Sunday, June 26, 2011
The Peril of withdrawing Troops too early from Afghanistan
OBAMA has made good on his pledge to begin drawing down American forces in Afghanistan, but his stated strategy is unlikely to lead to a successful withdrawal.
Mr. Obama announced last week that 10,000 troops would come home by December and another 23,000 by next summer. By 2014, he confidently proclaimed, “the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”
Administration hawks, largely in the military, are uneasy; they had wanted to go slower, so as to safeguard recent gains made against the Taliban. Administration doves, largely in the White House, are disappointed; they had wanted to pull back faster, seeing the killing of Osama bin Laden as an ideal opportunity to get out.
The president split the difference, suggesting that he was charting a “centered course.” But he has actually once again evaded the fundamental choice between accepting the costs of staying and the risks of leaving.
What he needs is a strategy for getting out without turning a retreat into a rout — and he would be wise to borrow one from the last American administration to extricate itself from a thankless, seemingly endless counterinsurgency in a remote and strategically marginal region. Mr. Obama should ask himself, in short: What would Nixon do?
Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, tried to manage the risks of exiting the Vietnam War by masking their withdrawal with deliberate deception and aggressive covering fire. They almost succeeded — and if tried again in today’s more favorable environment, their strategy would most likely work.
The Nixonian approach has its costs: it would generate charges of lying, escalation and betrayal. And embracing it would require the president to display a deftness and a tough-mindedness he has rarely shown. But it could also provide the ticket home. Indeed, Mr. Obama’s best option is to repeat Mr. Nixon’s Vietnam endgame and hope for a different outcome — to get 1973, one might say, without having it followed by 1975.
It may seem crazy to regard the American withdrawal from Vietnam as anything but disastrous. Our local ally collapsed two years after signing a peace deal, our enemies triumphantly conquered the country we had fought for more than a decade to defend, and the image of panicked friends reaching in vain for the last helicopter out of Saigon remains seared into our national consciousness. But Mr. Nixon actually did a lot right in Vietnam, and his approach there was not the primary cause of the war’s ignominious end.
In late 1969, faced with increasing domestic pressure to end the war, the president and Mr. Kissinger settled on a strategy to reduce the American role in ground combat while fending off a South Vietnamese collapse. They sought to walk away from the war, get American prisoners back and avoid formally betraying an ally — something they believed would damage America’s reputation. They recognized that their approach would leave the South Vietnamese vulnerable following the American withdrawal, but considered that an acceptable price to pay for getting out.
They never said this last bit publicly, of course. But in private, they were more candid, as the White House tapes showed. During an August 1972 Oval Office chat, Mr. Nixon told Mr. Kissinger:
“Let’s be perfectly cold-blooded about it.... I look at the tide of history out there, South Vietnam probably is never gonna survive anyway.... [C]an we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam?”
Mr. Kissinger replied that American policy could remain viable if Saigon’s collapse “ looks as if it’s the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say, in a three- to four-month period, we have pushed President Thieu over the brink.... it will worry everybody... So we’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which... no one will give a damn.”
By Gideon Rose editor of Foreign Affairs and author of “How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle.” IHT