THE BLOG
06/12/2009 05:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Horror... The Horror of it All

Those were the dying words uttered by Colonel Walter Kurtz, the half-crazed Special Forces officer portrayed by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, the classic war film about Vietnam. It could have been a precursor to Afghanistan or Pakistan. From my encounters in all three countries going back more than 50 years the future is not reassuring. That was when I was assured by an American diplomat that the $50 million a year we were lavishing on the reigning monarch of Afghanistan was earmarked for building nationhood.

Our later over-simplification was the curse in Vietnam. Could Afghanistan be Barack Obama's Vietnam? We surely could be stuck once again on a treadmill of great expectations. The latest American commitment of brains, bucks and firepower is designed to help get it right this time. But American troops find themselves involved in two civil wars, one in Afghanistan and the other in Pakistan. Unfortunately, what was once our own presumed weapons of mass destruction, the high-flying B-52s, did not stop the Communists in Vietnam. There's no assurance that the drones and remaining electronic warfare will be any more successful in coping with the Taliban.

The fighting this time is not bogged down in the quagmire of Vietnam that became so familiar to Americans watching the war on television in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, instead of wading through the rice paddies of Southeast Asia, Ranger units are stalking the mountains, hilltops and back alleys of villages or cities of Afghanistan, trying to snuff out the Taliban and its bizarre rule of law.

The insidious impact of the drug trade in Afghanistan that is cultivated by the Taliban to pay for its weapons is aptly described by Gretchen Peters in her book, "Seeds of Terror." Her story describes a vast criminal operation that thrives in the poppy fields of Afghanistan. Its operation virtually has been forgotten by the mainstream press.

The White House and the Pentagon are banking on a vast shakeup of the U.S. military leadership in Afghanistan to cope with an enemy that has been threatening to take the country back to medieval times. Its objective is to wait out the government in Kabul, hoping it will collapse from its own bankruptcy, corruption and incompetence. President Obama's goal is avoid that and to keep the country from falling into the total domination of the extremist Taliban fanatics.

We are assured that Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal is America's new man of the hour who will direct the U.S. effort. He's described as "a hard driving and talented officer, a specialist in counter insurgency (who) impressed his superiors during his five years of running special operations commando missions in Afghanistan." It's a strong resume, the New York Times said in an editorial based on information that seemed as if it was spoon-fed by the Pentagon.

What we were not told was the extent to which McChrystal, in his role as a counter-insurgency expert, was involved in the black arts, i.e. including the handling of prisoners when he served in Iraq and Afghanistan before. It is unclear as to how responsible he will be for coordinating air strikes in civilian areas where hundreds of Afghans or Iraqis have been killed or else alienated. Nor has any of the reporting explained the degree to which McChrystal will shoulder responsibility for the hiring and supervision of hundreds of civilian private contractors in both countries when he was running Special Ops. That private army for which no one seems to take responsibility is an institution that needs the supervision of Congress if not the Pentagon.

What we do know from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal is that McChrystal has been given the green light to bring in 400 handpicked officers and enlisted men who will rotate between Afghanistan and the United States. His roster of dedicated warriors and diplomats is impressive indeed. Three diplomats with ambassadorial rank in Egypt, the Philippines, Argentina and Cambodia have agreed to serve under the new ambassador to Afghanistan, retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry. A Navy rear admiral has been appointed to head a program designed to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. In short, there is there is no lack of authority. It has the ring of authenticity and commitment. But then so were the kick-ass warriors in Vietnam -- the Green Berets. The Kennedy Administration was determined to sell the war in Southeast Asia as vigorously as Barack Obama seems to be pushing the war in Afghanistan.

What has been forgotten in the postwar years following Vietnam is that the Pentagon's most senior officers, including Colin Powell once vowed never to go to war again "without the full support of the American people." Hardly such a groundswell is evident so far.

But we need not forget the lies voiced by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis that led the American people to believe that Sadaam Hussein's alleged possession of "weapons of mass destruction" was the justification for the war in Iraq. In the wake of a commitment by President Obama to dispatch 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan he might do well to remember what soldiers of both our fictional and non-fictional past have told us.

When things looked bad, both the Duke of Westmoreland in Hamlet and our own General Westmoreland in Vietnam never hesitated to increase their demands for more troops. They always were accompanied by rosy predictions of victory on the battlefield. Pray brothers and sisters, that the young men and women who are being sent to a region where foreigners have failed miserably in the past two centuries, will be more fortunate this time in being kept out of Harm's Way.