View Full Version : Afghanistan and the Left

03-17-09, 08:42 AM
MARCH 17, 2009

Afghanistan and the Left

It was probably inevitable that the American left would turn sharply against the war in Afghanistan the moment it was politically opportune. Still, the speed with which it has done so has been breathtaking.

Time was when the received bipartisan and trans-Atlantic wisdom about Afghanistan was that it was the necessary war, the good war, the no-choice-but-to-fight and can't-afford-to-lose war, and that not least of everything that made the invasion and occupation of Iraq such arrant folly was that it distracted us from "finishing the job" in the place where the attacks of 9/11 were conceived and planned.

This was the wisdom candidate Barack Obama was merely regurgitating when, in an August 2007 speech, he promised that his priority as president would be "getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan." True to his word, he has now ordered the deployment of 17,000 additional soldiers to that battlefield.

So why are the people who cheered Mr. Obama then (or offered no objection) now running for the exit signs? Why, for example, is New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, the paper's reliably liberal tribune, calling Afghanistan a "quagmire" -- after denouncing the Bush administration in 2006 for "taking its eye off the real enemy in Afghanistan"?

Call it another instance of that old logic, reductio ad Vietnam. That's the view that every U.S. military action lasting more than the flight time of a cruise missile is likely to descend into a bloody, stalemated, morally and politically intolerable Sartrean nightmare.

Tellingly, the phrase "another Vietnam" seems to have first appeared under the byline of New York Times reporter C.L. Sulzberger, who opined on August 31, 1969, that "chances are" that the only kind of war in which the U.S. could become involved in the future "is another Vietnam." Times change, but not at the Times.

Since then, "another Vietnam" has served as the left's ideological totem for military interventions in Lebanon, the Falklands (for Britain), Nicaragua and Central America generally, the first Iraq war, Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan right after 9/11, the second Iraq war, and now Afghanistan again. Maybe Grenada and Panama, too.

Of course, none of these interventions was "another Vietnam." Some turned out well, some badly, some had mixed results and for some the verdict isn't yet in. Each was its own circumstance. At the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, the U.S. was losing soldiers at a rate of 1,300 a month. At the height of the Iraq war in 2007, losses averaged 75 a month. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is currently losing about 15 a month. A body count should never be the decisive metric of failure, but if this is what now constitutes "quagmire" then the U.S. may as well declare itself a neutral power, vote the Ron Paul/Dennis Kucinich ticket in 2012 and never fight another foreign war for any reason.

What are the circumstances that define Afghanistan today? Yes, the Taliban is "resurgent," but mainly in the sense that militarily it is marginally more effective now than four years ago. Yes, much of the countryside is unsafe, but the cities, for the most part, are not unsafe.

Corruption is rampant and President Hamid Karzai is feckless, but he is legitimate and Afghanistan has seen far worse. The system of electing representatives and appointing governors is dysfunctional, but at least there's a system. NATO was much too slow in training and equipping the Afghan army and police, but now they are being trained and equipped. The poppy trade is flourishing and provides the Taliban leadership with considerable income, but they are as unpopular as ever.

And so on. The real heart of our Afghan problem lies in our expectations of what this primitive and riven country is ever likely to become. The achievement of the past seven years lies mainly in what Afghanistan has not become: To wit, a safe haven for some of the worst people on earth.

That's no small thing, though selling Americans on what amounts to a negative achievement will not be easy. (Just ask George Bush about all the credit he gets for no new 9/11s.) Nor will it be easy for Mr. Obama to sell his rank and file on an Afghan surge after he did such a terrific job as a candidate of trashing the Iraq surge. Congratulations, Mr. President: You've got a war to sell.

Which brings us back to the left. Much will never go right in Afghanistan, but that doesn't mean things couldn't be a lot worse. For instance, Joe Biden can continue to trash Hamid Karzai, as Jack Kennedy trashed Ngo Dinh Diem. Or we could pursue a talk-and-fight approach to the Taliban, as Lyndon Johnson did with North Vietnam. Or the antiwar movement of the present could give encouragement to our enemies in the Middle East that they can bleed America into withdrawal, as a previous generation of peace activists encouraged Ho Chi Minh.

In that case, Afghanistan really will turn out to be another Vietnam and the prophesies of the left will be (self-) fulfilled. The sequel to this movie, by the way, is called "The Killing Fields."

Write to bstephens@wsj.com