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Learning the Limits of Military Power

By Kevin Osborne · December 2nd, 2009 · Porkopolis

Quick: Tell me why U.S. and NATO troops are in Afghanistan.

If you say it’s to retaliate for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and destroy the government that allowed the rural nation to serve as the launching pad for the bloody offensive, well, that’s already been accomplished.

If you say it’s to prevent the Taliban or a similar governing body from regaining power once we leave, well, there’s absolutely no guarantee that won’t occur whenever we depart — whether it be next year, 2015 or even 2050. Having a military presence in the nation is doing almost nothing to change the mindset that’s prone to accepting a fundamentalist, jihadist government.

And if you say it’s to help keep the more radical elements of Afghanistan out of neighboring Pakistan and protect its more moderate government, which wields nuclear weapons, that’s probably the best argument. But even then, such a goal will require a decidedly political and diplomatic solution to take hold and military force will only play a supporting role, one that hopefully won’t be needed.

It’s disappointing, then, that President Obama has granted a request from his military commanders to commit another 30,000-35,000 troops to the Afghanistan War for an indefinite time. Obama outlined his plan in a live presidential address Dec. 1. Although advisers say the president is trying to reassure the American people there would be “no endless U.S. commitment,” he won’t establish any deadlines and, in fact, announced that at least some new Marines will be in place by Christmas, a mere four weeks away.

Obama spent more than three months reviewing his options in Afghanistan, after Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal — the top commander there — told the Pentagon in late summer that more troops were needed to turn around the deteriorating situation.

“This is not an open-ended commitment,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told the Associated Press a day before the presidential address. “We are there to partner with the Afghans, to train the Afghan national security forces, the army and the police so that they can provide security for their country and wage a battle against an unpopular insurgency."

Talk about deja vu.

Those are almost the exact goals outlined by President Lyndon Johnson when explaining what U.S.

troops were doing in Vietnam in 1965. They’re also the same goals expressed by the second President Bush for Iraq circa 2004.

After many growing pains, the Iraqi government seems more or less stable, at least for now. Hawks can spin it however they like, but we clearly lost in Vietnam despite an eight-year war and a loss of more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers, about 4 million Vietnamese and nearly 2 million people in nearby nations.

The lesson to remember from either of these situations is this: After all was said and done, the U.S. military presence wasn’t the deciding factor in the way matters eventually played out.

We stayed in Iraq and, yes, perhaps played a role in maintaining internal security while the government sorted itself out and got better organized. In my opinion, that would’ve occurred regardless if we surged or not, depending on whether the political will existed among the Iraqi leaders. Iraq’s long-term stability remains in question and will, no doubt, be decided by the Iraqis themselves.

In South Vietnam, the nation fell to the Communists as feared as part of the dreaded domino theory, and its population suffered through some brutal regimes for awhile. Although horrible for the Vietnamese, the situation had little impact on the United States and no real impact on the Cold War, in which the U.S. eventually prevailed.

Once Vietnam was unified, its people ultimately grew tried of communism’s deficiencies and embarked on economic and political reforms in 1986. By the mid-1990s, while technically still a socialist nation, it certainly wasn’t beholden to the ideology any longer.

You might think “All’s well that ends well,” but tell that to people who lost friends and relatives in those wars. Better yet, tell that to soldiers who survived with mental or physical injuries.

Recently disclosed telephone conversations between Johnson, his military advisers and Congressional leaders were spotlighted on PBS. One after another, the 1964-65 chats revealed Johnson knew it was impossible to “win” in South Vietnam without a huge escalation that simply wasn’t going to happen, but he didn’t want to pull out altogether for fear of appearing weak and damaging the U.S. reputation. How many times have we heard that justification?

Incredibly, LBJ supported a moderate troop increase while basing his strategy on hoping that something — anything — miraculous would happen, like the South Vietnamese getting better organized.

It makes us feel safe to think our military force can sway the world but, at best, it’s a short-term backstop while longer-term solutions are crafted. With that in mind, it should be deployed on a much rarer basis. It could be argued persuasively that many of the U.S. military troops in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq over the decades lost their lives needlessly. It doesn’t lessen the heroism of their sacrifice to analyze the necessity of their mission.

The cost of keeping our troops in Afghanistan is about $1 million per soldier each year, or almost $100 billion annually with the surge. Think about spending that amount per person to develop a more sustainable economy on the homefront and create more jobs. The mind boggles.

Enough time has passed that we can safely say it now and stop equivocating: The Obama honeymoon is over. So far, the supposed reformer has fallen far short of his self-proclaimed goals and his performance ranks as “fair” at best.

Ranging from his gutless revisions to the Patriot Act and halfhearted changes to terrorist detainee policies to tepid Wall Street reforms and scattershot health care reform efforts, Obama needs to stop trying to please everyone — ain’t gonna happen, no matter what — and regain the focus from his campaign.

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