Letter From Kabul

Over the weekend, George Packer got an e-mail from Rufus Phillips, a foriegn policy expert who has written at length about Vietnam and recently spent some time in Afghanistan. The text of the e-mail:

I’m afraid the President, who seems like a supremely rational being, is trying to find the most rational policy option on Afghanistan, without thinking about whether it is feasible given political conditions on the ground, as well as who is going to implement it and how. What seems the most rational option here could be likely unworkable over there.

This is part of what happened to President Johnson during Vietnam. He relied exclusively on policy ‘experts’ who understood military and geopolitical strategy in the light of World War II and Korea, but who had no direct experience combating a ‘people’s war,’ while underestimating the North Vietnamese and misunderstanding the importance of the South Vietnamese, who were treated as bystanders. His advisers constructed strategies whose feasibility never got tested by those who knew Vietnam first hand. Pure reliance on the chain-of-command was disastrous in Vietnam because much of the most relevant information, the nuances which counted, could not be fully described in writing and were strained out as information flowed to the top. At a minimum, [General Stanley] McChrystal and [Ambassador Karl] Eikenberry, who have that first-hand knowledge, should be sitting in these strategy sessions.

I don’t see evidence of any real political thinking about how to deal with Karzai and the local political scene, no matter what option is selected. As we swing between counterproductive table pounding and passive non-interference, we must muster the will to interfere quietly but firmly when we are on solid moral groundstanding up for the Afghan people and for principles of honest governance.

My Afghan friends tell me as soon as he is confirmed, Karzai is going to launch a big initiative on talks with the Taliban, which are not likely to go anywhere if he leads them. Are we thinking that if we cede territory to the Taliban because they promise not to let Al Qaeda back, we will be able to hold an imaginary line, including Kabul, with the Afghan and international forces we will have? What will that tell the Afghan people, except to signal ultimate abandonment? And how will that affect their support for the Taliban to avoid being killed or severely punished?

I just have an uneasy feeling that this is too similar to the policy discussions Johnson went through, except those were mainly out of public view and these are not. The whole notion that we can speed up the training of the Afghan armed forces and this will do the job is unrealisticanother numbers game. I guess not being in the meetings puncturing balloons is what is really frustrating me. That and the fact that nobody seems to factor in our moral obligation to the Afghan people. We abandoned them twice. Will this be the third time? What does that say about us? It seems more convenient to equate Karzai with the Afghan people. Maybe it will all come out for the bestbut the process, and what I see from the outside being discussed so far, doesn’t pass my gut check.

The outcome of the Afghan struggle is ultimately going to be determined not by our unilateral actions or geopolitical moves, but by whom the Afghan people wind up supporting, even reluctantly. VietnamLesson One.