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Joe Walsh is right, of course, but it's even harder to leave if you aren't looking for the door.  Given that a majority of the American and Afghan people want the US to leave Afghanistan, it's probably time to start looking for the door there.  As many commentators have noted, the US involvement in Afghanistan looks uncomfortably similar to its involvement in Vietnam, where the US also took a long time to start looking for the door.  While the Vietnam-Afghanistan comparison can be over done, there are some similarities which show why the Administration should be looking for the door.

Among the useful comparisons are these.  In neither country were there any vital US interests at stake.  History has shown that it didn't significantly affect the US when South Vietnam became part of North Vietnam.  Likewise, in and of itself, it doesn't matter to the US who wins the current civil war in Afghanistan among the Taliban and the several other war lords in the country.

Next, President Karzai looks like President Diem, as Frank Rich noted in his September 27, 2009 NY Times Op-Ed piece.  Karzai, like Diem, is the nominal leader of the country, but he lacks popular support or much political or military power.  Both men tried to fill the gap with corruption.  Karzai is using US aid money to buy political support from those willing to sell.  In neither case, are US troops a solution to the political short-comings of our chosen "leader" of the country.  This is particularly so in Afghanistan, where Karzai is the only political leader who is not a war lord. which is pretty much always a losing hand.

The US has tried to make Karzai into a political force by holding elections, but in a country without a history of democracy and with effective tribal leaders already in place, an election will not turn a powerless President into an actual political force.  Equally, it's very unlikely that the war lords and tribal leaders will allow Karzai to become an independent political force, since it's not in their interest to do so.

The US couldn't create a democratic society in Vietnam by force of arms.  Neither has it hasn't created one in Afghanistan in the 8 years we've been there, and it isn't going to create one if we stay another 8 years.  As a British general recently observed about his country's army: "It isn't an armed reconstruction force."  US soldiers can't shoot enough Afghanis to turn the country into a democracy.  

Further, General McCrystal's plan to use US troops to "isolate" the "good" Afghans from the Taliban sounds a lot like the second coming of the Strategic Hamlet plan in Vietnam.  While McCrystal's plan is lacking in details at this point, it seems as unlikely to succeed in turning Kazari into an effective political leader as the Strategic Hamlet plan was in propping up Diem.  If McCrystal's plan is to be carried out by Afghans, it is likely have the same problems with corruption and incompetent administration that killed the Strategic Hamlet plan in Vietnam.  If it's run by US troops, it will only increase the already great dislike by the Afghan people of our occupying their country.

Finally, President Obama seems to be channeling Lyndon Johnson's instinct to make policy by keeping to the "middle road" between opposing views.  Thus Johnson had nice Quaker ladies tell him to get out of Vietnam in one meeting and then an hour later military types would want to do various extreme things to North Vietnam or even China, so sending tens of thousands of more troops to Vietnam seemed to him like the middle road.  President Obama seems poised to conclude that the best policy in Afghanistan is to keep between getting out and sending all the troops that the military wants.  For instance, to properly occupy the country would take over 600,000 soldiers.  Gen. McCrystal is playing on this tendency of Obama's by telling Obama that he has to have 20,000 to 80,000 more troops.  Thus the 40,000 troops he started out requesting will look like the middle road to the President.  

Before President Obama follows President Johnson down the escalation path because it's the middle road and because he doesn't want Republicans to say he lost a war, the Administration needs to figure out when to start looking for the door.  Which means identifying achievable goals for the US in Afghanistan that make sense in the circumstances.  Unfortunately, the President's March goals don't fit that description because they are too ill defined and aren't practical.  Al-Quada is too ill defined and only loosely connected to kill all of them off.  So the goal has to be, as Joe Biden is apparently arguing, to make life operationally  really difficult for them, thus providing all the protection possible for the US mainland.  That's a continuing effort which requires a variety of tactics, but doesn't require the US to continue the to occupy Afghanistan.

There are achievable and rational strategic goals for Afghanistan, which as it turns out, we've already accomplished.  As the Administration's own recent reports show, Al-Quada's leadership that was in Afghanistan is now in Pakistan and has a much reduced ability to cause trouble.  That result with achieved with many fewer troops than are in Afghanistan now, and the situation can be sustain with only a few troops on the ground in the area.  

The second goal should be to make it expensive, in one way or another, for any country to actively protect, train and supply terrorists that threaten the US.  It's not necessary to occupy a country for years and years to do that.  We just need to make it so expensive that no country would want to do it.  And we've already done that in Afghanistan.  If we left the country tomorrow, there is no question that we have clearly made the point to the  Taliban and everyone else in the world, for that matter, that active support of terrorists in their territory which results in an attack on the US is going to be way too expensive to permit.  Nothing else useful can accomplished in Afghanistan.  

There is no reason to think that the Taliban, if they regain control of Afghanistan, will want to do anything that will bring back the US military.  However fondly they think of Al-An Quada, the Taliban cannot want to have a replay of a US invasion.  Further, it's easy to make clear to them what actions on their part will bring about the kind of military action they would want to avoid.  

Having accomplish both of the sensible goals for US military involvement in Afghanistan, it's time to declare victory and go home.  When President Obama announces the bringing of the troops home, as he must some day, he should paraphrase Lyndon Johnson's best insight on Vietnam: We are not about to send American soldiers 7 thousand miles away from home to do what Afghan soldiers ought to be doing for themselves.

Originally posted to publius21 on Thu Oct 15, 2009 at 09:22 AM PDT.

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