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'Ain't no education in the second kick of a mule'

COMMENTARY | February 11, 2009

Military affairs writer George Wilson sees Defense Sec. Gates as being on a mission to keep Congress, the White House and the Pentagon from repeating mistakes of the past in Afghanistan.

By George C. Wilson

Formerly secret intelligence reports give a valuable insight into why Defense Secretary Gates has so vehe­mently warned Congress not to try to Americanize the war against terrorists in Afghanistan.

Recall that Gates, whom former President George W. Bush named to succeed the polarizing Donald Rumsfeld as Defense secretary in December 2006, was a fully cer­tified intelligence professional for almost 27 years and thus read, if not wrote, top-secret reports detailing the Soviet Union’s disastrous occupation of Afghanistan.

He took the mistakes the Soviets made to heart and considers it as one of his missions as President Obama’s carryover Defense secretary to keep the Congress, the White House, the Pentagon and the armed services from repeating them.

“The Soviets couldn’t win that war with 120,000 troops and a completely ruthless approach to killing innocent civilians,” Gates said last month in his first ap­pearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee as Obama’s man at the Pentagon. “They had the wrong strategy. They were regarded properly as an invader.”

While he supports Obama’s plan to double the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan from roughly 34,000 to­day to about 60,000 as soon as practical, this Defense secretary — who is now freer than ever to speak his mind because he is probably in his last government post, and glad of it — is making it clear to Congress and presumably the commander-in-chief that he believes going much beyond the 30,000 U.S. troop surge would be a bad idea.

“Above all,” he told the Senate committee, “there must be an Afghan face on this war. The Afghan people must believe this is their war and [that] we are there to help them. If they think we are there for our own pur­poses, then we will go the way of every other foreign army that has been in Afghanistan.” He said he is pon­dering how to put “an Afghan face on every single one of our operations. How do we get them [the Afghans] out in front so that the villagers see that it’s their army we’re helping. It’s not us kicking down their door.”

So what would Gates consider success in Afghanistan? The unfettered Defense secretary gave his answer to the House Armed Services Committee late last month: “I believe our goals in Afghanistan have to be more near-term and more modest,” apparently contrasting his vision for Afghanistan to Bush’s unrealized goal of making Iraq a glittering, stable de­mocracy in the middle of the seeth­ing, unstable Middle East. “I would define success in Afghanistan as a situation where it is no longer a source of terrorist threat or extrem­ist threat to the United States or our friends or allies. Much has to be done to create that kind of end state. But I believe that we should be cautious in having very long term, very idealistic aspirations and rather focus on what we think we actually can accomplish within the next three to five years.”

Thanks to the National Security Archive at The George Washington University, inspired by former Washington Post reporter Scott Armstrong, many of the formerly hush-hush U.S. intelligence reports which shaped Gates’ views on Afghanistan are available to the public. The Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, wrote in 1983 that “the effect of the Soviet occupation of Afghan­istan has been catastrophic for the development of the Afghan economy.” Another formerly secret intelligence report that applies to U. S. forces in Afghanistan today states: “Given the mountainous terrain and numerous passes throughout the border area, we believe that even with a few additional divisions the Soviet force level would be too small to stem insurgent infiltration appreciably. Although the Soviets can drive insurgents from an area temporarily and will occasionally score victories against individual bands, they will be unable to establish control over much of the country. Soviet estimates of the force necessary to seal the border with Pakistan have varied from nine to 17 divisions.

“We do not believe the Soviets foresee an early ‘vic­tory’ in Afghanistan or have any compelling reason to seek one,” continued the formerly secret intelligence report on the Soviets’ 1979-89 occupation. “In our view, they probably cling to the hope that — despite the dis­mal results thus far — their efforts to buy support for the Kabul regime, rebuild the Afghan armed forces and seek converts by promoting social and economic re­forms will eventually bear fruit.”

Sound familiar? It should to any government official or general who tried to quell the insurgencies in Viet­nam and Iraq. In both those conflicts, U.S. presidents eventually — after thousands of U.S. and civilians lives were lost — concluded that the only way to get American troops out of the quagmires was to hand the counterinsurgency wars over to the native armies. Will Obama listen to Gates, our first Defense secretary who is truly an expert on what can and cannot be done in Afghanistan, or follow President Lyndon Johnson’s di­sastrous path and keep throwing American troops into the quagmire in pursuit of “victory?”

As one who saw the Vietnam and Iraq wars up close as a combat correspondent who humped around with small American ground units, I find my­self agreeing with the late House Armed Services Chairman Men­del Rivers, D-S.C. He often said: “There ain’t no education in the second kick of a mule.”

This column first appeared in National Journal’s CongressDailyAM. It appears here with permission of the author.

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