thatPakistani officials are ambivalent about what’s happening inAfghanistan (that should already be obvious). Instead, it’s that thecountry's political society is so fractionalized that in many crucialrespects there are actually two ‘governments' simultaneously in play inthe country.

These two ‘governments’—one headed by President Asif Ali Zardari andthe other a de facto shadow government that is nurtured by the militaryand which surreptitiously maintains links to the Taliban—are working atcross-purposes to each other.

The WikiLeaks data make it clear that as long as this shadowgovernment remains viable and effective, the constitutional governmentof Pakistan can neither effectively cope with the Taliban quasi-stateembedded in the AfPak tribal region, nor successfully carry out itsrecently negotiated political and economic agreements with the UnitedStates. Indeed, the legitimate government of Pakistan is paralyzed bypolitical schizophrenia and can’t hope to be truly effective againstIslamic fanatics in its midst until it finds ways to assert fullsovereignty over the entire country, and particularly the ISI cancerthat infects the military.

So what next? At the very least the Obama administration should consider a significant course correction in its AfPak strategy.

The time has come to cut Pakistan loose from the decades-long policyof treating it as a ‘rental state', to use Pakistani Ambassador to theUnited States Husain Haqqani's well-worn phrase. This would meancurtailing US military assistance only to that which directly affectsPakistan's ability to effectively battle the jihadi quasi-state. If thegovernment is not willing to do this, then military assistance shouldbe suspended.

On the Afghan side, meanwhile, to quote Haas, ‘Thetime has come to scale back US objectives and sharply reduce USinvolvement on the ground.’

Where, then, should the US turn if it leaves Pakistan andAfghanistan to their own devices? The answer is India. The UnitedStates should materially increase its military collaboration withIndia—the only genuinely politically stable state in the region—so thattogether they can form a strategic nexus of stable states confrontinga Pakistan that seems poised to collapse unless it finds ways to getits political house in order. Above all, Pakistan must be allowed tosolve its own political problems, free of American paternalism andoverindulgence of its military.

This of course implies a radical reworking of the US strategicorientation to South Asia and would mean crafting what is effectivelyan alliance designed to preserve as much peace, secularism andpolitical stability as the considerable resources of the two statesworking in concert can achieve.
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