Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

No enthusiasm for this war

COMMENTARY | December 20, 2010

If the American public isn't behind the war effort, then it won't succeed, writes William Astore. And if the war in Afghanistan isn't going to succeed, then isn't it time to withdraw?

By William J. Astore

In grappling with Afghanistan, President Obama and his team of national security advisors reveal a tendency all too common within the Washington beltway: privileging fleeting and reversible signs of local success while downplaying endemic difficulties and larger patterns of strategic failure. Our latest intelligence estimates, we are told, show signs of progress. But of what sort? The Taliban appears to be extending its hold in the countryside, corruption continues to spread in the Karzai government, and the Afghan National Army remains unreliable, all despite (or rather because of) prodigious infusions of cash courtesy of the American taxpayer.

The president and his advisors would do well to toss aside the latest "feel good" intel and pick up a good book on war. I'd recommend Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective, by Colonel (later, Lieutenant General) Dave Richard Palmer. "One of the essential ingredients of [national] preparedness," wrote then-Colonel Palmer in 1978, "is a diligent and honest study of the past, an intellectual examination of historical successes and failures." True to his word, Palmer quoted Major G.P. Baldwin, who wrote in 1928 of the Russo-Japanese War that:

The [Russian] government, the press, and the people as a whole had no enthusiasm for the war, indeed failed to understand what the nation was fighting about ... Such support is necessary in any war ... Unless the people are enthusiastic about war, unless they have a strong will to win it, they will become discouraged by repeated [setbacks] ... no government can go to war with hope of success unless it is assured that the people as a whole know what the war is about, that they believe in their cause, are enthusiastic for it, and possess a determination to win. If these conditions are not present the government should take steps to create them or keep the peace.

Palmer cited these words at the end of his probing account of America's defeat in Vietnam. Though I don't agree with all of Palmer's conclusions, his book is stimulating, incisive, and compelling in its concluding vow: "There must be no more Vietnams."

Let's consider the points that Baldwin and Palmer raise in light of today's situation in Afghanistan. Are the American people enthusiastic for this war? Do they have a strong will to win it (assuming the war is winnable on terms consistent with our interests)? Do they know what the war is about (this seems unlikely, since nine out of ten Americans can't seem to locate Afghanistan on a map)?

If the answer to these fundamental questions is "no," and I believe it is, shouldn't our government and our troops be withdrawing now? Because I don't see that our government will seek to mobilize the people, mobilize our national will, tell us clearly what our cause is and why it is just, and persist in that cause until it is either won or lost. And if I'm right about this, our government had best work to "keep the peace."

Some of the reasons Palmer cites for why Vietnam was such an "incomprehensible war" for the United States bear careful consideration for President Obama's policy review. These reasons include that few Americans knew exactly why we were fighting in Vietnam; that it was a "limited war" during which most Americans "sensed no feeling of immediate danger and certainly no spirit of total involvement"; that no "unifying element" was at work to suppress internal doubt and dissent, common elements in all wars; that the struggle was not only (or even primarily) a military one but one in which economic, political, and psychological factors often intruded; and that a cultural gap of great perplexity separated us from both our in-country allies and our enemy, a gap that "foment[ed] mistrust and misunderstanding."

In light of these points, Afghanistan may qualify as a new "incomprehensible war." Let's not be distracted by the minutia of the latest intelligence reports and their uncertain metrics of "success." Unless we can give convincing answers to General Palmer's questions and points - and unless we can wage a war that doesn't entail destroying the Afghan village in order to save it - our only sound course is expedient withdrawal, followed by a renewed vow: There must be no more Vietnams - or Afghanistans.

(Crossposted from huffingtonpost.com.)

Posted by Michael Valentine
12/21/2010, 02:59 PM

The two lessons learned by the MIC from Viet Nam were avoid a draft and control the message to the people.

So we have back door drafts of "volunteers" and for the first time extensive use of mercenaries at four times the cost of uniformed troops. So no draft to upset the people.

When I was a kid we had solders and Marines dying in my living room on the nightly television news. Now days and weeks go by and no news about the war.

