On a sweltering day at Woodstock in 1969, the band Country Joe and the Fish did something that every Eighties Baby born to hippies knows well.
First, they led the crowd in a rousing chant of the word “fuck”, just for the heck of it. Nowadays, when soft-porn club bangers saturate the radio, the fact that shouting “fuck” was a show-stopper seems downright quaint.
But Country Joe’s second moment of lasting fame—a rousing, angry anthem condemning the Vietnam War—should continue to give us pause today.
“Ain’t no time to wonder why,” he sang. “Whoopee, we’re all gonna die!”
As Obama announces that 17,000 more troops will be dedicated to Afghanistan, it seems all too likely that we’ve forgotten Country Joe’s lessons. We’re about to try to use the bluntness of our military to solve a popular insurgency in a poor country whose people have had about their fill of foreign occupation. And we’re not asking why.
Of course, there’s nothing of the scale of Vietnam currently going on in Afghanistan. Look at Vietnam in 1964, though, when only 16,500 American troops were in the country. No one knew that it would eventually kill more than 58,000 Americans.
Scratch the surface, and there are a lot of disturbing similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam.
Both are rural countries that were very difficult for occupying armies to control. In Afghanistan, history has proved this not only in the current American endeavors but also in the repeatedly doomed efforts of the British and Russians in times past.
Then, there’s the popular insurgency factor. Say what you will about the methods of Afghan insurgents. They share at least one important characteristic with the Vietcong—all evidence points to at least some kind of popular support, at least in certain regions. The tricky thing about popular insurgencies is that bombing them—and the civilians that support them or live with them—tends to embolden them. (That’s why Pakistan revealed last week that the missile strikes on militants there are making the insurgency worse, not better).
Another similarity—less tangible, but no less important—is that the U.S. government is selling the war in Afghanistan, like Vietnam, as a crucial battle on the frontier of an evil ideology that threatens to infect the world. In 1965, the enemy was Communism; today, it is Islamic Terror. This ideological oversimplification led us on exceedingly stupid campaigns in the past. It has also served as a supporting story for the interminable deployment of our formidable—and profitable—war machine. We should be wary of it now, as we were after Vietnam.
Americans want to prevent 9/11 from ever happening again. That, of course, is entirely reasonable. And we see Afghanistan as the breeding ground of such attacks.
But where is the explanation of how increasing our military presence in Afghanistan will achieve this? I haven’t seen it.
It’s quite possible that the United States will get bogged down. General David McKiernan, the American commander in Afghanistan, has already made it clear that the injection of forces is not a temporary measure. He’s said the troops will remain there for up to five years, and he already wants 10,000 more, according to The New York Times.
That sounds like a recipe for a quagmire. Especially considering that, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll, only 18 percent of Afghanis support the troop increase.
Obama and McKiernan both keep telling us that Afghanistan is a political problem as much as it is a security problem. But in escalating the war there against the wishes of the populace, they’ll be moving the country further from a political solution to its complex problems. Every time civilians are killed—and NATO has killed an astounding number of civilians in Afghanistan in the last year, nearly as many as the insurgents have—they’ll be handing a recruiting tool to insurgents, who have ties to communities.
And a funny thing about people everywhere is they hate living under foreign military occupation. In times of occupation, they’re willing to put aside differences to rise up against the people patrolling their villages. Why would Afghanistan be any different? The troop increase begs that question entirely.
We want to stop terrorism. If that’s the case, rather than dumping more troops into the violence fondue that is Afghanistan, we should change our role in the world—and our relationship with the Middle East dictators who stand for everything we don’t. (Sure, the 9/11 hijackers trained in Afghanistan. But 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi.)
I guess all that is just too much trouble. Why fundamentally change our foreign policy when we can continue relying on the brute force of our giant military.
Because it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn. Next stop is Afghanistan!