When Gordon Goldstein sees Afghanistan as deja vu, a mission that's "unraveling," it isn't the ramblings of another armchair critic.
Goldstein is the author of an acclaimed biography of McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who became haunted by the misadventure he helped devise in Vietnam. The book, "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam," was on President Obama's nightstand as he was setting Afghanistan policy last year; it got a rave review from Richard Holbrooke, now in charge of the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy.
Goldstein argues that it's clear the counterinsurgency and population- protection policy, as set out in Gen. Stanley McChrystal's manifesto last summer, is failing, reminiscent of the grandiose plans Bundy promulgated in Vietnam in the 1960s.
The numbers underscore why this policy is unsustainable. U.S. casualties this year are likely to double to between 600 and 700, more than during the entire Bush administration; July was the deadliest month for U.S. forces in the history of the conflict.
The Afghan war will cost $105 billion this fiscal year — more than double what it cost when Obama took over and almost twice what we're spending on Iraq.
Most allies aren't interested in being part of any long-term plans. The Dutch have withdrawn their soldiers; Canada and Poland have expressed intentions to do likewise. The largest non-U.S. contingent consists of the almost 10,000 British troops, and new Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested he'd like to pull out most of them in the not-too-distant future.
There are two overarching elements that make the U.S. policy unpalatable: Public opinion keeps souring; most Americans now think the war isn't winnable. And in contrast to the context surrounding the original adventure into Iraq, the United States is in tough shape financially and there is a consensus that huge budget deficits have to be pared back.
Some of the most passionate supporters of the war, such as Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., also advocate that all the tax cuts passed under the Bush administration, including those for the wealthiest Americans, be extended. There is no mention of sacrifice.
To be sure, just getting out is an option almost no one considers smart. The debate instead should focus on the particulars of a more limited counterterrorism policy that both prevents Afghanistan from being a safe haven again for al-Qaida and fosters stability in Pakistan, the more important question.
One option that's not productive is a multiyear presence of 100,000 or more U.S. troops; the British and Russians could have told us that this turns into a counterproductive occupying force.
Watching Obama, Goldstein recalls the contrast that Bundy described in the 1960s between the skeptical Kennedy and more gung-ho Johnson on Vietnam. Bundy speculated that JFK, who believed that military means never should be deployed in pursuit of an indeterminate end, wouldn't have engaged in a protracted war.
"Obama never drank the Kool-Aid on the counterinsurgency case; that's why he gave McChrystal fewer troops than he wanted and set a date to start withdrawing," Goldstein said. "This is illustrative of doubt and caution, of not wanting to be boxed in. That was Kennedy's signature style on Vietnam."