President-elect Obama has committed himself to stepping up the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is not an overstatement to say that he will risk his whole presidency, and perhaps even unwittingly put nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists who might use them to attack the United States, if he leaps too far into neighboring Pakistan in pursuit of elusive victory.
The rub, as the Vietnam and Iraq wars showed us all, is unintended consequences. Our military leaders can, and almost certainly will, make a strong case to Obama that there is no way to defeat the Taliban and their allied tribes in Afghanistan without cleaning out their sanctuaries just over the Afghan border in Pakistan.
I can hear frustrated U.S. commanders on the ground in Afghanistan making the same kind of argument to Obama’s team tomorrow that I heard yesterday in Vietnam when I was a combat correspondent there.
I could empathize with this lament, for example, that I heard in 1968 from a 9th Division infantry battalion commander, whose mission was to rid his area — South Vietnam’s rice bowl, the Delta — of the stealthy Viet Cong guerrillas:
“I can have my kids chase the Viet Cong all day and all night. But whenever they catch up to a good number of them, they just run over the border into Cambodia where we can’t go. All I’m really doing down here is buying time with my kids’ lives for the diplomats to settle this thing.”
His was among the impressive military arguments I heard for either invading Cambodian border sanctuaries or getting the United States out of the otherwise unwinnable Vietnam War.
President Lyndon Johnson resisted invading Cambodia. He had concluded that this would only widen the war, infuriating an already skeptical Congress. Early on in Johnson’s presidency he confided to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, but not the public, that he saw the war as a no-win. Secret tapes of Johnson’s conversations, since made public, document him saying this to McNamara on Feb. 26, 1965: “I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing, and I don’t see any way of winning.”
His successor, Richard Nixon, who took office in 1969 after the Vietnam War had ruined Johnson’s presidency, including his dream of building a Great Society, rushed into Cambodia where Johnson had feared to tread.
First, Nixon authorized, without telling the public, secret bombings of Cambodia, which had tried to stay neutral. Then on April 30, 1970, Nixon announced he had ordered the invasion of Cambodia with U.S. and South Vietnamese troops to “clean out” the enemy’s border sanctuaries.
Now think “Pakistan” to hear the same ring. Four days later — on May 4, 1970 — National Guardsmen killed four student anti-war protesters on the campus of Kent State in Ohio.
Those two events, coming right on top of each other, mobilized anti-war lawmakers in Congress to curb the president’s war-making powers and to cut off the money the South Vietnamese army needed to continue fighting the war after U.S. troops left the field under Nixon’s Vietnamization strategy.
The military defeat Johnson had feared all along, without saying so publicly, came in 1975 when Communist North Vietnam conquered capitalist South Vietnam.
Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, even though his announced purpose was just to clean out the border sanctuaries, contributed to Cambodia’s political turmoil.
The invaders also failed to achieve the military objective of finding and destroying the Communist headquarters in Cambodia known as COSVN for Central Office for South Vietnam.
The Communist Khmer Rouge in the aftermath of the invasion toppled the pro-American leader of the country, Lon Nol, and wiped out the upper classes in a bloodbath that some reports estimated murdered 2 million Cambodians. Again, unintended consequences.
Fast forward to Pakistan today. President Asif Ali Zardari, husband of Benazir Bhutto, a Muslim moderate who was assassinated in December while campaigning in parliamentary elections, is already complaining about U. S. military strikes against alleged al Qaida and Taliban targets in Pakistan’s border regions.
An American-led ground invasion of Pakistan under the same “clean out” rationale Nixon used could cause such political turmoil that the bad guys might get their hands on one or more of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates Pakistan has at least 60 nuclear weapons.
Imagine a worst case scenario of terrorists sneaking just one nuke into New York City and setting it off at lunch hour. Thousands of people could be incinerated, skyscrapers toppled and the air poisoned for years.
The Bush administration, Congress and the media have been rightly faulted for not worst-casing the American invasion of Iraq before it was ordered in 2003. History warns that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Obama needs to look long and hard at the worst unintended consequences of leaping into Pakistan. While he’s at it, the new president should consider what would happen if U. S. forces captured or killed Osama bin Laden. Osama’s deputies would feel compelled to retaliate against the United States in a spectacular way. Does Obama want another 9/11? Better to keep American fingerprints off the deed if it is done.
GEORGE C. WILSON is a veteran national security reporter.