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The Goldilocks Principle and Afghan War Options

Maybe the Iraq debacle has dulled our senses but there should be something stunning about a general at this late date requesting 40,000 to 80,000 more American soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan.

A piece in yesterday's New York Times by Peter Baker and Helene Cooper reported that all of the U.S. military options for Afghanistan that President Barack Obama is currently contemplating include some kind of troop escalation. "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates appears to be supportive of the middle option," they write. This search for a military option that nestles agreeably between too much force and too little has a familiar ring to it.


During the debates among President Lyndon Johnson's top advisers about whether to escalate the U.S. military commitment in Vietnam, Undersecretary of State George Ball famously invoked the Goldilocks principle: One military option would be too hard, one too soft, and one just right, yet all of them increased the United States role in the war. The Goldilocks principle seems to have infected the current discussions now going on between Obama and his advisers regarding Afghanistan.

  • Option A: Give General Stanley McChrystal everything he wants including 40,000 to 80,000 more ground troops -- Too Hard.
  • Option B: Listen to William Polk and other experts and begin extricating U.S. forces to end what most Afghans view as a foreign occupation -- Too Soft.
  • Option C: Pour in 25,000 to 30,000 more U.S. troops while emphasizing "political" and "economic" development, "anti-corruption" measures, and the possibility of negotiations -- Just Right.

George Ball later reflected on this period when escalating U.S. military power in Vietnam seemed like a good idea:

"I have always marveled at the way ingenious men can, when they wish, turn logic upside down, and I was not surprised when my colleagues interpreted the crumbling of the South Vietnamese government, the Viet Cong's increasing success, and a series of defeats of South Vietnamese units not as proving that we should cut our losses and get out, but rather that we must promptly begin bombing to stiffen the resolve of the corrupt South Vietnamese government. It was classic bureaucratic casuistry. A faulty rationalization was improvised to obscure the painful reality that America could arrest the galloping deterioration of its position only by the surgery of extrication." (Quoted in George McT. Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam, 1986, p. 275)

Maybe the Iraq debacle has dulled our senses but there should be something stunning about a general at this late date requesting 40,000 to 80,000 more American soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan. General McChrystal's recommendation for more troops and material has a distinctly Westmorelandian flavor to it. If approved, it could create an additional $40 to$80 billion per annum in war costs relating to the American effort in Afghanistan.

Congress has not only bequeathed to the Executive Branch its war powers but has apparently handed over its purse powers as well. If President Obama approves McChrystal's maximal request, as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, and other war hawks demand, it will be an enormous drain of resources in a time of great economic hardship. And it will be rammed through without any significant public debate even though polls show the American people soured on the Afghanistan project long ago.

Any argument that states that American military "success" in Afghanistan is dependent upon some type of action taken by the "Afghan government," such as "weeding out corruption" or "taking responsibility for its own internal security," etc. should not be taken seriously.

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What we call "corruption" they understand as normal operating procedures. Training an Afghan security force to serve as a proxy for American and NATO troops, like Nixon's "Vietnamization," is not only expensive and time-consuming but it is destined to fail because among the recruits will be people who are opposed to the foreign military presence. They'll work hand in glove with "the enemy." It's already happening. According to Juan Cole the Pashtun majority in Afghanistan is already put off by the Tajik minority's strong presence inside the security forces.

Last month, Zbigniew Brzezinski told the Rand corporation that recruiting security personnel from the ethnic regions to police their own people is desirable but he didn't say whether this arming of various ethnic groups could produce clashes between them. William Polk, in his "open letter" to President Obama, compared Afghanistan to "a rocky hill sliced by gullies and covered by 20,000 Ping-Pong balls" each representing an "autonomous village-state," and urged him not to escalate the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

A recent forum in The Nation magazine presented pragmatic ideas about where U.S. policy should go if we wish to avoid getting bogged down in a debilitating conflict that could last for decades. Among the panelists Robert Dreyfuss advised Obama to enlist the diplomatic help of "Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to bring key elements of the three interlinked insurgency movements -- the Taliban, the Hezb-i-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network -- to the bargaining table."

(In the 1980s, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group received more CIA cash than any other mujahideen outfit fighting against the Soviet occupation. Today, his paramilitary guerrillas are killing Americans. If we could arm him then we can negotiate with him now.)

Along side the "options" calling for varying degrees of military escalation there must be at least one that calls for withdrawal. The public and the Congress must become more actively involved in the Afghanistan debate and demand that the Obama administration formulate an exit strategy that can be implemented quickly after the current "surge" inevitably fails.

The Vietnam years demonstrated that Goldilocks options will go on for as long as the public tolerates them. At some point we must demand that Congress use its power over the purse to apply the breaks to this runaway train.

Joe Palermo

Joseph Palermo

Originally published by the Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author