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Vietnam Vet, Scholar Andrew Bacevich on Obama War Plan: “The President Has Drawn the Wrong Lessons from His Understanding of the History of War”

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Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and a Vietnam War veteran who spent twenty-three years in the US Army, responds to President Obama’s plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we discuss today’s headline — more war — we’re joined in Boston by Andrew Bacevich. He’s a retired colonel and a Vietnam War veteran who spent twenty-three years in the US Army. He’s now a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and the author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, also The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

Andrew Bacevich, welcome to Democracy Now! Start by responding to President Obama’s announcement, address at West Point Tuesday night.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think that we should view this as a squandered opportunity. President Obama came into office vowing to change the way Washington works. I believe that the Afghanistan decision really was a readymade opportunity to do just that. He has chosen, instead, I think, to bow to the way Washington works, to confirm the way Washington works, to insist that the pattern of behavior that defines our approach to national security, the pattern of behavior that defines our policies in the so-called Greater Middle East, will continue during his administration. I think that’s just deeply unfortunate.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama made a point of rejecting any comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam last night.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we’re better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of forty-three nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now and to rely only on efforts against al-Qaeda from a distance would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al-Qaeda and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama at West Point last night. Professor Bacevich, your response?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think the President is unfortunately misreading the history with regard to Vietnam. I have to say, my sense is that the President has made this decision to escalate in Afghanistan with great reluctance. And it’s worth recalling that Lyndon Johnson, I think, felt a similar reluctance about going more deeply into Vietnam. President Johnson allowed himself to be convinced that really there was no plausible alternative, that to admit failure in Vietnam would have drastic consequences for his own capacity to lead and for the credibility of the United States, and so he went in more deeply. And he went in more deeply, persuading himself that he, his generals could maintain control of a situation, even as they escalated. And I think that may well turn out to be the key error that President Obama is also making.

I mean, the very notion that we can ratchet up our involvement in Afghanistan and then state with confidence, at this point, that in eighteen months we’re going to then carefully ratchet our involvement back down seems to assume that war is a predictable and controllable instrument that can be directed with precision by people sitting in offices back in Washington, DC. I think the history of Vietnam and the history of war, more broadly, teaches us something different. And that is, when statesmen choose war, they really are simply rolling the dice, and they have no idea what numbers are going to come up. And their ability to predict, control, direct the outcome, tends to be extremely precarious. So, from my point of view, the President has drawn the wrong lessons from his understanding of the history of war.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bacevich, last month Bill Moyers devoted an entire show to making the comparison between President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to send more troops to Vietnam in 1965 and President Obama’s current escalation in Afghanistan, although of course he said that the situations are different. This is an excerpt from Bill Moyers Journal featuring recorded conversations between President Johnson and Robert McNamara just before President Johnson announced the troop increase requested by General Westmoreland.

    PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Do you know how far we’re going to go?

    ROBERT McNAMARA: No, I don’t.

    PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Do the Joint Chiefs know? And what human being knows? We don’t say that putting these people in is going to win, but we say if you don’t put them in, you’re going to lose substantially what you have. Now we don’t want to promise to do it, but this is more of a holding action in the hope that through the months then they will change their mind, and time will play. Instead of being rash, we’re trying to be prudent. Now, isn’t that really what we’re trying to do?


    PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: No, not a damn human thinks that 50,000 or 100,000 or 150,000 is going to end that war. And we’re not getting out, but we’re trying to hold what we got.

    Can we really, without getting any further authority from the Congress, have all-out support or sufficient and overwhelming support to work successfully, to fight successfully?

    ROBERT McNAMARA: I really think if we were to go to the Clarks and the McGoverns and the Churches and say to them, “Now, this is our situation. We cannot win with our existing commitment. We must increase it, if we’re going to win in this limited term we define — limited way we define 'win.' It requires additional troops. Along with that approach, we are embarking upon or continuing this political initiative to probe for a willingness to negotiate a reasonable settlement here. And we ask your support under these circumstances,” I think you’d get it from them under those circumstances. And that’s a vehicle by which you both get the authority to call up the reserves and also tie them into the whole program.

    PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Now that makes sense.

    BILL MOYERS: July 28th, 1965.

    PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I have asked the commanding general, General Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me, and we will meet his needs. I have today ordered to Vietnam the air mobile division and certain other forces, which will raise our fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000 men almost immediately. Additional forces will be needed later. And they will be sent, as requested.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Johnson announcing an increase of US troops to Vietnam back in July of 1965. That excerpt from Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Professor Bacevich, as you listen to this conversation between the War Secretary McNamara and President Johnson, your thoughts?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I saw the show when it ran. It’s a brilliant piece of journalism. And just listening now to the exchange between President Johnson and McNamara, you can’t help but be reminded of the failure of his advisers, the so-called best and brightest, people like Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, who was the national security adviser, General Maxwell Taylor, who was at that time US ambassador to South Vietnam, all of whom, I think, failed the president and failed the country as a result of their lack of creativity and lack of imagination in helping President Johnson come to an understanding of how best to approach the problem of South Vietnam. They lacked imagination, because they approached the problem within the box of the Cold War, which limited the range of options available to the president.

I would argue that today President Obama has been similarly ill-served by equally unimaginative advisers, people like National Security Adviser James Jones, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, all of whom, I think, adhere to an existing consensus with regard to national security policy, a consensus that was, in a sense, affirmed and strengthened as a consequence of the 9/11 attacks and which, to the present moment, at least within Washington, among our leading politicians, has not been questioned, despite the failures of the past eight or so years. And so, when President Obama gets together with his equivalent of McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara, he gets presented with a range of options that basically say, “Mr. President, you can do anything you want to do. Here’s your choices: 10,000 more troops, 20,000 more troops, 30,000 or 40,000.” They are unable to conceive of a basis for a national security policy that does not involve the increased commitment of American military resources.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a retired colonel. You went to West Point, is that right?


AMY GOODMAN: Did your son go to West Point?

ANDREW BACEVICH: No, he did not.

AMY GOODMAN: No. I mean, just for — I know you don’t like to talk about your son, but — who died in Iraq —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- in 2007. But I was wondering your thoughts, as you watched the speech last night of President Obama at your alma mater

, at West Point, as they panned over the audience, and you saw those hundreds of young cadets.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, we now have a pretty well-established tradition in this country, and I regret this tradition deeply, and a tradition of somebody — of a president wishing to be seen as a commander-in-chief, using American soldiers as props. I think it may well have been Ronald Reagan who was the first to initiate this practice. Every president since Ronald Reagan, regardless of party, has adhered to this practice. And President Obama did last night. I think it is really showing disrespect to American soldiers to use them for political purposes, and I wish that the politicians or the political advisers who arrange these sort of events would cease to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bacevich, I’d like to ask if you’ll stay with us. We’re going to go to break, and we’ll also be joined by journalist Nir Rosen, who is recently back from Afghanistan, who has written extensively about his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. With us now, Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, retired colonel and Vietnam War vet, author of The Limits of Power. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re here in our new printing press studios, and joining us in New York, along with Andrew Bacevich in Boston, BU professor, here in New York independent journalist and fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security, Nir Rosen. He has covered both Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. His latest articles cover the current state of the US occupations in both countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. They appear in the Boston Review.

Nir Rosen, welcome to Democracy Now! Your thoughts after the address, the West Point address of President Obama announcing the surge of 30,000 troops? Though that’s not it, because though his General Stanley McChrystal wanted 40,000, he’s pushing for NATO to supply the rest, and they’re saying it will be in the range of 5,000. Of course, we don’t even know the military contractors that will accompany all of these soldiers.

NIR ROSEN: Well, it’s really no surprise. Even if Obama hadn’t wanted to escalate the troops, he’s under so much political pressure that he would have had to. But I would have at least liked to hear the words “Kashmir” and “Palestine.” If we’re talking about al-Qaeda and the whole reason for why we’re in Afghanistan allegedly is this threat from al-Qaeda, which has been severely exaggerated, then at least understand their motives. The chief motives are the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the Israeli — American-backed Israeli occupation of Palestine. These are the motives. If your goal is to weaken al-Qaeda, understand their motives, address their grievances. This isn’t some James Bond villain that just wants to attack the US for no reason. These are people who have grievances, the same grievances that have been troubling people around the world for decades. They were once explained using a secular Marxist nationalist discourse. Today it’s become a religious discourse, but the grievances have remained the same.

So, why, if your goal is to weaken al-Qaeda, are you attacking the Taliban? The Taliban being a local movement with a very limited and unsophisticated ideology. And al-Qaeda exists to a much larger extent in Pakistan, yet there are no American troops in Pakistan. So why do you need such a huge military footprint in Afghanistan, where there is no al-Qaeda really, if they’re coming in from Pakistan? In Pakistan, you don’t have this American presence, and yet you’ve actually been relatively successful. There have been no attacks on America, thanks to intelligence, interdiction, heightened security. So, al-Qaeda isn’t really a threat. You have a couple hundred relatively unsophisticated guys. They used their A team on September 11, and it was tragic, but it wasn’t that significant. It didn’t really affect the US. What affected the US was the American response internally and abroad. Al-Qaeda isn’t really a big deal. But even if you think it’s a big deal, even if you think this is a huge threat that really deserves so much of our resources, understand its grievances. Address them. If you remove Palestine and Kashmir, you would have way less people in the world who support al-Qaeda, who want to join it.

