Voices from the grave make me fear that President Obama and Congress are unwittingly setting up the American military for another Vietnam-type failure in Afghanistan.
"I don't think anything is going to be as bad as losing, and I don't see any way of winning," President Lyndon Johnson told Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in a formerly secret tape-recorded telephone conversation on Feb. 26, 1965 -- since made public.
That president had said while campaigning against Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., in 1964 that "we are not about to send American boys 9,000 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys should be doing for themselves." At the end of 1964, the United States had 16,300 troops on the ground in South Vietnam. At the end of 1968, this same Lyndon Johnson had sent 536,000 American boys to fight a war in Vietnam that he did not believe he could win.
Gen. Bruce Palmer Jr., a thoughtful and far-seeing four star who was deputy commander in Vietnam, wrote in his slim but pithy book, "The Twenty-Five Year War," that "with respect to Vietnam, our leaders should have known that the American people would not stand still for a protracted war of an indeterminate nature with no foreseeable end to the U. S. commitment."
I humped around with troops in the outbacks of South Vietnam in 1968 and 1972 and saw for myself several hard-fighting troopers wearing black armbands to protest the very same war they were in. One of their generals said, "Westy doesn't get it," a reference to Gen. William Westmoreland, America's field commander in Vietnam in 1968, whom critics contended never realized the North Vietnamese leaders would stay in the fight until they won, regardless of how many soldiers our forces killed.
"Your generals are leading you down a primrose path, Mr. President," Clark Clifford, McNamara's successor at the Pentagon, said he told Johnson late in the Vietnam War. Clifford told us editors and reporters at The Washington Post that LBJ had asked him to find out how the United States was really doing in the Vietnam War. Clifford told us that no general would guarantee the president victory no matter how many more troops were sent to Vietnam.
So, as Yogi Berra would put it, Afghanistan looks to me like "deja vu all over again." If I'm right, and I hope I'm not, Obama's decision to put 21,000 more American troops in Afghanistan to bring our total there up to about 59,000 Americans will be followed by our commanders requesting more and more and more military power.
The Vietnam calls to attack enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos may well be echoed as our commanders ask Obama to hit Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.
As in Vietnam, our European friends cannot be counted on to give us significant military help in Afghanistan. Remember, our war in Afghanistan has been going on for almost eight years now. The American public and Congress will eventually demand that Obama either show them light at the end of the tunnel or get the hell out of Dodge.
Obama probably has more time to show progress in Afghanistan than Johnson had in Vietnam. The reason for the longer tolerance is that the mainstream of American society does not have to worry about being drafted to fight a questionable war. The draft, if nothing else, was a national referendum on the rightness of a war America's youth, some from the establishment, were dying in. Not so today. The all-volunteer American military is almost as far out of sight of the American establishment as was the French Foreign Legion to France.
Yet, the patience of the American public and its hired hands in Congress is not unlimited. The more people, especially lawmakers, who read books like "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, the more the American military's mission to pacify the 40,000 tiny villages in Afghanistan will look like mission impossible, especially if our bombings keep killing Afghan civilians and infuriating the ones who survive. Like it or not, fair or unfair, the war in Afghanistan has become Obama's war. The big question is whether Afghanistan will ruin Obama's presidency the way Vietnam ruined Johnson's.
I recently asked the top military officer in our land, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether he was worried about his civilian bosses setting up the American military up for another Vietnam-type failure in Afghanistan. His reply: "I've been given a mission by the president of the United States, and I'm going to succeed in that mission. There are going to be a lot of hard questions" about the American military's role in Afghanistan and its exit strategy, Mullen acknowledged. "I welcome those hard questions. I think we need to be able to answer them. This is a tough fight and it's going to take some time."
In contrast, Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel who served in Iraq and teaches international relations at Boston University, sees another failure coming. "Just as in the 1960s, [when] we possessed neither the wisdom nor the means needed to determine the fate of Southeast Asia," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently, "so, too, today we possess neither the wisdom nor the means necessary to determine the fate of the Greater Middle East."
This article appears in the June 6, 2009, edition of National Journal Daily.