Monday, 7 December 2009

Obama’s Surge

Blogging offers the chance for instant opinion, but sometimes I can’t help but think that it is better to let things percolate through the brain cells a while before hitting the keyboard. Having been confined to my sickbed for a few days last week it gave me chance to think through the wider implications of President Obama’s decision to send a further 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.

My initial reaction was that Obama was on a road very similar to that which both Nixon and Kissinger trod in the early 1970s. As in Vietnam, America is propping up a corrupt government with a well armed internal insurgency. For “building the Afghan army” read “Vietnamisation”, for “troop draw-downs” read “withdrawal timetable”. The President does not like this analogy, but as Thomas Friedman said on The Daily Show, Vietnam was the “elephant in the room” when political journalists were briefed over lunch last week.

There is a wider question now though for both American and British foreign policy which is, “can modern democracies with a free press fight open-ended commitment wars?” The reason I ask is that the reality of the matter is that UK deaths in Afghanistan, whilst tragic have been astonishingly low, particularly when you consider the closer quarter nature of much of the fighting. Circa 240 deaths for a near 10 year commitment.

However, this perspective is lost in the media reporting from Afghanisation. Each death is now covered in an extremely personal manner. We know names, details of their family lives, we see coverage of a convoy of black cars from RAF Lyneham; we even have archive television interviews with the fallen. It was Stalin who said “one death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.” Without clear objectives and a timetable to “bring the troops home” it certainly looks like the British public cannot take too much more tragedy and that has deep implications going forward as to how troops are used in future. Short term, police actions such as that in Kosovo in the early 90s are likely to be the order to the day from now on.

Ultimately, Kissinger devised what became privately known as the ‘Decent Interval’ strategy to end American involvement in Vietnam. He knew the war was unwinnable, but tried to extricate America with as much face as he could retain. The idea was to build up South Vietnamese forces to a point where they could take up the burden of the fight long enough for America to extricate itself and leave a ‘decent interval’ before inevitable collapse. Ultimately American troops left in 1973 and the South collapsed two years later. Nobody will admit this is the plan for Afghanistan, but I suspect this is the road we are on.


Post a Comment