Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Obama on Afghanistan

I caught the last half of President Obama's speech on Afghanistan. I'm glad the decision has been made and there will be no more discussion of "dithering." I'm not all that thrilled with sending another 30,000 troops, but I am reluctantly supportive. Part of my rationale is that I trust Obama has thought this through thoroughly, and has weighed all of the options carefully. The other part of my rationale is that I basically agree with him, much as I don't want to.

There have been many comparisons of Afghanistan with Vietnam. Newsweek looked at the question of whether or not Vietnam was winnable. I don't think that's the right question. I think there are two questions about Vietnam that I haven't seen discussed much: 1) how was it related to WWII, and 2) So we lost - so what?

First, on the WWII question. American armies have a reputation for "fighting the last war," and supposedly that's what we did in Vietnam. But thinking about WWII also sheds some light on why we were there in the first place.

From the perspective of 40 years, it seems ridiculous that we were even in Vietnam. It's a small country thousands of miles away from us - what was the threat? Even the domino theory seems strange and absurd. I understood Vietnam when someone once explained something about California politics in the 1950's. California was conservative in the 50's because people were worried about war with China. That sounds absurd today - China is a large country, but it's also technologically years behind us. It's also across the Pacific ocean.

But so was Japan. In the 1950's, the idea of waging war across the Pacific was very plausible and scary. China was allied with Russia, which had a large military presence in Europe. A sea war in the Pacific, a land war in Europe - in the 1950's, that scenario was strongly reminiscent of WWII, except that Russia and China are both much larger than Germany and Japan. In that context, going to war in Vietnam makes more sense.

Which leads to the second question. We lost, but so what? We now have diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Cambodia went Communist, but no other countries in southeast Asia did. We lost the war in Vietnam, but, in retrospect, we didn't have to fight it at all. We won the ideological war. Of course, we didn't know that in the 1960's, but it's useful, I think, to realize that we won even though we lost.

I am confident that we will win the war against Islamic extremism, just like we won the war against communism. But while fighting in Vietnam was a result of thinking about a WWII-like scenario, Afghanistan is the mirror image of Vietnam. We know that al Queda is, in fact, a direct threat to us. As Obama pointed out in his speech, we are not fighting a nationalist insurgency. Even the geography is radically different: arid mountains vs. jungles.

The key difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan is that, while Vietnam was mostly self-contained, the war in Afghanistan has potential repercussions for its neighbors. Al Queda is in Pakistan, which, unlike Iraq, does have nuclear weapons. Pakistan also has an ongoing, unresolved border conflict with India. India has its own history of sectarian violence and terrorist attacks. India also borders China, and has differences with that country. To the west, Afghanistan borders Iran, quite the hotbed these days. Iran, of course, is developing nuclear weapons, is threatening Israel, and borders Iraq.

The war in Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan, or even the "war on terror." It could very easily spill into another country. It is already spilling into Pakistan.

But there are also positive developments. We are getting along much better with Russia these days. Turkey is a stable country with increasing influence in key areas, particularly Kurdistan. There may be a change of regime in Iran in the near future. If that happens, many things could change quickly, hopefully for the better. Saudi Arabia is very worried about all of this, and might make a dramatic move. We might capture Osama bin Laden. Gitmo will hopefully be closed soon.

We won the Cold War despite making a lot of incredibly stupid mistakes, like fighting in Vietnam. We have, are, and will continue to make many mistakes fighting Islamic terrorism. I don't think Obama's decision to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan is one of them. At least I hope not.

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