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June 08, 2011

George Kennan’s Advice on Afghanistan
Posted by Jacob Stokes

KennanAs President Obama decides the size of the July 2011 troop drawdown, he’ll need to take a step back and think big-picture strategy. He'll need to balance the realities of the conflict, as well as America’s current posture, with American priorities worldwide and at home. In short, he’ll have to ask: Is the current strategy for battling transnational terrorism and ensuring stability in South Asia achieving our goals at a reasonable cost?

My colleague Michael Cohen has written eloquently about the need for more big-picture strategic thinking in American government. So I thought I’d look back at what George Kennan, legendary State Department director of policy planning and author the containment strategy that won the Cold War, might have advised. Nicholas Thompson’s outstanding “The Hawk and The Dove” pulls some thoughts that Kennan had on the Vietnam war which apply here: 

On prolonging a conflict to prevent a blow to American prestige, Kennan said: “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.”

On getting native populations to fight for themselves: “if [host populations’] morale is so shaky that without an offensive strategy on our part they are simply going to give up the fight, I do not think they are worth helping anyway. And, as for the question of our having a moral obligation to them, they have had enormous help from us to date. I mean, goodness, they have help in the billions and billions of dollars. How many countries are you going to give such a claim on our resources and on our help? If they cannot really do the trick with this, I feel strongly that the trouble lies somewhere with them and not with us.”

(Photo Credit: Middlebury College)

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It was not just doves like George Kennan that opposed the Vietnam War, but also his hawkish counterpart Paul Nitze, who thought that Vietnam was a strategically unnecessary war.

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As a 26 year Retired Air force Vietnam veteran, I think the way we are fighting this war is wrong at many levels. Our strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan appears vague, endless and rittled with unclear or unrealistic goals while the engagement goes on draining our precious manpower and financial recourses. In Vietnam, we underestimated the staying power, skill, ingenuity and willingness to die of the enemy. Quite simply, they outlasted us in a long protracted war of attrition in which they were willing to sacrifice considerably more casualties than the United States. North Vietnam taught us how the wars of the future were going to be fought, limited with different definitions of victory.
First; in order to be successful against our enemy, we need to mobilize the nation with a mandatory two year service, (without college deferments). Presently, less than one percent, (military), of the population of this nation bears the burden and sacrifices which is strategically and morally wrong. This has weakened our military and created a false sense of security, while the rest of the country hardly knows a war is going on. Our country has never fought a war without a mobilization, which rightly places the burden on all Americans. Moreover, we have never used Reserve and National Guard forces in place of a draft, as we are doing in the so called back door draft policies implemented by the Pentagon since 2001, further weakening our military and home emergency needs..The purpose of those forces was to act as a temporary fill in until the draftees were trained. and came on line for use in war.
Second; in order to achieve our goals, we have to hit them with overwhelming force then move on to the next base camp. Occupying Arab countries for long periods of time is suicidal in this new equation since our culture and religions are so diametrically incompatible to each other and Al-Qaida cross borders at will. The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan require the ability to gather intelligence, kill the enemy, better the lives of the people and set up self rule, and get out as soon as possible.
Third; in 2001, we took down the Taliban in Afghanistan with CIA and Special Forces units together with the Northern Alliance and the Warlords that we could win over against the Taliban. I suggest our strategy should be to let the present Afghan government stand up to bat, or, let the Taliban force their bloody rule as before and keep a force of CIA and Special Forces deployed and wait for the Afghan people and Warlords to rise up to throw out the Taliban ,( as we are beginning to see in the Taliban controlled regions of NW Pakistan), then implement our successful tactics of 2001 In the meantime, concentrate hitting Al- Qaida base camps with hit and run ground and heavy air support. Any other plan will incur heavy American loses because Afghans and the Warlords will not tolerate any foreign standing army. We cannot impose democracy on a land living in the eight century and ruled by feudal lords. Graduated increases building up to a large standing Army will only result in a bloody, endless unsuccessful entanglement. These deficiencies needed to be dealt with six years ago but were surrendered to the political expedience of the President and military leaders who should have remembered the lessons of Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan and any standing army since Alexander the Great.
Moreover, I ask you why the Powell doctrine was ignored in regards to Iraq and Afghanistan and to this day is not applied to the present request to increase troops to Afghanistan? The traditional American idea of a victory is impossible to achieve, since it would take millions of boots on the ground and then victory would be questionable without the full support of the Afghan population. In the meantime concentrate hitting Al- Qaida base camps with hit and run ground and heavy air support. Any other plan will lose because the Afghans and the Warlords will not tolerate any foreign standing army. We cannot impose democracy on a land living in the eight century and ruled by feudal lords. Graduated increases building up to a huge standing army will only result in bloody and an endless unsuccessful entanglement.
In the words of Gen William Westmoreland, on the Vietnam War, “When the President and his administration failed to level with the American people about the extent and nature of the sacrifice that had to be made; they contributed to a credibility gap that grew into an unbridgeable chasm. A low key approach (no draft or one with college deferments), means that some make sacrifices while most do not, and even those who make no sacrifice dislike it because their consciences trouble them. IF A WAR IS DEEMED WORTHY OF THE DEDICATION AND SACRIFICE OF THE MILITARY SERVICES, IT IS ALSO WORTHY OF THE COMMITMENT OF THE ENTIRE POPULATION." (A Soldier Reports, p500,). He also warned about the failure of graduated response, the failure of waiting too long to pursue the enemy into Laos and Cambodia (i.e. make it known we will destroy the attackers of 9/11 wherever they are, including Pakistan). These are just some of the lessons learned from the last insurgent war that we fought.
My son just completed his second tour of duty to the desert. How many more sons and daughters will have to serve innumerable combat tours before the rest of the sleeping public wakes up to the seriousness of the situation. Our enemy has millions of fresh recruits to draw from while we have exhausted the military heroes who are just trying to do their job. How much longer are we going to fill the VA hospitals with new young injured veterans that have to compete with limited VA funds to treat veterans of previous wars, as they slowly bleed us? I hope we wake up before it’s too late. We must change our policy in this insurgent war or face the cold reality of history lessons forgotten.
Gerard Cefalu USAF RETIRED

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