Obama's Indecent Interval

Despite the U.S. president's pleas to the contrary, the war in Afghanistan looks more like Vietnam than ever.

As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, truth is ridiculed, then denied, and then "accepted as having been obvious to everyone from the beginning." So let's start with the obvious: There isn't the slightest possibility that the course laid out by Barack Obama in his Dec. 1 speech will halt or even slow the downward spiral toward defeat in Afghanistan. None. The U.S. president and his advisors labored for three months and brought forth old wine in bigger bottles. The speech contained not one single new idea or approach, nor offered any hint of new thinking about a conflict that everyone now agrees the United States is losing. Instead, the administration deliberated for 94 days to deliver essentially "more men, more money, try harder." It sounded ominously similar to Mikhail Gorbachev's "bloody wound" speech that led to a similar-sized, temporary Soviet troop surge in Afghanistan in 1986.

But the Soviet experience in Afghanistan isn't what everyone is comparing Obama's current predicament to; it's Vietnam. The president knows it, and part of his speech was a rebuttal of those comparisons. It was a valiant effort, but to no avail. Afghanistan is Vietnam all over again.

In his speech, the president offered three reasons why the two conflicts are different. And all are dead wrong. First, Obama noted that Afghanistan is being conducted by a "coalition" of 43 countries -- as if war by committee would magically change the outcome (a throwback to former President George W. Bush's "Iraq coalition" mathematics). The truth is, outside of a handful of countries, it's basically a coalition of pacifists. In fact, more foreign troops fought alongside the United States in Vietnam than are now actually fighting with Americans today. Only nine countries in today's 43-country coalition have more than 1,000 personnel there; nine others have 10 (yes, not even a dozen people) -- or fewer. And although Australia and New Zealand have sent a handful of excellent special operations troops to Afghanistan, only Britain, Canada, and France are providing significant forces willing to conduct conventional offensive military operations. That brings the coalition's combat-troop contribution to approximately 17,000. Most of the other 38 "partners" have strict rules prohibiting them from ever doing anything actually dangerous. Turkish troops, for example, never leave their firebase in Wardak province, according to U.S. personnel who monitor it.

In Vietnam, by contrast, there were six countries fighting with the United States. South Korea alone had three times more combat troops in that country (50,000) than the entire coalition has in Afghanistan today. The Philippines (10,500), Australia (7,600), New Zealand (500), Thailand (about 1,000), and Taiwan also had boots on the ground. So the idea that Afghanistan's coalition sets it apart doesn't hold water.

The president went on to assert that the Taliban are not popular in Afghanistan, whereas the Viet Cong represented a broadly popular nationalist movement with the support of a majority of the Vietnamese. But this is also wrong. Neither the Viet Cong then, nor the Taliban now, have ever enjoyed the popular support of more than 15 percent of the population, according to Daniel Ellsberg, the senior Pentagon official who courageously leaked the Pentagon Papers revealing the military's endemic deceit in the Vietnam War.

The president's final argument, that Afghanistan is different because Vietnam never attacked American soil, is a red herring. History is overflowing with examples of just causes that have gone down in defeat. To suggest that the two conflicts will have different outcomes because the U.S. cause in Afghanistan is just (whereas, presumably from the speech, the war in Vietnam was not) is simply specious. The courses and outcomes of wars are determined by strategy, not the justness of causes or the courage of troops.

The reality on the ground is that Afghanistan is Vietnam redux. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's regime is an utterly illegitimate, incompetent kleptocracy. The Afghan National Army (ANA) -- slotted to take over the conflict when the coalition pulls out -- will not even be able to feed itself in five years, much less turn back the mounting Taliban tide. The U.S. Center for Army Lessons Learned determined by statistical analysis that the ANA will never grow larger than 100,000 men because nearly 30 percent either desert or fail to re-enlist each year. The ANA is disproportionately Tajik, drug use is a major problem, all recruits are illiterate, and last month the ANA reached only half its modest recruiting goal despite 40 percent unemployment nationwide.  The American media, in its own regression to 1963, simply regurgitates Pentagon press releases that vastly inflate the actual size of the Afghan military, which is actually less than 60,000 men, just 32,000 of whom are combat troops.

