In my first year in graduate school, I took a course on revolutions. I wrote on Vietnam and also what we knew then as internal war or revolutionary war; now we call it insurgency and counterinsurgency. This was before the big American commitment in Vietnam, when we had mostly advisers there, before the big commitment of troops that came in the spring of 1965. Anyway, after looking at all the other cases we had and the arguments, I became convinced that sending ground troops in large numbers to Vietnam was a fool’s errand. It just wouldn’t work. I was uncertain of this when I started the paper, but when you looked at all the cases we had and basic logic, it just did not look like good prospects if you went down that road. So again there are some things that unfortunately come back again.
Q. The world situation has changed so much in the last 20 years and the end of the Cold War. How has your scholarly work changed since the fall of the Berlin wall?
Well, during the Cold War, I did a lot on nuclear strategy—two books, a number of articles, teaching about that and some involvement with policy. And with the end of the Cold War, the issue of nuclear war, at least temporarily, disappeared, and so did issues of nuclear strategy, which were central to some of the Cold War debates. I wasn’t glad to see them go, but now, ironically, they’ve come back but not so much in relations with Russia, but mostly in terms of proliferation, how dangerous proliferation is and whether “rogues” are easier or hard to deter.
Q. In this post-Cold War, has the U.S. developed the knowledge to address a more complicated world?
In the Cold War, you had a tremendous reservoir of knowledge about nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrents, relations with the Soviets. That won’t do now. You must have knowledge on, say, negotiations on climate change, on public health issues like the swine flu, on Iran, on terrorism. The U.S. has to develop expertise for all of these topics, and it’s extremely difficult. We can’t send enough Arabic-speaking diplomats or aid officials or anyone to Iraq. We just simply don’t have them, let alone think of deploying people, Dari or Pashto speakers, to Afghanistan. We could send them all, and they’d probably fit in a room a little bigger than this office.
Q. What do you think of Obama’s review process on what should be done in Afghanistan?
I can understand why people feel as if it’s taking a long time. But as we’ve seen from the Bush administration, these things are worth taking time for. When Obama made the commitment to Afghanistan, he did it in the campaign for political reasons. He had to assert that this was a necessary war because he was attacking Bush on Iraq, and he couldn’t afford to look weak generally. The review is both a symptom of how badly off we are, and partly the depth of knowledge and thinking about it, and six years of inattention by the Bush administration. Obama is absolutely right to press the generals hard. How many troops do you need isn’t the main question, but what are you going to do with those troops, what’s the connection between some end state that we feel is necessary and what we’re going to do, not only in terms of how many forces but what are you going to do with the forces and why do you think that will help reach your goal in a manageable length of time? He’s right to ask those questions, and I suspect he’s not getting very good answers because there aren’t many good answers.
Q. What should be included in this review process?
What’s crucial, but not on the table, is domestic politics. In a crass sense, Obama has got to look ahead to elections a year from now, and of course three years from now. No foreign policy can survive without domestic support, and the policy in Afghanistan at this point lacks that support, for good reason. You don’t need a Ph.D. to know that 10 years of 500,000 troops is not sustainable. We don’t even have that number of troops to send in the first place. Then within the domestic policy, what are the links between the terrorist threat that we really worry about and the insurgency that is not central to us? It’s central to the people of Afghanistan, but we’re not going around the world for search and seize. We don’t have troops in eastern Congo, for example, where more people get killed every day because it’s not central to our security. So can we separate the insurgency and the terrorism? How can we maximize the separation of the two? And then if we need to do traditional counterinsurgency, which means protecting the population, is this really feasible in a country with the geographic distribution of the population that Afghanistan has, with the tribal and ethnic rudiments that this has, with the tradition of being very wary of foreigners, and with an unsealable border to Pakistan? I think that’s what Obama is pressing his colleagues on, and he’s probably not getting good answers.
Q. What do you think of Gen. McChrystal’s proposal?
It’s no good at all. If I were a professor and I got it from a student, I’d turn it back and say, “Okay, let’s take another draft.” You can’t answer all the questions, and you have to make some decisions based on uncertainty. But they can do better than that. The trouble is the more you push the counterinsurgency the worse the numbers look. Too many people, not enough troops.
Q. You have called the Vietnam War a fool’s errand. How does your research on Vietnam inform your conclusions about Afghanistan?
I think the American debate today is excessively influenced by Iraq and Vietnam. That’s a mistake. I’m fascinated by the Vietnam War, but Afghanistan is not Vietnam. A lot of people—older people—are refighting Vietnam. Other people are refighting Iraq, saying that we can duplicate the surge. Afghanistan’s first surge didn’t occur in the way most people think. Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, so we have to start by saying, “Afghanistan is Afghanistan.”
Q. How do you think the U.S. should proceed in Afghanistan?
Nothing looks good. As I said in the Foreign Policy blog, I’m not convinced that withdrawal is as bad as the conventional wisdom has it. My piece really was written to invite discussion. I’m really open to be convinced that the consequences are awful. And, of course, like all future, it’s unpredictable, but there are terrorist bases other than in Afghanistan, like in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And I’m not convinced the Taliban, which of course is not united, would give Al Qaeda an opportunity to consolidate power the way it did in 2001. So unless the U.S. government can come up with a plan that looks to have some sensible prospect, I don’t see the point in sending more troops.
—Interview by Tanya L. Domi and Melanie A. Farmer will appear in the next issue of The Record