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Withdraw from Afghanistan Now

Lawrence Bush
December 7, 2009

The following is a “Viewpoint” piece by our magazine’s editorial board member, Barnett Zumoff. Dr. Zumoff is a retired general in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and was a four-time president of the Workmen’s Circle. The piece appears in the hot-off-the-presses Winter, 2009 issue of Jewish Currents.
By Barnett Zumoff
The Obama Administration is currently engaged in an intense debate about what tactics to use to pursue the war in Afghanistan, and specifically how many additional troops to send there. To my mind, this decision is an easy one: We should send no additional troops and should make plans to withdraw all the troops we have there now.
All of the arguments, pro and con, are eerie reflections of the same arguments we had during the Vietnam War. The U.S. lost that war, we should recall, after pouring in more than a quarter of a million troops and vainly expending the lives of nearly 60,000 of them, as well as the lives of some million Vietnamese.
Tactics are only the methodology of attaining a strategic goal. If the goal is unnecessary or unattainable, even the best tactics in the world are inappropriate. In Vietnam, we deluded ourselves into thinking that the poor villagers of Vietnam could be diplomatically sweet-talked or militarily pounded into abandoning their legitimate grievances against a corrupt and oppressive government. We further deluded ourselves into thinking that if that small, geopolitically insignificant country fell to communism, all of the non-communist world would collapse with it like a row of dominoes. This was a preposterous idea, and it didn’t happen when we finally did lose in Vietnam.
Long before the end of the war, as early as 1968, our government officials had concluded that the war was lost, yet we nevertheless continued to pour blood and treasure and tens of thousands more American lives into it. This was nothing less than government-sanctioned murder. Let’s not repeat the same mistakes in Afghanistan.
The U.S. made war in Afghanistan for goals that sounded reasonable at the time: primarily to destroy the bases and training capabilities of Al Qaeda, which were the foundations of its worldwide jihadist activities, and secondarily to overthrow the Taliban government in order to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven. It has been argued that the primary goal could have been attained (and could still be attained) through massive manned and unmanned bombing of Al Qaeda’s bases, without pouring our troops into the country. The secondary goal, in turn, would have been unnecessary had we accomplished the primary goal by lesser methods — yet it has been the pursuit of that secondary goal that may now undo us.
Why? There are several reasons. Afghanistan is a much larger country than Vietnam, with a far more difficult terrain. That, with our current (and future) inability to field even one-fourth as many troops as we did in Vietnam, makes it impossible to subdue the country; the paltry number of troops we are planning to add in Afghanistan will not change that equation significantly. Second, the Afghan government we are now working with is every bit as corrupt as the South Vietnamese government was, and is equally despised by the people. Third, the Taliban, though many (but not all) Afghans hated its cruel and oppressive laws, are far closer to the Afghan people than are the hated Western “infidels.” Their government was less corrupt than the current Karzai government and was often able to secure the loyalty of villagers even without using force. Finally, the Taliban has a bottomless resource for support and resupply from its fundamentalist allies in Pakistan, just as the Vietcong had from Laos, Cambodia, and China.
It is worth remarking that three of history’s mightiest military forces, those of Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union, were unable to subdue Afghanistan after years of war. Why should the U.S. expect to do so now, with our severely limited military resources and without the support of the American people? Why is the effort necessary, and how can we possibly afford the physical, financial, emotional, and political drain that the war is imposing on the U.S.? Most military authorities believe we could keep Al Qaeda perpetually weak and off-balance with military measures far short of maintaining nearly a hundred thousand troops in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
We should get out now. Any political bogeymen that we are threatened with if we leave — loss of face, loss of political influence in the world, etc. — are no more real than the “domino theory” was in Vietnam. The Afghanistan war is not worth one American life, let alone thousands

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.