The strategy's other component for dealing with the Taliban, "negotiating with moderates," is also ludicrous to anyone who is familiar with the insurgents. The Taliban are a virus. There is no one to negotiate with, and from their perspective, nothing to discuss. And the Taliban know they are winning. Meanwhile, commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal's plan to secure the urban areas (rather than the rural countryside where the insurgency is actually metastasizing) is plagiarized from the famous never-written textbook, How to Lose a War in Afghanistan, authored jointly by Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union.

Most critically of all, Pakistan's reaction to Obama's speech was to order its top military intelligence service, the ISI, to immediately begin rebuilding and strengthening covert ties to the Afghan Taliban in anticipation of their eventual return to power, according to a highly placed Pakistani official. There will be no more genuine cooperation from Pakistan (if there ever was).

And that is why the United States is now headed for certain defeat in Afghanistan. Obama's new "strategy" is no strategy at all. It is a cynical and politically motivated rehash of Iraq policy: Toss in a few more troops, throw together something resembling local security forces, buy off the enemies, and get the hell out before it all blows up. Even the dimmest bulb listening to the president's speech could not have missed the obvious link between the withdrawal date for combat troops from Iraq (2010), the date for beginning troop reductions in Afghanistan (2011), and the domestic U.S. election cycle.

So we are faced with a conundrum. Obama is one of the most intelligent men ever to hold the U.S. presidency. But no intelligent person could really believe that adding 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, a country four times larger than Vietnam, for a year or two, following the same game plan that has resulted in dismal failure there for the past eight years, could possibly have any impact on the outcome of the conflict.

Arthur Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes used to say that "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The only conclusion one can reach from the president's speech, after eliminating the impossible, is that the administration has made a difficult but pragmatic decision: The war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, and the president's second term and progressive domestic agenda cannot be sacrificed to a lost cause the way that President Lyndon B. Johnson's was for Vietnam. The result of that calculation was what we heard on Dec. 1: platitudes about commitment and a just cause; historical amnesia; and a continuation of the exact same failed policies that got the United States into this mess back in 2001, concocted by the same ship of fools, many of whom are still providing remarkably bad advice to this administration. 

We believe the president knows perfectly well that Afghanistan is Vietnam all over again, both domestically and, as we wrote in Military Review this month, in Kabul and out in the Afghan hills, where good men are bleeding and dying. And he's seeking the same cynical exit strategy that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did in 1968: negotiating the best possible second-place position and a "decent interval" between withdrawal and collapse. In office less than a year, the Obama administration has already been seduced by the old beltway calculus that sometimes a little wrong must be done to get re-elected and achieve a greater good.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


Get Your Canned Goods, Umbrellas, and Knock-off Pumas Here!

How Chinese merchants have become the anonymous Sam Waltons to the world's hardest-to-reach consumers.

Where Walmart dares not go -- or believes it can't make a profit -- Chinese merchants quite often fill the void. That is, they are often the low-cost consumer goods supersellers to much of the developing or war-ravaged world.

China's growing presence in Africa is by now well known. But while most news headlines focus on extraction industries, Chinese entrepreneurs have also been active in other sectors, from textiles to grocery outlets. In some cases, their presence has fueled local resentment, especially when they are competing directly against African merchants; in other instances, Chinese merchants have brought finished products and supplies that otherwise wouldn't be available or affordable, to unlikely consumers in Africa and elsewhere across the globe.

Indeed, the rise of Chinese merchants in other underserved markets may provide a glimpse into the future role the Chinese could play in Africa. Take Eastern Europe. Chinese merchants have been moving en masse into the region since the early 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc turned post-communist Eurasia into a free market free-for-all.

