President Barack Obama's recent visit in Afghanistan has sown confusion among his critics both on the left and on the right. The agreement hatched theoretically committed the United States to another 12 years of intervention.
Usually this comes in the form of economic aid and advice, and support with military assistance. In reality, it is more of a fig leaf for a steady drawdown in America forces. By summer's end, a 91,000-numbered contingent will be reduced to 65,000. America is on the way out, following the schedule of a "decent interval."
In this fashion, Obama is taking a leaf from Richard Nixon's steady departure from South Vietnam. The more resolute he speaks on this subject, the less he says. John Mitchell's old adage of "watch what we do, not what we say" is certainly being followed. What Henry Kissinger wrote to Nixon concerning withdrawing too fast in Vietnam applies to Afghanistan: "Withdrawal of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public: The more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded."
And indeed this is what Obama is doing. Say what you will, the president is certainly no fool knowing full well that Hamid Karza's government is living on borrowed time. Instead of actually securing more of the country, the U.S. has lost ground. Recently, the United States scrapped plans to build a consulate in Mazar-e Sharif citing security concerns. This area was once a proud possession of the now defunct Northern Alliance and was seen as a symbol of anti-Taliban success. No more it would appear.
Obama's apparent decision to commit up to 20,000 U.S. troops after 2014 is merely a sop to Pakistan's beleaguered government and a belligerent bone thrown to those dogs of war - McCain, Lieberman and Graham. If you cannot win with 91,000, you certainly will not make it with 20,000.
Numbers of personnel can be misleading. In 1972, the United States had 47,000 in Vietnam, but only 6,000 were combat troops. Granted, off-shore assets in the form of carriers and air bases in Thailand increased the number working against North Vietnam. But overall, the trend pointed homeward and no amount of bluster and brag could change that. Le Duc Tho's sally against Kissinger at the Paris talks posed the key question, "How can you succeed when you let your puppet troops do the fighting?" Kissinger, conceding the point privately, wrote that it "Also torments me."
But Obama has behaved obliquely when it comes to those wars he inherited. In Iraq, the hawks thought they had him in their pockets only to see him quit Iraq in December 2011. In Libya, he went along with Hillary Clinton's intervention, saw what remained and had second thoughts. As far as Syria is concerned, Obama does not need to eat a side of beef to know it's tainted. When it comes to intervention, Obama accepts the lyrics, but rejects the tune. Given those hustlers for intervention anywhere in the world, any American president must be careful and Obama has been careful. However, it sometimes defies logic and boggles the mind. Such is the twisted road to peace.
Both Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon feared the right more than the left when it came to Vietnam. Fearing a reprise of the "Who lost China debate" in the 1950s, Nixon and Johnson saw a right wing revolt in the offing if Vietnam either fell or appeared to be abandoned. Obama, fearful of being labeled soft on any American enemy, real or imagined, tended at the beginning of his term to defer to the interventionist like David Petraeus. Having seen that the Iraq and Afghanistan intervention had no legs, like Nixon, he drew both down while whispering tough phrases. But Obama's path is not escalation, but withdrawal in Afghanistan, and he sure refuses to depict it that way.