Afghanistan is Vietnam. Now what?

It’s in nobody’s political interest to focus on what’s happening in Afghanistan, and it sure seems like nobody’s paying attention.

But on February 25, 2011, in his farewell speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the future leaders of the Army that, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Now he tells us! Thanks a lot, Bob! So what do we do now?

As someone who keenly remembers the failed U.S. war effort in Vietnam, I’m increasingly alarmed at how history repeats itself in the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, even as our efforts to extricate ourselves from Iraq are challenged with increasing violence, and our efforts and position in Pakistan deteriorate. We go to war in the name of freedom and liberty and to defeat tyranny, and we end up fighting just to try to avoid a humiliating defeat, and so that all those who have already died do not end up dying in vain.

To avoid being characterized as colonialists or imperialists, we try to prop up a nominally independent indigenous government. But because we have no understanding of the society or culture in which we are fighting, we are clueless about how to help that government win the hearts and minds of the population. Aerial bombing and resultant civilian casualties only make our position in-country worse. And we don’t speak the languages, and have to rely on contract interpreters everywhere.

There’s no shortage of experts who see light at the end of the tunnel and who offer prescriptions for how to get there and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. American taxpayers may have to stabilize and stimulate the Afghan economy by bailing out the failing Kabul Bank. We have to root out corruption from the Afghan government for it to gain the trust of the people. We have to find a better way of training, motivating, and equipping soldiers for the Afghan army so they can actually replace American troops.

Yes, we have to do all those things, all those pre-conditions for victory. But even success in doing all those things doesn’t guarantee victory. And if we fail in any one, then the whole effort becomes unwinnable. Meanwhile we continue to spend $1.2 million each year for every single member of the military deployed to Afghanistan, $200,000 to $350,000 of which is just for fuel costs. The costs to U.S. taxpayers of the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are running over $12 billion per month.

American troops have been ordered out of the Pech Valley in eastern Afghanistan where they fought, bled, and died for more than a year to try to maintain a military presence.  The litany of bad news from Afghanistan continues.

The American people paid for, and suffered the human costs of, a decade of war in Vietnam before throwing in the towel. The 10-year anniversary of our involvement in the war in Afghanistan is approaching.

Do you think Defense Secretary Gates would be leaving his post if success in Afghanistan and Iraq was truly on the horizon?

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