President Obama’s Tenure Will be Seen as Confused, but Well-Intentioned


by Edward Luce

President Barack Obama banned all references to the Vietnam war when discussing Afghanistan, according to the late Richard Holbrooke. The latter, who died on the job in 2010 as Mr Obama’s “AfPak” envoy, is poised to return from the grave in a moving HBO documentary, The Diplomat . Its premiere next month is one of those ironies of timing. Holbrooke made it plain that Mr Obama’s time-limited Afghan surge could not work. US troops would be stretched too thin for too short a time to stabilise the country. The White House froze him out. Last week, Mr Obama implicitly conceded Holbrooke’s point. US troops will now stay on in Afghanistan beyond the end of his presidency. Who knows where that will end?

Parallels with the war in Vietnam may be overdone. At its height in 1968, the US had more than half a million troops there. Mr Obama will keep the existing 9,800 US troop level in Afghanistan for most of the next year. Just under 2,500 US soldiers have so far lost their lives there against almost 60,000 in Vietnam. Yet there are troubling echoes. In Saigon, as in Kabul, the US struggled to shore up an ineffective civilian government against a single-minded guerrilla enemy. President Ashraf Ghani’s Afghan government may be less corrupt than his predecessor Hamid Karzai’s — and far less venal than the succession of US-backed strongmen in Saigon. But there is still no Afghan air force worth mentioning. Meanwhile, the US-trained Afghan army is as prone to desertion as ever. Nobody trains the Taliban. It continues to reclaim territory across the country.

More importantly, there is no credible end game to Mr Obama’s new plan. That headache will be inherited by his successor. This is where the Vietnam parallel strikes hardest. South Vietnam was where Holbrooke began his career. As the thrusting young diplomat kept telling his superiors, America refused to grasp that the loss of thousands of lives was not justified by its national interest. Unless it could stop outside powers, notably the USSR and China, from fuelling the Viet Cong insurgency, it would lose. The same applies to Afghanistan. There is no Afghan strategy worth the paper it is written on without a plan for turning Pakistan into a real partner. Holbrooke insisted his job include both countries. AfPak must be weighted equally. Mr Obama cited Afghanistan 28 times in his address last Thursday. He mentioned Pakistan twice.

Why should this latest Afghan plan have a greater impact than earlier ones? The answer is that it will not. Nor is it meant to. Mr Obama’s partial reversal is aimed at shoring up the highly fragile gains of the 14-year US presence. His decision was pressured by military commanders — notably John Campbell, the head of US forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban are making territorial gains, Gen Campbell told Congress earlier this month. There is also evidence Iran is now funding the Taliban to fight off Isis, which is rapidly spreading its franchise to Afghanistan. Does that make Iran an ally or an enemy? That is a hard one to answer. Whatever it is, Afghanistan threatens to turn into the new Syria — except that it is the US, rather than Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with its boots on the ground.

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SOURCE: Financial Times