31 October 2015

Vietnamization 2.0

Andrew Bacevich has an important article now up on TomDispatch.com, On Building Armies (and Watching Them Fail): Why Washington Can’t 'Stand Up' Foreign Militaries, which is highly recommended reading.

Likening present U.S. efforts to build national military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq --- that are capable of protecting present governments --- to the five-year "Vietnamization" wind-down period of the U.S. war in Viet Nam, Bacevich makes a very strong case for his central fact:
Indeed, the United States would be better served if policymakers abandoned the pretense that the Pentagon possesses any gift whatsoever for “standing up” foreign military forces. Prudence might actually counsel that Washington assume instead, when it comes to organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies, that the United States is essentially clueless.


Leading to his conclusion:
... subletting war no longer figures as a plausible alternative to waging it directly. So where U.S. interests require that fighting be done, like it or not, we’re going to have to do that fighting ourselves. By extension, in circumstances where U.S. forces are demonstrably incapable of winning or where Americans balk at any further expenditure of American blood -- today in the Greater Middle East both of these conditions apply -- then perhaps we shouldn’t be there. To pretend otherwise is to throw good money after bad or, as a famous American general once put it, to wage (even if indirectly) “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." This we have been doing now for several decades across much of the Islamic world.
Bacevich errs, however, in at least two respects: First, his conclusion stops just short of what it should be, that the U.S. should withdraw immediately from Afghanistan and Iraq (and Syria) because the U.S. is simply prolonging inevitable defeat at the cost of mass civilian casualties in those nations. (It is considered poor form in mainstream media journalism to mention civilian casualties in those U.S. foreign wars, which are cataclysmic in scale.)

Second, Bacevich takes the charitable view that Barack Obama is simply naive in pursuing the effort to build national defense military forces in those two nations. Barack Obama could not be such an idiot, any more than Lyndon Johnson was when he ordered the "Vietnamization" of the war in Viet Nam as U.S. troops withdrew. Newly-trained South Vietnamese military units would phase in as U.S. units left. Johnson ordered "Vietnamization" of the war because he had determined that war was not winnable even with the might of the U.S. military.

I was in the U.S. Army in South Viet Nam (April 1968-August 1970) when Johnson made his 1969 decision. Anyone with a moderately functioning brain and even a superficial knowledge of the situation in that former nation knew that "Vietnamization" was no more than a presidential kicking of the total-withdrawal can down the road to the next President, Richard Nixon.

There was no way that a small minority Roman Catholic government (a tiny remnant of French colonialism) would survive in that 95% Buddhist/Animist nation whose government was beset by indigenous guerrilla and North Vietnamese regular army forces. Rather than carrying out reforms that would have earned the South Vietnamese government citizen loyalty (such as true land ownership reform), that exceedingly corrupt government had seemingly done everything possible to alienate its citizens, clear down to evacuating the countryside of an agrarian nation to create free fire zones without providing any care for the millions of resulting refugees. (All the while of course, the primary mission of the U.S. military in Viet Nam was to "win the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people.) [1]

Nixon succeeded in kicking the withdrawal can down the road to the next President, albeit Nixon's second term in office was cut short by his impeachment and resignation from office in August, 1974. It fell to his successor, Gerald R. Ford, to watch as the last evacuation helicopter lifted off from the Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). 

As Bacevich discusses, neither Afghanistan nor Iraq are positioned to maintain strong national governments with the populations of both countries largely divided along ethnic and religious lines. And Obama is surely as aware as anyone else of the American military's unbroken record of failure in nation-building since Viet Nam.

Obama's decision in mid-October to postpone drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan until "late 2016" underscores his intent to kick the withdrawal can down the road to his successor in office. Were that not his intent, one could reasonably expect a date for complete withdrawal to have been announced at  date more removed from the end of his time in office; instead, there is only a postponement of troop "drawdown," not complete withdrawal.

There is no more crediblity to Obama's claim to have scheduled a "drawdown" in Afghanistan than there is to his claims that the U.S. has no "boots on the ground" in Iraq that are carrying out combat operations and his commitment not to put American boots on the ground in Syria. See e.g., this CBS News report from October 30 of this year (Iraq) and this CNN report and this CNN report (Syria). Just so with his recent claim that U.S. troops in Afghanistan have no combat role. See this report at Threat Matrix.

Under the circumstances, Obama is entitled to no presumption of ignorance on his awareness of the inevitability of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq and the ensuing collapse of governments. (If the present Iraqi government survives it will be because of Iranian, not U.S. support.)

In true presidential psychopath mode, Obama is merely kicking the withdrawal can down the road to the next President, knowing that thousands of battlefield casualties will result. There is a phrase for that kind of misbehavior in high office: political and moral cowardice. It is a characteristic of a weak military leader, without the courage to order a retreat when needed, willing to sacrifice soldiers and foreign civilians merely to fill the cash registers of military contractors and to duck political flak from the right wing hawks of American politics.

But to summarize, Barack Obama most certainly is indifferent to human misery and death, but any argument that the man is unaware he is simply kicking the withdrawal can down the road to the next President is preposterous. Obama knows that the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were lost at the moment they began; he simply lacks the political courage and moral compass to sound the retreat.

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1 Cf., former U.S. Rep. Mendel Rivers: "I say get 'em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.")

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