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President Lyndon Johnson, whose record on civil rights, Medicare, the “war on poverty” and the environment made him one of the most progressive leaders in American history, destroyed his legacy by sinking the country ever deeper into the Vietnam War. President Barack Obama risks doing the same by refusing to summon the courage to end America’s fruitless and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In October 2011, the White House famously declared (1), “President Obama has ended the war in Iraq . . . this moment represents more than an accomplishment for the President. It marks a monumental change of focus for our military and a fundamental shift in the way that our nation will engage in the world”.
Afghanistan was next on the promised list of ended wars. In January 2014, Obama boasted (2), “When I took office, nearly 180000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq. . . . With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over”.
Instead, Obama is making our longest wars last ever longer. This May, as the corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad continued to lose ground to the Islamic State, President Obama told Congress (3) that he was extending a “national emergency” because the situation in Iraq continued “to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”. Since then he has reintroduced about 3000 troops (4) to Iraq, about the same number (5) the Kennedy administration had in Vietnam in 1961.
Now President Obama has executed the same reversal in Afghanistan, announcing that he will retain 5500 combat troops in the country through the end of his second term. Since Taliban forces routed far larger numbers of Afghan troops in the northern city of Kunduz in September, the administration concluded that government forces “are still not as strong as they need to be”, in Obama’s words. “In key areas of the country the security situation is still very fragile and in some places there’s risk of deterioration”.
He won’t get any argument about that. After more than 14 years and a U.S. investment of more than $65 billion (6), the Kabul regime still cannot command reliable support across much of the country. The Taliban now enjoy their greatest reach since 2001 (7). Government forces are suffering record casualties (8). Rampant corruption, human rights abuses, and resentment toward foreign troops all feed steady Taliban gains.
As the New York Times reported (9) recently, “faith in the government and the warlords who were allied with the government, never strong, has rapidly diminished. Militias and Afghan local police forces installed by the American Special Forces . . . extorted protection money from farmers, and committed rapes and robberies. . . . Over time, as villages threw their lot in with the Taliban, the insurgents’ cordon around Kunduz grew tighter. By last year the city felt so under siege that police officers were resistant to driving in a marked government vehicle for fear a Taliban fighter on a motorbike would slap a magnetic bomb on it”.
The situation in Afghanistan is frighteningly reminiscent of South Vietnam decades ago : completely untenable. Politicians know it today as they knew it then.
In a May 27, 1964 phone conversation (10) with President Johnson, his dear friend, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, famously warned that sending more troops to Vietnam would “be the most expensive adventure this country ever went into. . . . It doesn’t make much sense to do it. . . . We’re in the quicksands up to our very neck.” Johnson knew it, but said, “I don’t see any other way out of it”.
Johnson remembered how Republicans had beaten up the Truman administration for “losing” China. To avoid political pain at home, he simply refused to admit defeat abroad. As he told Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in November 1963, “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went”.
So, like a gambler who can’t bring himself to admit he has a losing hand, Johnson doubled down, costing the lives of countless Indochinese and some 58000 Americans.
Like Johnson President, Obama publicly claims, without a shred of evidence, that the failure of Afghan government forces “would endanger the security of us all”. Behind such rhetoric, his policy is based on the same fundamental premise that guided Johnson : he won’t be the first American president to lose a war in Afghanistan or Iraq.
His policy is just as bankrupt in 2015 as Johnson’s was in 1965. Obama doesn’t offer any credible plan to win in either country. Unlike Presidents Johnson and Nixon, he doesn’t even offer any promises of negotiating an honorable settlement at the peace table. He is simply and transparently kicking the can down the road for his successor.
New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who himself is deeply ambivalent about the wisdom of intervention, noted recently (11) that Obama’s ambition to reduce America’s military footprint in the world has proven “unthinkable because most Americans are still hard-wired to American exceptionalism, the notion that America is not America if it gives up on spreading liberty.
“So it becomes hard to find a foreign-policy language that’s aligned to reality but does not smack of "declinism" —fatal for any politician. Republican bloviating about "weakling" Obama notwithstanding, any future president will face this foreign-policy dilemma : The distance between America’s idea of itself and what it can plausibly achieve is widening”.
Doing the right thing is “unthinkable” only because Obama has never made the case to the American public that U.S. security is not fundamentally threatened in either theater, and that no reasonable investment of soldiers or money will change dynamics on the ground. Obama’s failure to reframe the issue traps him into taking ownership of both wars and continuing them indefinitely.
His failure comes at a high cost today and in the future. The direct budgetary impact of our ongoing intervention in Afghanistan alone will be at least $15 billion a year (12). In addition, U.S. air strikes and night raids will continue killing hundreds of innocent civilians (13) —like the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz— turning the population ever more against the alien forces in their midst.
President Obama, it must be acknowledged, is simply following the advice pushed on him (14) by the usual bipartisan Establishment suspects —the likes of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, President Bush’s National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and his own former Defense Secretaries Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Lacking any personal military experience or deep foreign policy background, Obama finds it hard to resist such advice. He made the same mistake when he listened to General David Petraeus and others who sold him on the Afghan “surge”. But if 100000 troops couldn’t win the war against the Taliban, 5500 certainly won’t.
Some proponents (15) of continued military intervention claim the aim is no longer victory over the Taliban but continued drone strikes and commando raids against newly emerging Islamic State and al-Qaeda forces. The reality is that the longer the United States continues intervening in the Islamic world, the more it will continue contributing to the growth of radical, militant Islamists. Left to their own devices, the Taliban are more likely than the United States to be able to suppress such foreign rivals.
President Obama missed the opportunity to cut America’s losses early in his first administration, before taking ownership of the wars bequeathed him by President George W. Bush. Now that he is a lame duck, with no electoral challenges facing him, he could do the right thing for the country and his successor by pulling the plug on our failed military interventions and, as promised in 2011, begin a “fundamental shift in the way that our nation will engage in the world”.