Trump, Afghanistan and History

Photo by Jim Mattis | CC BY 2.0

United States President Donald Trump has issued his new strategy for Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history. Some of his speech sounds like recycled excerpts from presidents talking about Iraq or Vietnam. In all likelihood, the U.S. will be as ‘successful’ in Afghanistan as it was in those two countries.

Mr. Trump said that three things struck him as he studied the situation in Afghanistan. “First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made; second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable … third, and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense.”

We will dissect this statement, for both its historical and illogical content.

“First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made.”

In 1968, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon promised this:  “I pledge to you that we shall have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.” Seven long and deadly years later, international photographers captured the chaos and mayhem as Americans and their Vietnamese collaborators fled by helicopter, ship and any other means possible from the country, as the Communist forces declared victory after decades of war.  With over 55,000 U.S. soldiers, and at least 2,000,000 Vietnamese citizens (by conservative estimates), dead, the nation in ruins, effects from Agent Orange, the defoliant dropped on the country by the U.S. by the ton to remain for generations, there was nothing ‘honorable’ about the war except the eventual victory of the Vietnamese people over the mighty U.S.

In 2005, Melvin Laird, Defense Secretary under Mr. Nixon said this about Iraq: “Just because we get our force level down in Iraq doesn’t mean we can walk away or the losses we suffered will be in vain.” And Mr. Trump wants an “outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made.” Déjà vu all over again!

“Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable.”

Without planning, they are certainly predictable; the U.S. exited Vietnam in a big rush. And they are probably unacceptable to a president with an ego that dwarfs even that of the highly insecure Democrat Lyndon Johnson, whose deadly six years in office were focused mainly on Vietnam, and whose policies there caused him not to seek the full term for which he was eligible, after his first elected term concluded.

One would think, however, that a plan could be developed to remove 8,500 U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan. The government – mainly the Taliban – would be more than happy to see them go, so if the U.S. were to make a proposal for their departure, there is no sensible reason to believe it would be rejected. The chaos that characterized the end of the Vietnam War could be avoided.

“Finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense.”

This writer admits to being puzzled. Continued involvement in Afghanistan only fuels greater hatred of the U.S.; not because of its cherished and more or less mythical freedoms, but because it keeps killing people indiscriminately. This increases security risks. Perhaps, and here’s a novel idea, the U.S. could peacefully depart from Afghanistan, and begin trading with that country. There seems to be a great deal of trade in the opium ‘industry’ going on now; certainly, some more respectable products could be exchanged between the two countries.

These were not the only pearls of wisdom that fell from the great orange lips. Mr. Trump also said this: “America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress”.  Again, we can look back to the Vietnam War for another parallel. President Nixon instituted a program he called ‘Vietnamization’, the goal of which was to “expand, equip, and train South Vietnam’s forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops”. This was not feasible in Vietnam in the 1970s, and is not feasible in Afghanistan today. As Kevin Boylan wrote in the New York Times on August 22, 2017:  “In South Vietnam itself, however, popular support for the war was always halfhearted, and a large segment (and in some regions, a majority) of the population favored the Communists”. The Vietnamese people were not about to fight against their own best interests, regardless of what the U.S. thought or wanted.

The same is true in Afghanistan. How many Afghani soldiers, who have experienced 16 years of U.S. violence, are going to want to fight on the U.S. side? It is the rare Afghani who has not experienced the loss of a loved one to U.S. bombs. The ‘determination and progress’ Mr. Trump wants to see is unlikely to materialize.

Christopher Kolenda, the senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the oddly-named Department of Defense (it was originally called the War Department, a much more realistic and honest title) from 2009 to 2014, has said that the Afghanistan government’s inability to retake any territory controlled by the Taliban is “unlikely to change appreciably as long as both sides have international support.”

The U.S. government, which only recently decided to stop assisting terrorist groups in Syria, has, with Mr. Trump’s speech, decided to continue fighting an unwinnable war. The outcome is predicable: more deaths of U.S. soldiers; many more deaths of Afghanistan civilians – men, women and children; more hatred engendered against the U.S.; an eventual realization under some president that, much as the so-called ‘defense’ industry in the U.S. loves the war, because it is a lucrative market for its products, it is pointless for any other reason; the decision to leave Afghanistan, followed quickly by panicked departure of all U.S. personnel, with their Afghani collaborators mostly left behind to suffer the consequences of their treasonous acts.

Mr. Trump didn’t favor his audience with specifics of his plan, but reports now say that he will increase the number of soldiers in Afghanistan by 40,000.  When President George Bush decided in 2007 to send an additional 21,500 soldiers to Iraq, he avoided the term ‘escalation’, which had gotten quite a negative connotation during the Vietnam War. This, he said, was merely an ‘augmentation’.  Sometimes, he referred to it as a ‘surge’; Pentagon planners, ever creative if nothing else, called it a ‘plus-up’. Thus far, no clever turns-of-phrase have been adopted for Mr. Trump’s as yet not detailed plan; it will be interesting to see what it turns out to be.

Regardless of phraseology, it is business as usual in the U.S., as the nation continues its long tradition of mass murder against nearly defenseless people.

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Robert Fantina’s latest book is Empire, Racism and Genocide: a History of US Foreign Policy (Red Pill Press).

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