Yet Obama and Petraeus insist that it is. “Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control,” Obama told U.S. troops last week on a surprise visit to Bagram. “We said we were going to break the Taliban’s momentum. That’s what you’re doing.” The outcome of all this happy talk, critics say, could be the worst of all possible worlds: no prospect of “winning” at all in an endlessly prolonged and bloody conflict in which we deceive ourselves for years that we are winning. In other words, something like Vietnam.
Beyond that, according to many military experts, Biden was largely correct in his original assessment: Pakistan does seem to be harboring the worst of al-Qaida. To take the two examples Kerry cited: The would-be Times Square bomber was from Pakistan and got his training there; and the group responsible for the air-package bombs, the Yemeni-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is mainly an offshoot of the core group located in Pakistan, U.S. counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and other U.S. officials have said. A blue-ribbon panel called the Afghanistan Study Group, led by Pillar, concluded recently that not only is the U.S. strategy failing, it is also fundamentally misguided. “A complete (and unlikely) victory in Afghanistan and the dismantling of the Taliban would not make al-Qaida disappear; indeed, it would probably have no appreciable effect on al-Qaida,” the study group reported. “At the same time, dramatically scaling back U.S. military engagement will not significantly increase the threat from al-Qaida.”
STILL SORTING IT OUT
It is on these crucial questions that Kerry starts to get a little squishy, if not (dare one say) flip-floppy. By his own admission and that of his staffers, he is still “struggling” with an Afghanistan policy that risks Americans lives to bet on Karzai and COIN. Kerry is clearly torn—between his undying ambition (he’s occasionally talked of as secretary of State if Hillary Rodham Clinton leaves early) and his hard-won leeriness of quagmires. Torn between his deep skepticism of counterinsurgency, learned in Vietnam, and his reluctance to turn away from a fight, even against frightful odds. “Kerry doesn’t walk out. He never walks out,” Tommy Vallely, his close friend and fellow Vietnam vet says. Another Vietnam friend, Paul Nace, agrees: “John Kerry has never been in a fight that he didn’t think he could win.”
Vietnam still “informs everything he does,” adds Chris Gregory, a onetime campaign aide and a Vietnam veteran who has known Kerry since his antiwar phase. “He had a hard war, an extremely hard war. You don’t move on from that. It’s part of his marrow.” Bred especially deep into Kerry, Vallely says, is a suspiciousness of generals and their grand strategies if they are disconnected from what the grunts are seeing on the ground: “I think John is naturally skeptical. He is capable of being William Fulbright … if he thought he was in a situation that was completely bogus militarily.”
Asked about this, Kerry responds, “What I feel particularly is the responsibility here to get this right. I believe the adjustments we have made have significantly altered the course that we’re on there—and can help us avoid the potential of the word ‘mistake’ being attached to their endeavor.” But when I asked him directly, “Do you feel reasonably confident that no young Americans are being sent needlessly to their deaths?” he began to sound like someone who is still staying at arm’s length from the Petraeus strategy. “What’s very clear to me is that we’re not prepared financially, politically, and militarily to do a nationwide counterinsurgency effort, or even a very significant one,” he says, now echoing Biden. “So I think you have to make certain you’re not putting these folks in a less-than-achievable position.” Pressed further, he acknowledged that he is “very close” to Biden’s thinking, in terms of the need to focus on Pakistan, to reduce the U.S. “footprint,” and to accept that the al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan has been “overblown.”
When it comes to politics, Kerry has always gravitated to the middle of the road. Even back in 1971, after delivering his passionate Senate testimony, he threw only his combat ribbons, not his medals, during a demonstration at the Capitol. In 2004, well before the notorious “Swift Boat” campaign against him, Kerry’s attempts to play both hawk and skeptic on Iraq—approving Congress’s war resolution, on one hand, and yet becoming a bitter critic of the war afterward—became major grist for President Bush’s reelection campaign.
Asked if Vietnam affects his judgment on Afghanistan in other ways, Kerry replies, “You bet it does.” But for a long time in the 2004 campaign, he appeared to avoid the Vietnam issue altogether. He seemed more afraid of reminding opponents and voters of his antiwar stand and his brief alliance with peace activists such as “Hanoi Jane” Fonda—who appeared at demonstrations with him—than he appeared proud of his war medals. “He just thought it would go away,” Gregory says. “He quite correctly thought that, strategically, being an antiwar veteran at that time would not work.”