Two unjustifiable wars, two controlled U.S. presidents, two occupied nations where fierce insurgents operate in fearsome terrain; then and now, a deadly combination of factors leading to a calamitous ending. Presidents Johnson in 1968 and Obama in 2011; both conducting massive, costly wars initiated by predecessors; wars that they could and should have ended but did not, even when it became clearly evident that further pursuit and escalation was an exercise in poor judgment and futility.
Even though Johnson is given high marks for convincing Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed most forms of racial segregation, he will forever be stained by his continued escalations of the bloody Vietnam War. He knew that to continue the war was pure folly but he did not have the courage and the will to fight off the intense pressures of the military and the war hawks in the Congress.
Fast forward to 2011 as we witness history repeating itself. The parallels between Johnson and Vietnam, and Obama and Afghanistan are striking. Both countries were invaded and occupied by the U.S. military who, thereafter, met strong, vicious resistance by resident insurgents. The jungle terrain of Vietnam and the mountainous terrain in Afghanistan became perfect settings for guerilla fighters who strike from the shadows and quickly disappear.
To get an idea of the mountainous terrain in Afghanistan, check out Restrepo, a documentary film that chronicles the year that Sebastian Junger, an American journalist, and Tim Hetherington, a British photojournalist, spent embedded with an American infantry platoon in the Korangal Valley. Viewing that impenetrable terrain, typical of Afghanistan, will convince you that there is no way that the U.S. military can ever prevail.
In Vietnam the U.S. military used napalm, Agent Orange, white phosphorus, and a limitless supply of bombs on vast areas of the countryside to literally incinerate the Viet Cong insurgents. It didn't work, nothing worked, and when the city of Saigon fell to the Viet Cong, the last remaining elements of the U.S. military were forced out of the country. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, mostly conventional weapons are being used with the exception of the deadly drones that terrorize civilians from the air. In time the use of drones will prove to be a mistaken, misguided use of force.
What was the biggest mistake, the worst decision that was made in both these wars? It was escalation, and in fact, continued misguided escalation in the face of evidence that such actions would have no positive effect and, quite probably, backfire. The reasons behind Johnson and Obama continuing to escalate futile wars comes from the intense, relentless pressure brought to bear on them from the military commanders.
Conducting wars is what the generals do, that is their profession, that's how they get promotions and enhance their reputations; they are not peacemakers, nor are they well versed in economics; they do not concern themselves with the fact that what they are doing is tearing America apart financially. But presidents should fully understand the consequences of their actions.
Let's examine two distinctly scenarios that President Obama could follow relative to the Afghanistan and Pakistan conflicts:
In the first, let's say that Mr. Obama has a revelation of some sort that convinces him that he must take steps to end America's occupations and military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he decides to bring the troops home. What would happen if he took such actions? Well, first there would be a massive outcry of opposition and condemnation by the military and many elements of the Congress. He would be vilified; he would be denigrated, called a coward, a quitter and a weak president.
But in the eyes of the world and that two thirds of the American people that have had more than they can tolerate of these wars, he would be a hero, he would be exalted, admired, and he would win a second presidential term in a massive landslide. He would, no doubt, go down in history as one of the greatest presidents in American history. He would be renowned as a man of peace, one whose actions clearly verified his selection as a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
But, instead of that wonderful scenario becoming reality, let's say that President Obama decided that he is going to "stay the course" and see that conflict through to the very end, no matter what the consequences. Well, he would remain in the good graces of the military establishment and those in Congress who benefit greatly by the pursuit of war. While still despised by many on the right, he would at least be tolerated.
But, if he follows this second scenario, he will fall into the "Johnson trap." Conditions in Afghanistan are going to get worse; a lot worse, as the Taliban's strength, coupled with their rapidly increasing control over key areas of the country will become much more problematic for the U.S. In this scenario Mr. Obama will continue to talk about possible draw downs even as the military commanders brazenly make it known that they do not have any intention of leaving and, in fact, have plans to stay well into the future.
This war is going to end but how could it actually happen? Of great significance is the remote location of Afghanistan in which it has no access to the sea, and vital supplies for the U.S. military have to travel over very long distances. Supplies come through Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan where the U.S. has bases. But transit of supplies could be easily disrupted because those governments have been quite unstable and volatile.
The greatest danger, however, lies with the main supply route for supplies that have to travel over a long distance across Pakistan. The fact that the U.S. has dramatically escalated the use of drones that have killed hundreds of civilians in Northern Pakistan has enraged the people to the extent that threats of swift, deadly retribution abound. The transport of vital supplies is the lifeblood of the U.S. military in Afghanistan and when, not if, these transit routes are attacked and, quite possibly immobilized, that would cause a huge disruption to the process of war. The effect would be devastating and spell the beginning of the end.
What then will be the final outcome? Well, it's going to be very similar to what happened in Vietnam. At some point in the not too distant future, the Taliban, fueled by growing numbers of new recruits to their cause, will control the vast majority of Afghanistan and, for all practical purposes, that war will have to wind down and U.S. troops withdrawn; it will be a replica of that time when the U.S. was forced out of Vietnam and also reminiscent of when Russian troops were expelled from Afghanistan in 1989 after ten years of futility.