And any reports that we do get are from "imbedded" reporters approved and briefed by the Pentagon who usually are retired field grade or flag grade retired officers. This program has been called a domestic propaganda program but that couldn't be because it would be illegal.

Finely the subject of the cost of the wars. Taxes are the bane of politics of today and so ... we are putting the entire bill on the cuff so the kids can pay it off. I hope they appreciate our efforts on their behalf.

So it's no draft to upset the general population. No pictures of dead Americans laying in the sand and no taxes to pay for the war efforts.

The perfect no pain war for the general American public.

What is needed is a clear cut Peace Candidate for the next Presidential election.

Posted by Don Capps
12/21/2010, 03:59 PM

Contrary to what is being offered above, very few (if any) embedded reporters in the theater have much in the way of ANY military experience, much less being retired flag or field grade officers. While the "talking heads" used by the various news organizations as analysts tend to be retired flag or field grades officers, this is simply not the case when it comes to reporters.

Indeed, I am sure that the DoD wished that they actually had as much control over those reporters as Mr. Valentine supposes that they have over reporters covering the actions in the theater. After the debacle regarding the restrictions placed on press coverage during Desert Shield/Desert Storm, DoD found a middle ground that worked fairly well.

Lt Col (Rtd) Astore does pose what does seem to be an unpleasant fact for many: the lack of enthusiasm for the war in Afghanistan. There are many reasons for it, of course, but there is certainly a not much attention or enthusiasm for the war in SWA in general, not just Afghanistan.

As someone in those Vietnamese rice paddies that Mr. Valentine recalls watching as a child on the evening news, it was interesting to see that Lt Col Astore reached back to pull off the shelf the now largely-forgotten book that LTG Dave Palmer wrote in the late 70s. While I have not read the book in detail since about the time I graduated from C&GS (1987), I do remember skimming it several times in the 2002/03 timeframe as the push for invading Iraq was reaching its fever pitch. More than a few of us kept bringing up Afghanistan as business that needed to be addressed and soon: leave or be stuck there for a very long time.

No prize for guessing how that went....

On Protracted War
Posted by tarquinis
01/12/2011, 12:49 PM

In Afghanistan we are fighting what is called a “Protracted War” in military theory. If you may not know what this refers to, google “On Protracted War” and read just a bit. But if this is too much trouble, here is a hint. It is the antithesis of what may be called a war of quick decision, where combat results in any particular battle are important.

Politics are the core element of the conflict, and perseverance. Mao tse-Dung (who wrote "On Protracted War") believed the theory that "weapons decide everything” constituted a mechanical approach to the question of war and is a subjective and one-sided view in instance of irregular and asymmetric conflicts, especially on the Asian mainland.

He saw not only weapons and the strength of armies, but also people. Weapons are an important factor in a Protracted War, but not the decisive factor; it is people, not things that are decisive.

The enemy attacks, we withdraw. The enemy camps, we harass. The enemy withdraws, we pursue.

And as for the Pashtun (Taliban) most reside in eastern Pakistan, where they outside of occasional Predator drone strikes with Hellfire missiles have a largely inviolable strategic sanctuary, a major predicate for an ultimately successful Protracted War. The more we kill, the more they hate our guts.

And so it is in Afghanistan. To be sure, there are many differences between China in the 1930’s, or Vietnam, and the Afghanistan conflict today, but it is the similarities that will be of consequence.

Logistically, it is a battle at the end of the world (landlocked central Asia) that is estimated in direct costs alone to be about one million dollars per man in country per year, and where a single gallon of gasoline, at delivery to one of the FOBs in Afghanistan, costs about $400 per single gallon! All borrowed and added to our deficits, because no American would agree to pay war taxes to cover this massive expense.

Reason is a weak sister compared to raw and inflamed emotions. I have a favorite quote on this from Edward Gibbon. He wrote: (appropriately from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire): “It is well known that, while reason embraces a cold mediocrity, our passions hurry us with rapid violence over the space, which lies between the most opposite extremes.”

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.