Instead, what we’re doing is increasing occupation of a Muslim country. Although Obama mentioned the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he mentioned the al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, what about the American occupation of Afghanistan? What about all the innocent people being killed there today, thanks to American counterinsurgency, counterterrorism operations, only further increasing ethnic tensions? You’re going to have a civil war in Afghanistan between Tajiks and Pashtuns at some point. And it’s going more and more in that direction.

AMY GOODMAN: What about President Obama talking about building up the Afghan forces in order for the US troops to step down in, what, about a year and a half, June, July 2011?

NIR ROSEN: Nobody familiar with the Afghan security forces really expects this to happen. Having spent time with them, I don’t even know if it’s a good thing. I mean, the McChrystal report, assessment, identified the Afghan police as one of the main problems in the country. So you’re going to double them? You’re going to double — basically the Afghan police are the recruiter for the Taliban. They oppress the population. They’re mostly on drugs. They’re incompetent. Some of them are very brave, and they’re being killed in large numbers, but you’re going to double this corrupt and oppressive force? That’s surely not going to win you any support among the local population.

The Afghan army, meanwhile, which we’ve spent billions on, was a failure. We saw in the Helmand operation in July, they just decided not to show up. And I was in Helmand, and the Americans and Brits were surprised and complaining. The Afghan army didn’t feel like taking part. They perceive themselves more as a force designed for external threats, not for internal purposes. So that’s a complete waste. And they also just don’t have the ability. They’re also dominated by Tajiks, Tajiks and Uzbeks, and they’re fighting Pashtuns. You’re going to see this force break down on ethnic — along ethnic lines. We see the increase or the return of ethnic-based militias throughout the country.

One other mistake, I think, in the American approach is this focus on the south, a constant focus on the south, as if there’s no problems anywhere else in the country. This focus on the south allowed the center to fall. So you have Logar and Wardak, two provinces who are adjacent to Kabul that fell in the last year to Taliban control, thanks to the American obsession with the south. You have Kunduz and other parts of the north falling to the Taliban, thanks to this American obsession with the south, and now this new obsession with population centers. This was also the Soviet mistake. The Taliban aren’t present in population centers. It’s a rural insurgency. They’re not in the cities so much. They’re in the villages, thousands and thousands of tiny little villages that are impossible to secure. This is not Baghdad, which is easy to control, build walls around neighborhoods. You have thousands of remote villages. There’s no way to get to them. So Taliban — you can control the cities if you want. The Taliban will spread like ink spots. This is a counterinsurgency theory. The Americans think that they will spread like ink spots. In fact, I think the Taliban will spread like ink spots, like oil spots, throughout the rural areas, as the Americans focus on the cities, where you don’t really have a Taliban presence. And the Taliban don’t really care about the cities as much, anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. You talk about the Taliban, well, growing presence. In the rest of the media, it’s all about the US soldiers winning the hearts and minds, and with more troops, they’ll be able to do that, working on reconstruction. But this other view of the US occupation causing more recruits to the Taliban or even al-Qaeda. I wanted to go back, though, to nearly three years ago, January 10, 2007. President Bush was announcing the surge in Iraq.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: America will change our strategy to help the Iraqis carry out their campaign to put down sectarian violence and bring security to the people of Baghdad. This will require increasing American force levels. So I’ve committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq. The vast majority of them, five brigades, will be deployed to Baghdad. These troops will work alongside Iraqi units and be embedded in their formations. Our troops will have a well-defined mission: to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security that Baghdad needs.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Bush. Now let me play for you an excerpt of what President Obama had to say last night at West Point.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer, and all of our troops of the end of 2011. We are doing so as a testament to the character of the men and women in uniform. Thanks to their courage, grit and perseverance, we have given Iraqis a chance to shape their future, and we are successfully leaving Iraq to its people.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, President Obama last night. Nir Rosen, your response? The surge in Iraq to the surge in Afghanistan?

NIR ROSEN: The conflict in Iraq was entirely different from the conflict in Afghanistan. Iraq was a civil war. The increase of American troops, after the Shias had basically won the civil war and crushed the Sunnis, was important. The increase in American troops was a factor in the reduction of violence. But let’s not exaggerate the reduction of violence. You still have much more Iraqi civilians dying today than you do Afghan civilians. Iraq is still a hell hole. The civil war indeed is over, but you have an incredibly corrupt government, weak, oppressive. And this so-called success in Iraq, which we’re using as a model for Afghanistan, success that included the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the displacement of millions of Iraqis, the devastation of the country, the spread throughout the region of sectarianism and instability. So Iraq should hardly be a model for anything, and certainly not for population security for peace and stability, because Iraq is still a much more dangerous place than Afghanistan is.

