Friday 24 June 2011

President Obama has learnt the lessons of Vietnam

Many have reason to doubt President Obama's reasoning when he announced a systematic draw down of US military personnel fighting in Afghanistan. The unease from military chiefs in the US and at home is clear for all to see. President Obama, with one eye on next year's election, has taken a practical political decision over a military problem. David Cameron and William Hague's certainty over when British fighting men and women will be home is equally pragmatic. If only this kind of decisiveness had always guided the mission in Afghanistan we might have been able to bring the troops home far sooner.

Since the quagmire of American involvement in Vietnam the US media, political elite and voters have been led by a desire not to get caught up in 'another Vietnam'. In the 1950s and 1960s, while the US faced a formidable Cold War opponent in the Soviet Union,  decision making over involvement in 'foreign wars' - as they were inevitably described - was heavily weighted toward a policy of intervention. Vietnam changed that making the US much more risk adverse.

Until Vietnam, America was used to winning wars and winning well. Definitive ends to conflicts allowed politicians to justify the sacrifices made. Since Vietnam victories have been far less easy to claim. Iraq (1 and 2), Somalia, the Balkans and now Afghanistan (maybe Libya too) have meandered along until the political leadership lose faith in the project, get uneasy about the casualties or just cannot picture what a victory will look like.

While the US still feels wounded by its involvement in Vietnam, those in power don't appear to have learnt by the mistakes made in getting dragged into that conflict which was in essence a civil war. This meant that setting an over-riding mission or objective to work to was impossible. The allies involvement in Afghanistan has been similarly ill-defined.

In his book examining the many mistakes that littered the decision and policy making around America's involvement in Vietnam, the then Defence Secretary Robert McNamara lists the major causes for, as he calls it, the 'disaster in Vietnam'. From defining the mission, setting clear objectives and ensuring sound communication within and between governments. A majority of these seem equally applicable to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan:
-We misjudged the intentions of our adversaries and exaggerated the dangers of their actions;
-We saw in [our allies] a determination to fight for freedom and democracy. We totally misjudged the political forces within the country;
-We underestimated the power of nationalism [for Afghanistan Islam] to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values;
-Our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of history, culture, and politics of the people in the area;
-We do not have the right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose;
-We failed to recognise the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment. We failed as well to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture;
-We failed to recognise that in international affairs there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions;
-We failed to analyse and debate our actions - our objectives, the risks and cost of alternative ways of dealing with them - and the necessity of changing course when failure was clear.

For all of these reasons it looks to me that President Obama has made the right choice to bring the troops home.

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