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Afghani delusions

Barack Obama and Stephen Harper are extending an unwinnable, pointless war.


On July 14, 1965, as the US marched into Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson stepped into a White House staff meeting. "Don't let me interrupt," the American president said. "But there's one thing you ought to know. Vietnam is like being in a plane without a parachute when all the engines go out. If you jump, you'll probably be killed, and if you stay in, you'll crash and probably burn." Two weeks later, Johnson ordered 100,000 more troops to Vietnam, bringing the total number there to nearly 200,000. Within three years, more than half a million Americans would be fighting, killing and dying in what Johnson knew was a stupid, unwinnable war.

That story came to mind last week when the US, Canada and other NATO countries announced they were officially extending their war in Afghanistan for at least three more years. Bob Woodward's latest book Obama's Wars shows why that extension won't work. Woodward writes that in September 2009, Barack Obama received a secret report from Stanley McChrystal, then commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. It warned that the war was going so badly that without huge increases in troop levels, the US and NATO could be defeated within a year. "The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials," McChrystal wrote, "have given Afghans little reason to support their government."

Woodward writes that other US officials also told Obama the war was a mess. Senior advisor Richard Holbrooke warned that sending more troops would help the Taliban because contractors moving supplies had to pay the Taliban protection money for safe use of the roads. Holbrooke also cast doubt on plans to increase Afghan forces to 400,000---160,000 police and 240,000 soldiers. He said drug addiction and desertion were common among the Afghan police. Twenty-five percent were dropping out every year, a figure higher than the level of new recruits. Doubling the force to 160,000 would be impossible. "It's like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it," Holbrooke said. Douglas Lute, a retired army general and senior adviser told Obama even if the US spent tens of billions of dollars over 10 years, it probably could not fashion the Afghan army and police into an effective fighting force. Nevertheless, Obama has decided to press ahead with plans to train the Afghan army and police to take over the war, a strategy that failed miserably in Vietnam.

Woodward's book portrays an American president who worries daily about a terrorist nuclear attack on an American city or a massive "cyber" assault on US banks, power grids or telecommunications lines. After his first intelligence briefing two days after he was elected, Obama told an aide: "I'm inheriting a world that could blow up any minute in half a dozen ways, and I will have some powerful but limited and perhaps even dubious tools to keep it from happening."

No wonder Obama pressured Canada to stay on in Afghanistan. It's supposed to be a Canadian training mission but, as military affairs columnist Scott Taylor told CTV, we should ask why, after nine years, Afghan forces aren't ready to fight on their own. Taylor noted that foreign-trained Afghan military and police are often seen as a "monster," shielding a corrupt central government.

"And now to hear that we're going to create a bigger monster for a longer period of time is very disappointing," Taylor said.

Lyndon Johnson's presidency crashed and burned in the Vietnam war. Here's hoping that the politicians in Washington and Ottawa will also be forced to pay for their recklessness in Afghanistan. But don't count on it. Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals all support an extension of the war. It is our soldiers as well as the Afghan (and Pakistani) people who will continue to pay the price for this stupid, unwinnable war.

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