But again, the surge in Iraq followed the civil war in Iraq. And so, it wasn’t the counterinsurgency so much. It was almost a peacekeeping mission. The Americans, which have been an occupying force, were suddenly perceived by many Iraqis to be the least of all evils, because of the Sunni–Shia fighting. And the Sunnis were basically crushed very brutally by a very harsh Shia counterinsurgency force that was government and the militias.

In Afghanistan, what this would require would be that the much larger — Sunnis in Iraq are 20 percent. Pashtuns — Taliban is a Pashtun-based insurgency. Pashtuns are about 40 percent. So you would need the Tajiks to completely crush the Pashtun population and expel them in large numbers, and then perhaps the Americans can come in and look like the heroes. But that’s not going to happen. There are much more Pashtuns. Again, it’s a rural-based insurgency, so you’re never going to get to them. You will, I think, have a civil war. Things do seem to be going in that direction. But I think the similarities between Iraq and Afghanistan are very few.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama also praised the United States as a country that has not sought world domination or occupation.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: More than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades, a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down and markets open and billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, and advancing frontiers of human liberty. For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for, what we continue to fight for, is a better future for our children and grandchildren. And we believe that their lives will be better if other people’s children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama last night at West Point. Nir Rosen?

NIR ROSEN: Well, every empire has claimed it’s not an empire, it doesn’t want to occupy, it wants to help. Indeed, the American empire has done the same thing. The British in Iraq were uttering the same things the Americans in Iraq were uttering in their occupation. Why do we have military bases all over the world, if not an empire seeking to control much of the world? These days imperialism works in a different way. Maybe you don’t need direct physical control of every place, but you still have that physical force and the threat of violence. Indeed, I think we’re actually a failure as an empire. We actually managed to make the Taliban look good. We took the most detested regime in the world, the Taliban, removed them in a matter of weeks, and here, seven, eight years later, they’re more popular than ever. They’re stronger than ever.

AMY GOODMAN: Among who?

NIR ROSEN: Among people in Pakistan and many Afghans. I mean, at least many Pashtuns. And when I’ve been in Afghanistan, you often hear non-Pashtuns expressing hostility to Americans. I’ve heard many Tajiks say, ”Amreeka dushman Islam,” “America is the enemy of Islam.” Nobody really wants the Americans there.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Professor Bacevich, your book is called The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, responding to what Nir Rosen has said and President Obama’s last point about why we are in Afghanistan.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah, I mean, I think the President’s sort of capsule description of modern US history and our role in the world is extraordinarily important. And the reason it’s important is because that text could have been lifted out of a speech by Harry Truman, by John Kennedy, by Lyndon Johnson, by Richard Nixon, by Ronald Reagan, or by George W. Bush. This is the preferred narrative of American history, the way we prefer to see ourselves, and therefore the narrative that we use to justify all that we do in the world. It is really telling and extraordinary that this president, whose background is quite different from all those other presidents that I just named and who came to office promising to bring about change, it’s extraordinary that he himself would now embrace that narrative so uncritically. And I think that that is indicative of the extent to which, whether there is going to be any change in Washington, it’s simply going to be changes on the margins, and that the Washington consensus, the status quo, is firmly in place.

AMY GOODMAN: Comment, Nir Rosen, on what you think, if you were standing at West Point last night, you would have been saying.

NIR ROSEN: I would have mentioned Kashmir and Palestine and the history of American support for dictatorships in the Middle East and the Muslim world as a cause for this al-Qaeda phenomenon, for this resentment of the US. And I would have —

AMY GOODMAN: And the actions you would have announced?

NIR ROSEN: This is impossibly naïve and would require a revolution in the way America does business, but stop supporting the dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and elsewhere, stop supporting the Pakistani dictatorship or quasi-dictatorship, stop supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Be perceived as a fair player in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Stop killing Muslims, and Muslims will not want to kill you. It’s really very easy.

AMY GOODMAN: Nir Rosen, independent journalist, recently back from Afghanistan, has been covering Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003, a fellow at NYU Center on Law and Security. And thank you very much to Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at BU, a retired colonel and Vietnam War vet, the author of Limits of Power.

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Nir Rosen: “We Managed to Make the Taliban Look Good”

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