In announcing the decision to send Gen. Stanley McChrystal to assume command in Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates insisted the move was part of a new American strategy in the central Asian country.
Without really knowing what "new" means, Americans should still be pleased with the Obama administration's decision to break away from the dead-end policies of the Bush administration. Up to this point, the United States has repeated mistakes we made in Vietnam.
In 1965, we misconstrued a region of temporary, tactical importance as being of enduring strategic value. President Lyndon Johnson's advisers had unfounded, na´ve and unrealistic expectations of Vietnam's near-term potential to evolve into a modern social democratic constitutional republic if the United States put the "right people" in charge and provided a pile of cash and some "military assistance."
Similar thinking in Afghanistan cultivated religious extremism while making the country safe for opium farming and heroin traffickers.
These observations may help explain McChrystal's appointment.
From his headquarters in Qatar during 2006 and 2007, McChrystal directed air strikes and special operations attacks against Arabs in Iraq based on intelligence connecting them to al-Qaida. The decline in violence against American troops in Iraq - the way the American media gauge success there - must be attributed in part to McChrystal's program of direct action and not exclusively to Gen. David Petraeus's cash-for-peace plan that placed Sunni Arab insurgents on the U.S. government's payroll.
In theory, repeating McChrystal's operation in Afghanistan would make sense if the new strategic goal ignored nation-building and focused on bleeding the hordes of Taliban "irregulars" while the United States expends as little blood and treasure as possible to keep what remains of al-Qaida snug in its cave somewhere in northern Pakistan. (Of course, if al-Qaida achieved success, it would control Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula instead of a cave in northwest Pakistan.)
Politicians frequently substitute a fascination with direct action in the form of air strikes or special operations killings for strategy. They see such action as a "cleaner" approach with its own logic, as well as tactics with less risk of U.S. casualties. But in the absence of a viable strategy with attainable objectives, direct action is problematic.
Between 1967 and 1972, American Special Operations Forces were employed as part of a larger counterinsurgency campaign known as the Phoenix program against the civilian infrastructure supporting the Viet Cong using tactics of infiltration, capture, terrorism or assassination. Phoenix killed at least 25,000 Vietnamese, but its contribution to the "success" of American counterinsurgency efforts is still debated - and a moot point, given the United States' withdrawal and the subsequent collapse of the Saigon regime in 1975.
In Iraq, the absence of an American military strategy produced unanticipated results. McChrystal's targeted killings and Petraeus's cash-for-peace program suspended America's conflict with the Sunni Arab minority, but these actions also consolidated Shiite Arab political power in the form of the Maliki government.
Today, Maliki's regime is rapidly falling back into the old Baathist patterns - but with the Iran-backed, Shiite Arab majority providing the ruling elite.
More important, while the U.S. government equates conditions in Iraq with strategic success, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs in the country do not, making more conflict inevitable. The real question is whether President Obama will allow U.S. forces to be drawn into future fighting instead of withdrawing them.
In Afghanistan, the outcome for U.S. strategic interests could be much worse. The Karzai government is propped up by U.S. and allied troops professing a religion - Christianity - that is anathema to the vast majority of Afghans. Karzai's government also has no significant support outside the Tajik and Uzbek-inhabited areas.
Shipping foreign aid to Pakistan is hopeless. To date, U.S. foreign aid to Pakistan can be described as a policy whereby poor people in the United States have their money sent to rich people in Pakistan. Nothing we do will compel 125 million Muslims in Pakistan to make common cause with a United States in league with the two states that are unambiguously anti-Muslim: Israel and India.
Frankly, it's time for President Obama to reverse course and leave Afghanistan, as well as Iraq. Leaving Afghanistan will not only relieve the explosive pressure inside Pakistan and give Islamabad a chance to restore order, it will also give Russia, Iran and India time to ponder what they will do in our absence. All three have far more at stake in the region than the United States does.
Douglas Macgregor, a former U.S. Army colonel, is an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, Washington.