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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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