Feting a Fetid War

lyndon johnson ngo diem hamid karzai barack obamaTo smooth over the stormy relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, President Barack Obama is throwing out the red carpet in Washington, D.C., for Karzai and his entourage. Vice President Joe Biden, who in the past has erupted in open hostility toward Karzai, is holding a “kiss-and-make-up” dinner for the Afghan leader.

All of this hoopla is the belated recognition by the Obama administration that Karzai is weak and corrupt but is the only game in town in Afghanistan. Of course, if the Vietnam War is any indication, being chained to a local leader with no legitimacy at home is usually the death knell of the entire war effort. Many historians think the U.S. lost that war even before the escalation when President John F. Kennedy tacitly endorsed a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. After that, corrupt South Vietnamese leaders ruled South Vietnam, giving the communists the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the people and eventual victory.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, who escalated the war after Kennedy’s death, has been criticized ever since by the U.S. military for not letting it do all needed to win. But LBJ’s martial limitations made a little more sense when it is realized that he was trying to avoid an all-out war with a large communist power, as had disastrously occurred during the Korean War, and never intended to win the Vietnam War. LBJ was worried, even before he escalated the war, that the conflict would turn into a quagmire and was merely trying to tilt combat in U.S. favor to force the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong into a negotiated settlement. But the zealous communists never intended to compromise.

Obama is trying the same gambit in Afghanistan. His stated goal is to eradicate al-Qaeda and degrade, by the escalation of the U.S. military presence, the Afghan Taliban on the battlefield to such an extent that the United States can negotiate a better deal with them. The major problem with this strategy is that, unlike in Vietnam, Obama has signaled his intention to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in the summer of next year. So the zealous Taliban has every incentive to merely hang on and outwait Obama, who is already facing an unpopular war at home, much like LBJ and Richard Nixon did in Vietnam.

Moreover, even in the hapless Vietnam War, the U.S. government’s ultimate objective was clear—prevent the communists from overrunning South Vietnam. The purpose of this war is the president’s vague notion that Afghanistan, not Iraq, should be the central front in the war on terror. Why this is so is unclear. After all, the Afghan Taliban seems to have learned its lesson and is not allowing the training on territory it controls of al-Qaeda, the leadership of which has likely long moved to Pakistan. Furthermore, the hated U.S. presence in Afghanistan and U.S. drone strikes against the Pakistani Taliban—whose enemy is instead the government of Pakistan—have destabilized Pakistan and made real the possibility that Islamist militants could eventually take over the nuclear-armed Pakistani government.

Maybe equally as bad, the Pakistani Taliban, which had been confining its efforts to destabilizing the Pakistani government, is now assisting attempted terrorist attacks in the United States. As in Yemen and Somalia, the United States has made new Islamist enemies of groups that concerned themselves primarily with local issues. In the case of Yemen, the United States had just ramped up its assistance to the Yemeni government against local militants when they commissioned the underwear bomber to blow up a U.S. flight.

President Obama, like his predecessor George W. Bush, has dismissed the obvious link between U.S. occupations of Muslim countries in Iraq and Afghanistan and increased terrorism against U.S. targets, saying that there were no such occupations on 9/11. Of course, Osama bin Laden has repeatedly declared that his primary reason for attacking on 9/11, before, and since has been U.S. military intervention in and occupation of Islamic countries.

John O. Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser at the White House, has gone further and said that the administration’s drone attacks in Pakistan have thrown “these terrorist groups” off balance, hindering their attacks against U.S. targets. “Because of our success in degrading the capabilities of these terrorist groups overseas, preventing them from carrying out these attacks, they are now relegated to trying to do these unsophisticated attacks, showing that they have inept capabilities in training.” It failed to dawn on Brennan that the terrorist attacks wouldn’t be occurring in the first place without aggressive U.S. behavior in Islamic lands—for example, the motivation for the Pakistani Taliban-assisted Times Square bombing was clearly Obama’s escalation of the Bush administration’s drone attacks on Pakistani Taliban targets.

ivan-eland.jpgThe original purpose of the war in Afghanistan was to eradicate al-Qaeda’s base of operations in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda is now probably instead in Pakistan. The United States, with its nation-building wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, seems to be fighting everyone instead of focusing on those who attacked the U.S. on 9/11. The U.S. government’s inability to distinguish between al-Qaeda, with global ambitions, and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, with their local goals, has merely made more enemies, including those who would begin attacking the United States. How are Americans being made safer by this war?

