This past week, the United States recognized a dubious milestone in our country's history as direct war spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan topped $1 trillion. Unfortunately, we have reached a second milestone, with the War in Afghanistan passing the Vietnam War to officially become the longest military conflict in American history.
Most historians agree that the Vietnam War began with the enactment of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, ended with the withdrawal of the last American troops in March of 1973, and lasted a total of 103 months. The War in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001 when President George W. Bush ordered air strikes against militant camps. As of today, June 7, 2010, the war has just ended its 104th month.
For many, the Vietnam War conjures up images of war fatigue, when a larger ideological and strategic rationale for going to war devolved into a sense that our country was trapped in a military quagmire that lacked a clear purpose, identifiable goals, and deliverable objectives. After nearly nine years of war, many Americans are beginning to have many of the same impressions about our military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
We should remember that the United States originally attacked Afghanistan to disrupt the Al Qaeda terrorist network. In an interview with CNN last October, National Security Advisor, General James Jones, acknowledged that "fewer than a hundred" Al Qaeda militants remain in Afghanistan. And yet, the war continues.
Like Vietnam, America's political leadership struggles to justify the lives and treasure sacrificed in Afghanistan. Clear objectives have been replaced with murky concept-slogans, like "securing the population" or implementing "government in a box" in previously lawless areas, which seem to have only a tangential connection to allowing our troops to complete their mission and come home. For example, as we prepare for a new offensive in Kandahar, the failure of the Afghan police to impose order following the recent operations in Marja should cause Americans to question whether the current troop surge is helping to bring the war to a close.
In an interview with CSPAN taped before his death last year, former Secretary of Defense McNamara noted that one of the Vietnam War's fatal flaws was the failure to recognize the existence of a civil war:
"We were fighting -- and we didn't realize it -- a civil war. Now, true, obviously there were Soviet and Chinese influence and support and no question that the communists were trying to control South Vietnam, but it was basically a civil war. And one of the things we should learn is you can't fight and win a civil war with outside troops, and particularly not when the political structure in a country is dissolved. So it wasn't the press that was the problem. The problem was that we were in the wrong place with the wrong tactics.''
McNamara's words should haunt us today, as we recognize this new standard for military occupation. Like Vietnam, the major reason Afghanistan lacks security is because the country is embroiled in a long-running civil war. No amount of firepower will convince the Afghans to decide how to coexist with each other. Political conflicts do not have military solutions.
The Vietnam War took 58,000 American lives, weakened America's image abroad for many years afterward, and sapped the ability of multiple presidents to pursue a robust domestic agenda at home. The War in Afghanistan is having a similar effect on our country.
Despite his many flaws, Richard Nixon recognized that there was a tipping point when our military presence in Vietnam could no longer be sustained. I believe we are close to a such a tipping point today. Many Members of Congress and citizen-activists are calling for withdrawal. I hope that you will join us. Securing a sustainable future for Afghans and Americans starts with bringing the troops home now.
(originally published at The Huffington Post)