Finding the Correct Category for This War

Some pundits suggest Korea is the right analogy for the war we find ourselves fighting:  it will end in a stalemate.  Some suggest Vietnam:  we will be forced to abandon a quagmire.  The underlying question seems to be:  which war are we losing?

But the unspoken consensus is that we are stuck.  My colleague Ralph Biggadike, at the Columbia Business School, puts it this way:  “I’m wondering if we all know that there is nothing the US and NATO can do in Afghanistan but we haven’t admitted that into our consciousness. We don’t know that we know continued engagement in Afghanistan is a path to disaster.”  On the other hand, “Pulling out of Afghanistan is the unthinkable.”

Newsweek tells this week of a reference Gen. McChrystal made to a plan called Chaosistan, essentially allowing Afganistan to become a “Somalia-like haven of chaos that we simply manage from outside.”  After some confusion about the origin of that radical suggestion, the general’s aides clarified that it came from a recently published, and secret, CIA analysis…. [that] explains how forces inside Afghanistan—from hostile ethnic groups to intrusive neighbors to societal damage caused by past Taliban rule—work against the notions of a central Afghan government.” (See, “Chaosistan”)

That is yet a different model for the war.  But it seems unlikely we could abandon the country now, after intruding so forcefully.  On the other hand, neither can we win, lacking the political will to mobilize the resources necessary for the job.  Meanwhile the war is shifting across borders we ourselves can’t so easily cross.  It looks hopeless, and I think sub-consciously we all know it, as Ralph suggests.

In the same issue of Newsweek that reported McChrystal’s comment, Fareed Zakaria put a different spin on the whole issue, noting “the assumption that we are failing in Afghanistan. But are we really? The United States has had one central objective: to deny Al Qaeda the means to reconstitute, train, and plan major terror attacks. This mission has been largely successful for the past eight years.” (See “The Case Against a Surge.”)  Vice President Biden has apparently been pushing a similar point of view in the Obama administration, with some success – though it is not clear how he proposes we extricate ourselves.

It is tempting to think it is all a matter of perception:  Korea, Vietnam, Somalia – or a great success.  I don’t know which set of lenses is more correct, but I am in favor of making conscious the underlying assumptions that govern our thinking.