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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein

Posted March 31, 2009 | 01:24 AM (EST)

General Eikenberry's First Mistake


I had to laugh when I heard our next ambassador to Afghanistan say, "every poll will show that 90 percent of the people firmly reject the Taliban."

You can't make this stuff up.

Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry may be a great warrior, a very smart guy, and turn out to be a very fine ambassador. But that's a bunch of baloney.

As Jere Van Dyke, a reporter who's spent enough time on the ground in Afghanistan -- including as a hostage -- to qualify as an expert, said in a radio interview the other day, the average villager can't tell the difference between NATO troops and the Russians, the last guys who tried to quell the jihadis.

"We're in a very dangerous situation now," he said on all-news KCBS.

"They're not against the U.S., they're not against NATO, but if you go out into the villages, what they will tell you is that they really don't know the difference, in their minds, between the Soviets and the West -- they're infidels, they're invaders.'

We've already killed more civilians than the Taliban has, Van Dyke noted. Their 20,000 fighters have fought 50,000 air-supported NATO troops to a draw.

That's some hearts-and-minds program.

Before Eikenberry leaves for Kabul, he should drive up the road from the Pentagon and see Rufus Phillips.

Phillips was a CIA man who spent more time in South Vietnam than Ho Chi Minh. Not draining cocktails in Saigon with well-pressed colonels, either -- in the villages.

Phillips ran something called the Hamlet Evaluation Survey, which crunched all sorts of numbers about how the war was going.

And he knew it was b.s.

In 1963 he had the guts to tell the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, that his generals in Vietnam were cooking the books. The fancy stats showing the villagers on our side, served up by the Saigon command, were inflated -- made up, he told Kennedy.

Younger Army officers who told the truth were having their careers ruined. U.S. military advisors who complained about corrupt South Vietnamese officers were being sent home.

It was "a remarkable moment in the American bureaucracy, a moment of intellectual honesty," the late, great David Halberstam wrote in "The Best and the Brightest," his monumental account of White House advisors who turned a low level counterinsurgency into a big-unit war with almost 600,000 troops, only to see victory slip away.

Does the number sound familiar?

It's the figure Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., who holds the Pentagon's purse strings, picked for winning in Afghanistan.

"That's what I estimate it would take in a country that size to get it under control," Murtha said just a few weeks ago in an interview with the Associated Press.

Yet on Thursday, he sounded just as certain that President Obama's plan for just 4,000 more troops - police advisors -- was just fine. That would bring the U.S. expedition to about 60,000 - not counting the kids joy-sticking Predators over Afghanistan from a trailer outside Las Vegas.

"They got realistic goals, I think," Murtha said, according to Bloomberg News. "Train the Afghans and then get the hell out of there. I couldn't have written it any better myself."

Try writing the ending, Congressman.

To be fair, Murtha epitomizes the national hand-wringing over the war. Few people really know which way to go.

Anybody who says this is easy is nuts.

Sixty thousand? Six hundred thousand? Murtha can't have it both ways. As the A.P. pointed out, he "chairs the powerful subcommittee that funds the military" - and he is, let's not forget, a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam.

I'm a Vietnam veteran, too, but that doesn't mean I'm a font of wisdom about Afghanistan. But Murtha's first number -- 600,000 - doesn't sound like the right way to go. It's sounds exactly like the wrong way to go.

When the end came in Saigon, two million soldiers, sailors and marines had served in Southeast Asia.

The parallels with Vietnam are really eerie: corrupt leader, untrustworthy police and army, provincial officials shipping heroin, villagers with their fingers to the wind, enemy forces striking from across the border.

Sounds like Michael Moriarty's monologue in "Who''ll Stop the Rain," doesn't it?

One of the revisionist theories about Vietnam is that we could have won if, as late as 1963, we had kept a lid on our military effort, with Green Berets, the CIA, and economic aid workers out in the boonies working their magic.

We'll never know, of course, because Kennedy was killed as he stood on the precipice of a decision about Vietnam. But we do know that what came next, surge by surge, was wrong.

Is 60,000 too few, 600,000 too many, for Afghanistan? Not fast enough? Pick your poison.

So this is President Barack Obama's 1963 moment. The roof started to cave in Saigon, when Kennedy had only 16,000 advisors in-country.

Who will be Obama's Rufus Phillips? Who will give him the facts -- not the balderdash Eikenberry served up.

The president might start with Richard Holbrooke, who cut his teeth with the State Department in Vietnam in 1962.

Don't laugh: The president's point man on Afghanistan -- and suddenly much more, according to The Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman -- wrote the forward to Phillips's last book, "Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned."

Jeff Stein writes the SpyTalk blog at CQ Politics, where this column first appeared.