For those of us of a certain age, it’s hard to believe it has been 50 years since Walter Cronkite warned us that we were on our way to a draw in Vietnam. “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion,” he said after returning from a reporting trip to Vietnam in 1968. I was on the cusp of 16 at the time. That means the war in Afghanistan has been going on longer than I had been alive when Cronkite declared there would be no American victory in southeast Asia.
Are we nuts?
Cronkite was wrong, of course. There was no stalemate to be had in Vietnam. After what he said was needed—a negotiated settlement—it took only seven more years for North Vietnam to conquer the South. And so what of it? A half-century later, top U.S. officials pay regular visits to Hanoi (Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made his first-ever visit there in January). The Pentagon’s budget contains funding to help Vietnam deter China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. Commerce between the two nations hums. I’ve lost count of how much apparel I’ve bought from U.S. companies that now carry a “Made in Vietnam” label.
But enough about yesterday. Today, it’s hard to believe that a young American getting her driver’s license this year has lived in the shadow of the U.S. war in Afghanistan her entire life. What does that teach her about her country, and its military?
I reflect on my oldest son, Jonathan. While going to school in Boston in 2004, I relished the opportunity he got to take to Kenmore Square and celebrate the Boston Red Sox as World Series champs. As a good father, I was elated (but admittedly envious that I’d never gotten the chance when I went to school there 30 years before).
His reaction was expected. What was unexpected (by his old man, anyway) was what happened seven years later. Living by then in downtown Washington, D.C., he and thousands of his Millennial cohort stormed the White House as word got out that Navy SEALS had killed Osama bin Laden. “You don’t understand, Dad,” Jonathan told me later, after I expressed surprise that he’d joined the crowd surging in celebration toward the Executive Mansion. The al Qaeda leader’s post-9/11 survival, he said, had clouded his teen-age years and those of his friends.
That same sort of pall sits across the U.S. as the war in Afghanistan is in its 17th year. But today’s war—by some measurements the longest in U.S. history—isn’t Vietnam, at least for Americans.
How and why did this happen? Retired Army general Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, detailed the problem in the November-December 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs. “The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban regime that was hosting it. The overarching goal was always to protect the United States by denying terrorists a safe haven in which to plan and train, but over time, the mission grew,” he wrote. “Eventually, it came to include the establishment of an Afghan nation that defended its own sovereignty, embraced democracy, educated women, and cracked down on opium production.”
American hubris is always amazing to see, especially in hindsight.
“Only” 2,297 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan. The low number of combat deaths (save for their families, where one is always too many)—and the fact that relatively few Americans know anyone in a military uniform—have turned the war into a kind of white noise humming in the background. For most Americans, it’s kind of like a baseball season where your favorite team has been knocked out of the running by the mid-season All-Star break, so you’re no longer that interested in the pennant race.
Lacking a draft or a war tax to pay for the $1 trillion (so far) Afghan conflict, there is little public push for a resolution. Candidate Trump declared in 2012 that “Afghanistan is a complete waste” and that it was time for U.S. troops “to come home.” But President Trump changed his mind, opting to continue down the forlorn path blazed by his two predecessors.
The Trump administration has recently criticized Pakistan for playing a double game in Afghanistan. Bully for it! But those assaying the war from inside the Pentagon and in Kabul have known that from the beginning. My colleagues and I routinely pestered the U.S. generals running the war (there have been more than a dozen) about Islamabad giving Taliban elements sanctuary on its own soil, and have always been told things were getting better.
For a long time, we plied Pakistan with cash in an effort to buy their cooperation in rooting out the Taliban inside their country. “Check,” you might say.
But Pakistan has the nukes, which limits U.S. freedom to do what it wants in the region. “Checkmate,” in other words.
“You have the watches,” a Taliban commander reportedly once told a U.S. officer. “But we have the time.” Actually, the U.S. has been one huge pendulum, its forces swinging in and out of the country depending on what else is happening in the neighborhood. The Afghan war was 2 years old when the Pentagon put it on the back burner to invade Iraq in 2003. As the U.S. pulled out of Iraq between 2009 and 2011, more U.S. troops flowed into Afghanistan. But as the Islamic State took root in Iraq and Syria in 2014, U.S. troops returned, instead of going into Afghanistan. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way: “With ISIS’s territorial control crumbling in Iraq and Syria, we have shifted our main effort to implementing the military component of the South Asia Strategy in Afghanistan,” Gen. Joseph Votel, chief of the U.S. Central Command responsible for that part of the globe, told the House Armed Services Committee Feb. 27.
Votel testified 50 years to the day that Cronkite delivered his Vietnam verdict.
In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. military has deployed its troops more widely around the world. There’s now a U.S. military presence with the mission to wipe out terrorism in 39 percent of the world’s nations. That’s 76 countries, and raises an important question: how come virtually all of those nations don’t have the U.S. troop presence that Afghanistan does? Is Afghanistan actually that much more dangerous, or is the nation simply suffering from a post-9/11 hangover?
The Taliban has made progress against the Afghan government and its U.S. ally in recent years, including a series of attacks inside the heavily-defended capital of Kabul. McChrystal believes things are now as bleak as they were when the U.S. invaded on Oct. 7, 2001. “Today, Afghanistan is struggling to survive,” he wrote in that Foreign Affairs piece with Kosh Sadat, an ex-Afghan army officer. “Although the Taliban have de facto control over only limited areas of the country, their presence and influence are likely at their highest levels since the group lost power in 2001.”
Recent reporting backs him up. The number of Taliban fighters has jumped from an estimated 20,000 four years ago to 60,000 today, NBC News reported Jan. 30. The following day, the BBC reported that the Taliban are “now openly active in 70 percent of Afghanistan.”
Most of us know George Santayana’s famous line that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But context, as they say, is everything. In the same 1905 passage, he elaborated: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness,” he wrote in The Life of Reason. “When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual."
If that’s too complicated for lawmakers and commanders-in-chief, the National Archives carries a condensed version carved in stone outside its stone colossus on Pennsylvania Avenue. Fittingly, it’s midway between the White House and the Capitol. “What is past,” it reads, “is prologue.”