- A U.S. soldier runs across an open area while
- receiving small arms fire at Michigan Base in the
- Pesh Valley of Afghanistan on Aug. 2. Photo: Reuters
With the war in Afghanistan in its eighth year, with deaths and casualties mounting and with no so-called victory in sight, perhaps it is time to recall the words of the late Sen. George Aiken (R-Vt).
Back in 1966, with the country tangled in the war in Vietnam, Aiken suggested that we declare victory and bring our troops home. It was a surprising move by a Republican, though Aiken was considered a moderate.
Naturally, Aiken caught the wrath of President Lyndon B. Johnson and other “hawks,” who portrayed him as defeatist willing to let South Vietnam fall into hands of the Communist regime in Hanoi. Of course, that is just what happened eight years later, after 55,000 American deaths, tens of thousands of casualties and billions of dollars in expenditures.
Vietnam remains a sad episode for a failed foreign policy and a lingering stain on Johnson’s presidency.
Aiken, a quiet Vermont gentleman, ate breakfast almost every day in the Senate dining room with his close friend, Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mt.), the Senate majority leader. Like Aiken, Mansfield was a taciturn but a principled man highly respected on both sides of the aisle.
Mansfield, too, drew the anger of LBJ when he withdrew his support for the war in the face of mounting casualties and a series of political failures by the shaky government in Saigon.
For Aiken’s part, his suggestion that the U.S. declare victory wasn’t taken seriously in the White House, the Pentagon or the State Department. In retrospect, it should have been.
There are about 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan today. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new top commander in the country, wants even more. (It is a rarity when any field commander does not want additional manpower in the ranks.)
The death total of at least 41 in July is the largest monthly loss for American troops since January 2008. Nearly all have been caused by roadside bombs, the most popular weapon for the Taliban.
In Vietnam, the military at least was fighting a recognizable enemy in the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. In Afghanistan, especially in the areas outside the capital of Kabul, the roadside bombs seem to be everywhere.
Granted, a pullout of American forces now would have serious consequences. The Afghan government, under President Hamid Karzai, is hardly ready to assume control of the nation. Yet there is much resentment of our men and women there, as there was earlier of the occupying Russians and even the Taliban.
Truth be told, the warlords and a large segment of the population do not want outsiders in their country. Period. Those who once said we could make shining democracies out of Afghanistan and Iraq were only dreaming.
President Barack Obama has vowed to remove our troops by the end of 2011. That would mean the war would be 10 years old, and still without any real guarantee that the deadline for withdrawal couldn’t be lifted.
At the end of that year, campaigning will have started in earnest for the presidential election of 2012. Obama could be faced with a big problem if the war is expanding or even stalemated.
Perhaps, the president needs to give Congress and the American people a stronger case for our continued mission in Afghanistan. Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans won’t do the job. And the threat of a renewed takeover by the Taliban could continue for many years beyond the deadline.
After the U.S. forced most of the Taliban out of the country after Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was so eager to attack Iraq that we left Afghanistan much too early. We continue to pay a price for that decision.
A half-century ago, some folks sneered and laughed when Sen. Aiken said the U.S. should quickly get out of a growing quagmire in Southeast Asia. Afghanistan is rapidly becoming a similar quagmire, if it is not there already.
If many in that country continue to oppose our men and women in their their midst, why will we be there at least 18 months more, or possibly longer?