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What might intelligence analysts have said on the key point of training the Afghan army and police? We will never know, but it is a safe bet those analysts who know something about Afghanistan (or about Vietnam) would roll their eyes and wish Petraeus luck. As for Iraq, what remains to be seen is against whom the various sectarian factions target their weapons and put their training into practice.
The Training Mirage
In his Afghanistan policy speech on March 27, 2009, Obama mentioned training 11 times. To those of us with some gray in our hair, this was all too reminiscent of the prevailing rhetoric at the start of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In February 1964, with John Kennedy dead and President Lyndon Johnson improvising on Vietnam, then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara prepared a major policy speech on defense, leaving out Vietnam, and sent it to the President to review. The Johnson tapes show the President finding fault:
LBJ: "I wonder if you shouldn't find two minutes to devote to Vietnam."
McN: "The problem is what to say about it."
LBJ: "I would say that we have a commitment to Vietnamese freedom. ... Our purpose is to train the [South Vietnamese] people, and our training's going good."
But our training was not going good then. And specialists who know Afghanistan, its various tribes and demographics tell me that training is not likely to go good there either. Ditto for training in Pakistan. Obama's alliterative rhetoric aside, it is going to be no easier to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat" al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan with more combat forces and training than it was to defeat the Viet Cong with these same tools in Vietnam.
Obama seemed to be protesting a bit too much: "Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course." No sir. There will be "metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable!" Yes, sir! And he will enlist wide international support from countries like Russia, India and China that, according to President Obama, "should have a stake in the security of the region." Right.
"The road ahead will be long," said Obama in conclusion. He has that right. The strategy adopted virtually guarantees that. That is why Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan publicly contradicted his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in late 2008 when Gates, protesting the widespread pessimism on Afghanistan, started talking up the prospect of a "surge" of troops in Afghanistan.
McKiernan insisted publicly that no Iraqi-style "surge" of forces would end the conflict in Afghanistan. "The word I don't use for Afghanistan is "surge,'" McKiernan stated, adding that what is required is a "sustained commitment" that could last many years and would ultimately require a political, not military, solution. McKiernan has that right. But his boss Mr. Gates did not seem to get it.
Bob Gates at the Gate
In late 2008, as he maneuvered to stay on as Defense Secretary in the new administration, Gates hotly disputed the notion that things were getting out of control in Afghanistan. The argument that Gates used to support his professed optimism, however, made us veteran intelligence officers gag -- at least those who remember the U.S. in Vietnam in the 1960s, the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and other failed counterinsurgencies.
"The Taliban holds no land in Afghanistan, and loses every time it comes into contact with coalition forces," Gates explained. Our Secretary of Defense seemed to be insisting that U.S. troops have not lost one pitched battle with the Taliban or al-Qaeda. (Engagements like the one on July 13, 2008, in which "insurgents" attacked an outpost in Konar province, killing nine U.S. soldiers and wounding 15 others, apparently do not qualify as "contact.")
Gates ought to read up on Vietnam, for his words evoke a similarly benighted comment by U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers after that war had been lost. In 1974, Summers was sent to Hanoi to try to resolve the status of Americans still listed as missing. To his North Vietnamese counterpart, Col. Tu, Summers made the mistake of bragging, "You know, you never beat us on the battlefield."
Colonel Tu responded, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant."
I don't fault the senior military. Cancel that, I DO fault them. They resemble all too closely the gutless general officers who never looked down at what was really happening in Vietnam. The Joint Chiefs of Staff of the time have been called, not without reason, "a sewer of deceit." The current crew is in better odor. And one may be tempted to make excuses for them, noting for example that if admirals/generals are the hammer, small wonder that to them everything looks like a nail. No, that does not excuse them.
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