By John Isaacs
Since he was first elected in 2008, President Obama has been committed to ending the wars that began under his predecessor. That pledge translated to withdrawing U.S. troops completely from Iraq and Afghanistan.
That commitment has faltered in both countries under the pressure of events overseas and political pressure at home “to do something.”
In the face of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s charm offensive at the end of March in the U.S., the President announced an abandonment of his plan to draw down the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan from 9,800 troops to 5,400 by the end of this year. Now, the Obama Administration has decided to maintain the current troop levels through the end of 2015.
While many politicians have applauded the President’s decision, it is clear that Obama and his team are ignoring the lesson of Vietnam – to say nothing of Iraq.
The Vietnam War should have taught us that a large foreign military force can transform a genuine problem into something worse. The United States spent billions of dollars to train and build an army in a foreign land whose culture we did not understand and where few Americans spoke the language. We went there with apparently noble intentions: to fight Communism, and to bring democracy and a better life to the people.
The United States armed forces left after years of fighting and dying. A couple of years afterwards, the army that we had supported to the tune of many billions of dollars and years of training collapsed in the face of a highly motivated force. An army built more on loyalty to the nation’s leaders than on competence collapsed, with many units dissolving and leaving their weapons behind.
A government focused on retaining tight control of the levers of power rather than building a pluralistic society that might have brought strong support found itself inadequate to the challenge.
The US sacrificed over 50,000 American lives in Vietnam, and an unknown number of Vietnamese civilian casualties; by some accounts that number reaches almost half a million. At the peak of the conflict, US troop levels were over 500,000.
We repeated the mistake in Iraq. That war claimed 4,500 American lives and, according to one study, 500,000 Iraqi lives. Linda Bilmes, a Harvard expert in public finance, estimated that the total cost of the Iraq war will be between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. After President George W. Bush signed an agreement to withdraw American troops, a withdrawal completed in 2011, the Iraqi Army could not stand in the face of the ISIL onslaught, despite the American investment in lives and treasure over the course of almost a decade.
The war in Afghanistan has gone on even longer, over 13 years. Nevertheless, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement, “the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, should be determined by conditions on the ground…” If U.S. fighting, training, and arms could not build a stable government capable of confronting the Taliban after 13 years, there is no reason that two more years will make any difference. If Senator McCain’s advice is followed, the United States could easily stay in Afghanistan forever.
House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said, “Everyone looks forward to the day when Afghans can meet all of their own security needs…” Chairman Thornberry has hit the nail on the head here. The Afghans must meet their own security needs. With the lives of 2,355 American troops lost and over 20,000 wounded in action during these past 13 years, it must be accepted that America has done all it can for Afghanistan on the military front.
However, Members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, are using the same language that was used during the Vietnam War: We just need more troops and more time and more money. The biggest piece of “evidence” pointed to by advocates for maintaining troops in Afghanistan is the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, in Iraq and Syria. The reasons for the rise of ISIL are complex, and it is pure hubris to think that simply having American forces stationed in Iraq would have prevented the disaster of ISIL, which began in Syria.
Lieutenant General Robert G. Gard, Jr. (USA-Ret.) and Brigadier General John Johns (Usa-Ret.) both had long and distinguished careers in the U.S. Army. Their prescient advice given in 2005 on Iraq could be similarly applied to Afghanistan:
“It is time to cut our losses. We should begin to disengage early in 2006, after the Iraqi elections scheduled for this December. The withdrawal of U.S. troops should be orderly and phased, but prompt, and coordinated in advance with our allies and Iraqi officials . . . There may well be some negative con-sequences as a result of withdrawing of U.S. troops, but fewer, we believe, than if we continue on the present course. Ultimately, the United States will be stronger if we leave the quagmire that is Iraq to resolution by its own citizens.”
The United States failed to learn the lesson of Vietnam.
The United States failed to learn the lesson of Iraq.
Here we go again.