Ivan Eland

This article first appeared in The Independent Institute and is republished with permis


  1. says

    As a prior comment notes, Afghanistan has lots of mineral wealth; however, the economics of retrieving it massively from land-locked Afghanistan, far away in the Near East, are daunting even in peace time. Western fascinations with Afghanistan as an open-sesame treasure trove go back a ways (note “The Man Who Would Be King”) but remain mainly delusional.

    Afghanistan likely will (at best) revert to the kind of polity which it long has been: not a conventional modern-Europe-style nation-state but a potentially stable coexistential network of tribes/regions (plus a so-called central government in Kabul and a few other places). Westerners like to put down the concept by tagging tribal/regional strongmen as ‘warlords’. However, compared with feasible stable alternatives, precisely what is so terribly wrong with this traditional coexistential model for Afghanistan?

    The article notes correctly that the more the USA intervenes, the more incentive exists for backlash (terrorist or other). However, that only half explains terrorism and like actions.

    Besides backlash, there’s also frontlash – terrorist (or other action) in support of affirmative (for those who hold them) agendas – and in particular fanatic Islamic supremacy agendas – whose existence and aims transcend whether the USA does or does not intervene.

    No one makes these agendas more clear, or pushes them with greater effect and intensity through alliances and client states through the Near East and beyond, than does the current Iran regime. Besides supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran and her ally Syria moreover send in squads to Afghanistan and Iraq to kill USA troops.

    However Obama doesn’t fight Iran’s killing of Americans or Iran’s drive to get nukes. As with Republicans at home, he is essentially a wimp, doesn’t like fights, believes that an endless indulgent quest for consensus will solve all problems with everyone. He does pretend to fight Iran’s nuke drive with maybe someday promises of delusional agreeable-to-everyone hurt-no-one sanctions – all in order to head off more effective actions.

    In the ultimate put-down of the dignity of foreign peoples and of their strongmen or other leaders, Obama’s folk have made it politically incorrect in the USA administration to admit that: (1) foreign peoples and regimes can and do have agendas of their own; (2) these agendas can seem ‘irrational’ to USA policy wonks; (3) these agendas can be unconditional – largely independent of what the USA actually does; and (4) some of these agendas are truly nasty for most of us. Even less do the Obami allow descriptive naming of some of these notable agendas, e.g. with terms like ‘fanatical Islamic supremacy’.

  2. says

    Let us back track a bit. The original purpose of the Afghanastan invasion was to “catch Bin Laden”–obviously an absurdity to think that this very wealthy Saudi would sit in a cave for 8 years or more. Then came the excuse of doing away with Al-Quaeda—all 100 of them ! No- where in the mainstream media, or even in the ‘liberal press’ has the matter of the mineral treasures available in Afghanastan been discussed (of course little has been said about Iraq’s oil ).A full discussion of the resourses within the country was discussed in the Financial News of Monday March 16, 2009 as per a Reuter’s dispatch <http://www.reuters.com/assets/print?aid=USTRES2F2AV20090316

    In short in the field of minerals,Afghanastan is the richest country in the region, much more, hundred of times more. You have all the other minerals that you find in nature, save for diamonds. This in addition to 25 million tons of oil in four basins. Why were the British in India and the Dutch in the Spice Islands?

    One should be interested in Professor Stephen Tanner Afghanastan. A Military History From Alexander The Great To The War Afainst The Taliban. One does not understand the total absurdity of the Obama administrations excuses of our attempted occupation without a background in the history and geopolitics.


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