I became interested in Eastern Europe's Chinese communities when I first visited the Balkans in 2004. At the time, the highest numbers of Chinese were found in the Yugoslav successor states, particularly Serbia and Montenegro (which still existed as one federal entity) and Republika Srpska, the eastern part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Various news agencies had put the number of Chinese in the former Yugoslavia at 200,000. Experts told me this was an inflated estimate, but I could not dispute the pervasiveness of the Chinese in the Balkans.

Everywhere I went, I saw little shops called kineske prodavnice (literally, "Chinese shops") scattered throughout the cities and countryside of Serbia and Montenegro. The kineske prodavnice peddled cheap goods made in China -- pens, umbrellas, knockoff Pumas, everything but food. They were a natural part of the landscape, patronized by locals and staffed by Chinese merchants who spoke broken Serbian.

Curiously, every shopkeeper I spoke with -- from Belgrade to the little town of Ulcinj on the Montenegrin-Albanian border -- hailed from the same county in Zhejiang province in southeastern China. They told me that the Zhejiangese were also shopkeepers in North Korea, Cambodia, and Russia.

In each of these places, there is a clear need for basic commodities. But because of embargoes or political instability, few multinational companies are interested in opening their doors. Yet the Chinese merchants were willing to launch small businesses in the shadiest of emerging markets.

When the Chinese started passing through the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, mainly to enter Western Europe illegally, the Serbian territories had been hit hard by sanctions. Industries had ground to a halt, yet people needed everyday products like toilet paper and clothing. Under embargo or besieged by war, Serbia, Montenegro, and Republika Srpska could not turn to American or Western European exporters.

Many of the Chinese heading to Western Europe saw this unmet need, and they held off on going westward. Instead, networking with manufacturers back in southeast China, they set up stalls on the street to sell clothing and electronics. Over time, their ventures prospered, and they moved into brick-and-mortar shops.

Today, the greatest concentration of Serbia's Chinese resides in the Block 70 neighborhood of New Belgrade, just across the Sava River from downtown Belgrade. Block 70 even has a Kineski Tržni Centar, or "Chinese Marketplace." Comprised of two factory-sized buildings, the Chinese Marketplace is the distribution center for every kineska prodavnica in Serbia. Each Sunday, Chinese shopkeepers come from all over the country to stock up on clothing, housewares, and electronics.

When the Chinese first moved into New Belgrade 10 years ago, they were not well received. They had brought from the Old World habits such as littering, spitting in public, and speaking in unmoderated decibels -- all of which the image-conscious Serbs found repulsive. Notoriously wary of banks, the Chinese were the favorite targets of robbers. Culturally and linguistically ignorant, they were unable to defend themselves from teenage vandals and unwilling to report incidents to the police.

Then they began to retaliate. Many of the Serbs I met in New Belgrade had grown up fighting with vigilante groups of Chinese men. Eventually, Chinese and Serb neighbors settled into a grudging mutual tolerance.

On each of my subsequent trips to the region, I have visited with Chinese merchants. Today Serbia's economy is much the same as it was in the war-ravaged 1990s. Although embargoes have been lifted, the country is still politically isolated, and foreign companies refrain from major investments. And so the niche for affordable commodities continues to be filled by Chinese merchants.

Meanwhile, the Chinese opinion about Serbs as a people has not changed: Customers are generally polite and cause little trouble other than the occasional incident of shoplifting. Employees do not work very hard. But in general life is peaceful, tolerable.

Over the years, the distance between Chinese and Serbs has diminished. Serbian children are going to school with Chinese children in many neighborhoods, a sign that Chinese parents have stopped sending their children back to China for education. The Chinese have even made inroads into Serbian film and other cultural products, from cameo appearances in movies about New Belgrade, to references in pop songs.

It would be unwise to generalize too much about the experience of Chinese immigrants worldwide. The African continent is far more diverse than Serbia -- or, for that matter, all of Eastern Europe. But it is important to remember that when we hear of China's "colonization" of Africa and elsewhere, we should picture not only predatory oil-company managers, but also small-scale merchants providing cheap consumer goods.