Perhaps the most important decision in the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency is his answer to the request of his main commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for some 30,000 to 40,000 more troops to be added to the 68,000 troops already approved.
This is written before the president made that historic decision. My guess is that he may approve more troops for that war, but not as many as requested.
Afghanistan has some 86,000 local troops, but they are ill-trained and are not well-supported. Also there are some 134,000 police officers but they too are not well trained and lack vital logistical support.
The first major difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam is length of warfare. The Vietnam War lasted 10 years from 1964 to 1974, although some think the war started earlier and ended earlier with the ineffective peace treaty in 1973.
We have been in Afghanistan for eight years. Most analysts predict that we cannot leave anytime soon because of the instability of the government which is noted for corruption and lack of widespread popular support.
Both in Afghanistan and in Vietnam, American popular support at the beginning faded as the war dragged on and we brought more and more of our soldiers home in their coffins.
Popular support for the war in Afghanistan was high right after Sept. 11, 2001, but now it is much lower. Protest was much greater against the war in Vietnam because it mainly was fought by draftees. The present war in Afghanistan is being fought by volunteers, no draftees.
In Vietnam we suffered 47,000 deaths. In Afghanistan we have lost about 1,000 so far, but that figure will rise if we stay longer in that war.
Both Vietnam and Afghanistan wars had some conditions that are parallel. Similar to the request from McChrystal, Gen. William Westmoreland wanted an increase of 209,000 for Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson refused the request and brought Westmoreland home to a less than heroic reception.
If Obama completely refuses to send all the troops requested, and McChrystal insists on his number, he could be brought home, too.
The president is commander in chief of all the military troops, including top generals and admirals. Insubordination is very serious, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur found out when he deliberately wrote to members of Congress about his differences with President Harry Truman over conduct of the Korean War, which was not going well for our side at the end of the war.
The president had ordered the general not to write Congress. So he fired MacArthur, who then made his famous speech to Congress and the nation saying: "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."
The same mistake will not be made by McChrystal. But the arguments are certain to continue concerning how to wage the Afghanistan war so we can achieve our objectives and leave with our honor intact, and with a somewhat stable and perhaps slightly friendly local government in place that is capable of maintaining peace after we depart.
The last major difference is that our efforts in Afghanistan were second to our war in Iraq. Vietnam did not have a twin war next door as Afghanistan does.
Being second is not good for military morale. MacArthur waged a relentless and unsuccessful drive to make our efforts in the Pacific during World War II be equal to our support of our troops in the European theater of war. After all, Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor. Hitler made no such attack on our troops before the war. It is a sad fact for the families of our troops in the Pacific that they seemed to remain, for most of World War II, in second place in our nation’s priorities.
Obama will certainly be faced with a similar choice. Should he continue to give more attention and support to the war in Iraq, or shift our main efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan?
Afghanistan suffered invasions and warfare many times throughout history, such as the invasions by Alexander the Great by Mongol troops who devastated the entire country; by three wars with the British in the 1800s; by Soviet invaders from 1980-1990; and by the U.S. and our NATO allies for the past eight years.
It must be a sad place to live and die.
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly on Mondays and on gainesvilletimes.com.