“With hindsight, it seems evident that the costs of the strategy of preventing defeat were incalculable. But at the time of the crucial decisions, the costs of accepting defeat appeared to be incalculable. The system in this case coped as democracies usually do: by compromising between extreme choices, satisfying the partisans of neither extreme of opinion within the government but preventing the total alienation of either.”
The above paragraph has been taken from a book on US involvement in Vietnam, entitled “The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked,” published in 1979. The thesis of almost all the previous postmortems on this war was that the US lost the Vietnam War because of the failure of its foreign policy decision-making system; however, according to Gelb and Betts, the writers of the abovementioned book, while the war itself was an abject failure for American foreign policy, the US decision-making system actually functioned as it was meant to, throughout the period of increasing US involvement in the war. But, wrong decisions were made.
Donald Trump’s speech on August 21 carried strong echoes of Gelb and Betts’ work, as he recommitted the United States to an open-ended, ill-defined military mission in Afghanistan. Trump’s advisors – Gen. James Mattis, Gen. John Kelly and Lt. General H. R. McMaster – have successfully convinced him that all the other options on Afghanistan were worse. His speech underscored the capitulation of his nativist populism to conventional Washington thinking. More importantly, it demonstrated how Afghanistan has quietly emerged as America’s new Vietnam. Indeed, the wrong decision-making has taken another toll as the President agreed to an approach which largely hopes to prevent losses. As Taliban forces continue to rack up military and political gains across their country, no serious expert can possibly believe that a continued US intervention will deliver “victory.” Sixteen years of experience show that almost every US tactic has not only failed, but backfired.
Just as policymakers did in Vietnam, Trump is fiddling with tactics without asking the broader strategic questions. To be precise: Is it actually a key US interest today to stabilize Afghanistan and prevent further Taliban gains?
Certainly, it would be better for everyone if Afghanistan were stable, prosperous and democratic. But it is substantially harder to argue that it is a core US interest. The key arguments in support of this proposition are questionable.
Indeed, the idea that an Afghanistan without US military presence will result in future terror attacks is so misleading that scholars have described it as the ‘safe haven myth.’ Terror groups operating out of ‘safe havens’ have been responsible for only 1% of the terrorist attacks on the United States; 9/11 is an extreme outlier.
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