A recently discovered piece of Vietnam War history has new meaning today. At the same time that Richard Nixon was telling the public that the US air war in Vietnam was “very, very effective,” privately he was saying the opposite. He wrote Henry Kissinger on January 3, 1972: “K. We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam. The result = Zilch. There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force.” Nixon demanded a report within two weeks explaining this “failure” (http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/documents/national/read-nixons-zilch-note-scrawled-on-a-1972-top-secret-memo-to-henry-kissinger/1768/).
We are now witness in Afghanistan to the same scenario: public lies, private doubts. While the US military is reassuring the public that Afghan forces are up to the task of defeating the Taliban, the situation on the ground is anything but reassuring. Afghan government forces are in retreat, the ISIS organization in Afghanistan (many are former Taliban) is expanding operations, al Qaeda and Taliban forces remain strong, and US drone strikes continue to hit civilian targets. Obama has now officially abandoned hope of withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan before his terms ends, and instead will maintain several thousand there. The “endless war” he sought to avoid is a reality—something he should have foreseen, and for all we know did foresee, years ago.
These setbacks come at a time when the Middle East is in total chaos. The Russians are bombing in Syria, striking not only ISIS but also US-supported anti-Assad insurgents. A third intifada is looming in Israel. Hundreds of thousands of people are seeking refuge in Europe or in neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, that are already overwhelmed with refugees. Egypt’s “spring” has been replaced by military repression, while in Turkey repression and discontent are on a sharp rise. Yemen, Iraq, and Libya are sunk in civil war. In some respects the Middle East resembles proxy battles of the Cold War era, with Russian-aligned forces (Iran and Syria) clashing indirectly with US-backed forces (Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia). But ISIS, which continues to advance despite bombing, is the horrific wild card that makes analogies with the Cold War inaccurate.
When is the US government going to come clean with the public about its limited options and limited capacity to move events in the Middle East? If 17,000 NATO troops, including over 9,000 US soldiers, cannot help defeat insurgents in Afghanistan, can fewer troops and more drone strikes do the job? When will the administration acknowledge, if only in the privacy of the Oval Office, that aligning with dictators and autocrats (as in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan) cannot advance the cause of democracy and human rights, and in fact can only abet repression? How many civilian massacres and refugees will it take before the President finally decides that the US cannot resolve anything by force (“zilch,” in Nixon’s vocabulary), and that the human interest and common sense dictate a political settlement?
Particularly disturbing at this critical moment of US decision making is the number of former US officials who have lined up behind continuation of the current policy. As reported by the New York Times on October 14 (www.nytimes.com/2015/10/14/world/asia/obama-is-rethinking-pullout-in-afghanistan-officials-say.html), a policy paper produced by the Atlantic Council urges Obama to stay the course. The paper’s signatories include Madeleine Albright, Chuck Hagel, Stephen Hadley, Leon Panetta, and John McCain—a stellar “bipartisan” list. Quite a few former US ambassadors to Afghanistan and other senior US officials have also made known their opposition to abandoning Afghanistan. Thus, Afghanistan is blessed with a substantial number of lobbyists who seem incapable of thinking beyond war.
As I have argued in previous posts, the time is long past to come clean on Middle East policy—to bring pressure on Israel to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinian Authority on a just peace; to work with Russia and Iran on a multiparty political settlement in Syria, even if that means temporarily accepting Bashar al-Assad’s continuation in office; to accept many thousands more Syrian and other Middle East refugees than is currently planned; and to give highest priority to assisting Kurdish forces in and outside Syria who are the most effective fighters against ISIS. A US approach to Middle East problems that is comprehensive rather than compartmentalized, stops the pretense that bombing and more weapons aid is a solution, and is willing to work with all parties that can help bring violence to a halt is the only approach worthy of our support.