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Lessons Painfully Learned in Vietnam, Now Forgotten in Afghanistan

07/23/2010 11:36 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Lanny Davis Principal, Lanny J. Davis and Associates LLC

Written by Paul R .Gupta. Mr. Gupta is a lawyer in New York City. He is a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School. Further information about him can be found in Who's Who in the World.

It seems fitting that I read the Rolling Stone McChrystal article on July 4th.

Doesn't anyone read history anymore? How can we not see the parallels between JFK and Obama as young, untested war presidents? July 4th is a day to reflect on lessons that we as a nation have painfully learned, but seem to have forgotten.

Maybe JFK's decision to go forward with the Bay of Pigs will be seen like Obama's decision a few months ago to approve the Afghanistan "surge." And maybe, just as JFK learned to be more skeptical of military advice after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Obama will learn to better trust the judgment of his civilian advisers as we are now mired in a seemingly hopeless post-surge war and looking for a way out.

Let us remember that, after the Bay of Pigs, JFK was confronted with the Cuban Missile Crisis -- which was resolved by diplomacy, not by troops on the ground. So, too, let us hope that Obama learns to trust the diplomats rather than the generals to guide us out of Afghanistan in a way that protects American lives and interests.

Petraeus has shown himself to have a much better sense of the bigger picture than McChrystal. But all may get sucked into the military vortex and the military logic that would recommend that we commit even more brave men and women to the Afghan struggle. Military logic may be like the old logic of all-too-many institutions, which favored growth at all costs. Of course, today's successful institutions favor rightsizing.

It is to save the lives of our troops -- our sons and our daughters -- that we should realize that American superiority lies in technology, not in more boots on the ground. Our valiant troops deserve better than being subjected to daily ambushes and IEDs by Afghan fighters who know every inch of their terrain and who observe no codes of conduct. (Petraeus to his credit has moved quickly to improve our troops' ability to confront the enemy.)

No solution here will be perfect, or perhaps even palatable, but we must do the best we can. History teaches that Afghanistan has successfully resisted all ground armies since Ghengis Khan's. However, technological solutions, such as our drone attacks, have had notable successes, and can achieve further success without imperiling large numbers of our troops. It is fair to assume that, if just a fraction of our war billions were spent on further improving our military technology and training, our air strikes could be even better targeted.

History also teaches that a foreign war cannot be won where the foreign government is as corrupt as Afghanistan's. As an example, it has been well documented that literally billions of dollars are being flown out of Kabul in plain sight, to say nothing of the clandestine theft of money meant to properly equip our troops.

JFK's attempt at violent regime change in Vietnam ended in disaster, when he chose a secretive option that was contrary to American values and his own rhetoric. The lesson to be learned is that our focus in Afghanistan should be to require our military leaders and the diplomats to work together properly, to improve the Afghan government by consensus rather than force. There is evidence that Petraeus would welcome this focus on consensus, even though McChrystal rejected it.

You say that there can't be a consensus because there are too many different views and agendas? How about this: let's do whatever it takes to save the lives and limbs of our sons and daughters who are today -- and could be tomorrow -- in battle.

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