Friday, October 16, 2009

If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You Might Not Get There

A week or so back a story came out in the WSJ reporting the president had just finished reading Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.

The book's narrative arc concerns a White House "being marched into an escalating war by a military viewing the conflict too narrowly to see the perils ahead," urged on by a hyperbolic Pentagon that saw commies under coffee tables while committing unbelievably basic mistakes on the ground. As the story goes, Tom Donilon (a long-time Biden ally), the deputy national security advisor, gave Rahm Emanuel a copy of 'Lessons,' then Rahm went to pass it on the prez but learned he was already reading it, so he loaned it to David Axelrod. Obama passed his own copy on to Biden, whereupon it became required reading for all of Washington and sold out of bookstores. It still must be back-ordered on Amazon.

The Pentagon, now hyperventilating about islamo-fascists under coffee tables, prefers a different narrative arc, one conveyed in A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. This work has the US military finally figuring out how to apply COIN principles and win, which it was manifestly starting to do by 1971-72, only to have its plug pulled after 8 previous years of patient learning and sacrifice, all wasted by a White House too focused on political gain. Various generals have been pressing the book on their subordinate chains of command since 2005, the WSJ article relates, and it is currently sold out at Amazon.

The broad lines of debate are exposed. Regular readers (Jon in particular) might expect me to dump on the military's choice of exemplar, but not in this case. Creighton Abrams took over Vietnam's command from William Westmoreland in 1968 and promptly switched the strategic focus to protecting villages from incursion and training a truly effective indigenous army (ARVN). Abrams was one of the best military minds in the 20th century in both combat and command, and given a couple more years' head start and 500,000 men, he probably would have succeeded in at least partitioning Vietnam's narrow isthmus. The book is an excellent choice on which to base an argument of COIN and see-it-through.

The White House's book is similarly well-chosen, in that its focus is on McGeorge Bundy, one of the so-called "best and brightest" or "wise men" in the Kennedy Administration, in which he served as National Security Advisor. Having been born to one of Boston's elite families and pledging as member #322 of the Skull and Bones society while at Yale, he was tapped at age 30 to serve on the Council of Foreign Relations while the Marshall Plan was being implemented in Europe as an anti-communist firewall. From there he went to serve as Harvard's youngest ever Dean of Faculty. In the Kennedy Administration, he was an outspoken hawk for escalation, but was first of the early hawks to change his mind and advocate cutting the losses. Like the current think-tankers paid to wind up generals, airwaves and representatives, Bundy knew nothing about war's conduct. He had never studied it.

The arcs don't apply particularly well because Afghanistan is far larger, less stable, more permeable, hostile, and diverse than Vietnam. Afghanistan is a failed state starting from a point of near-zero cohesion, whereas Vietnam had two systems of governance, each entertaining useful thralls of competing ideologies, each on the cusp of establishing a post-Colonial national identity. In Kabul, no one collects the garbage, the Karzai government huddles behind sandbags collecting drug money while it piles higher, and every time the author of a strategic plan relieves themselves on a toilet in the US embassy and flushes, they literally shit on the city's residents. The city's sewage system is its streets.

The Obama Administration's only strategic goal in Afghanistan is to simply contain al-Qaeda, which has already been accomplished. They're re-fighting Vietnam while al-Qaeda openly blossoms orange and red in Pakistan, and it seems that Vietnam is aiming too high.

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