Obama's Dilemma

By now, every journalist, official, professor and think tank guru within sight of Afghanistan has had an explanation for coping with the war. They've analyzed every aspect of the problem. But most of the solutions have been as clear as mud. Get out, stay in -- no wonder that the public truly isn't confused. It hardly can agree on what the United States should to do about a conflict that is costing American lives, not to speak of billions of dollars and declining support of an unpopular war. The state of the economy and the cost of health care are uppermost in the minds of most people.

On Tuesday evening, the outstanding PBS documentary, Frontline, examined what it described as "Obama"s War." So it is, given the President's earlier support of the conflict.. The high-level meetings that are underway with his senior advisors at the White House may produce a solution. But, it won't please everyone.

Even the best reportage, first on Iraq and now Afghanistan by Frontline, is seen through a measured lens. Hardly a Taliban image or voice was seen or heard. The American point of view supporting the war got plenty of air time. The ever-confident Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, headed the list of those who generally reflected the U.S. perspective.

General Stanley McChrystal, whose thankless job is to win the war, articulated the problems inherent in the counter-insurgency scheme of things. But he did not say on camera what he has been saying in private for the past two weeks; that at least 40,000 more troops are needed if the Taliban are to be defeated. The echoes of General William Westmoreland's plea more than 40 years ago for an additional 206,000 troops in Vietnam came back to haunt me. Victory eluded him nonetheless which could be McChrystal's fate too if President Obama endorses his request.

McChrystal's recommendation reminded me of the warning expressed by three prominent figures associated with the Vietnam conflict. General Creighton Abrams, the late Army Chief of Staff; Caspar Weinberger, the former Defense Secretary and General Colin Powell, the onetime chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all declared that the United States should never again involve itself in a major war without the overwhelming support of the American people. So far, an estimated 51% of the nation is opposed to the war, but that is hardly overwhelming.

Just like the Marines at the battle of Hue learned more than 40 years ago, guns alone could not defeat the enemy. The Marines unleashed enormous fire and air power in an effort to dislodge the North Vietnamese who were dug in from inside the walls of The Citadel in the center of the old Vietnamese capital. It was only after the Communists decided to withdraw that the fighting ended.

In Afghanistan, the gallant young men of Echo Company of the 24th Marines were shown unloading their firepower on the Taliban. But rarely, if ever, were the insurgents seen firing back from the ill-defined underbrush. Nonetheless, they were able to inflict troubling casualties on the Marines.

This war, unlike earlier coverage, was sanitized. No air or artillery strikes or gruesome casualties were shown, depicting the reality of the conflict. The gulf of understanding that existed between the Marines and local villagers was apparent. The young Marines, accompanied by interpreters whose identity was purposely obscured, were attempting to seek information from the picturesque Afghans. But it was clear from the hostile tone of their questions that the Marines would be frustrated. The frightening image of heavily-armed interrogators did not help them. They were not going to get much, if any information or cooperation from the villagers. The peasants were predictably cautious. The communications gap was too wide. The Marines simply could not explain themselves effectively, either in the local language, nor did they have a cultural understanding of how to approach villagers. As a result, the Marines seemed downright threatening, arrogant and impatient. It did not help their cause when it became clear that the interpreter could not speak or understand the local dialect.

Not meaning to overstate past history too much, the villagers in Vietnam were just as cautious. They too were confronted by Marines who could not speak Vietnamese. Fearing the return of the Vietcong after the Americans' departure, the villagers were predictably uncooperative. It is not my intention to criticize the Marines whom I covered and admired in combat, both in Korea and Vietnam. But I also lectured to senior grade officers in the Marine Corps over several years and I was stunned, watching the Frontline documentary, to see their troops' lack of language training in Afghanistan.

The war also dominated last Sunday morning's talk shows. Predictably, the networks, and for that matter, most American journalists, always turn to the same kind of insiders who are called upon during a time of crisis.The names change from war to war, but inevitably a cadre of ex-generals were invited to analyze the scope of the war. Their support of McChrystal was predictable, who by the way did not graduate from West Point until after the Vietnam conflict had ended. He did not shoulder either the burden or the frustrations of combat units in America's last major war.

To their credit, producer Martin Smith and his colleagues who worked on "Obama's War" depicted the crux of the problem which probably is Pakistan. The Taliban are a major problem in Afghanistan to be sure, but the more profound challenge may lie just over the border in Pakistan. How President Obama seemingly can act logically that would justify our continuing commitment to two countries that are plagued by corruption, religious fanaticism, underdevelopment and poverty is an unresolved dilemma. We have talked about nation-building in Afghanistan since the first time I visited there in 1957. Pakistan has been an adopted legacy of ours since the days of the Cold War. I remember from my visits there from the 1950s-80s when the United States poured billions of dollars into the Pakistan treasury in hopes of modernizing the country.

Washington supported every failed government that emerged during the post-partition years, separating Pakistan from India. We established the largest CIA base throughout Asia in Pakistan and we delivered to it endless amount of military assistance to an army whose officers three decades later are alien to us. All we cared about during the Cold War was maintaining an edge over Russia. But since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., stability has not emerged in Pakistan. Its failure to initiate land reform throughout the country has hardened the divisions between urban and rural aspects of its society. Its government seems unable to deal with the Taliban in its northwest provinces and the violence in the cities suggest the worst has yet to come.

Only when the day of reckoning arrives and the President discloses his latest evaluation of the war, will we know if his recipe is to continue a war without end or one from which we can walk away with some dignity in tact. Americans with any memory should remember that this entire mess began in Iraq and intensified in Afghanistan only after the nation and the world were misled by an atrocious lie. Or have we forgotten the alleged weapons of mass destruction that lured us into this latest quagmire?