Is US setting policy for terra incognita?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2009, 12:00am

Former US defence secretary Robert McNamara raised an issue in his 1995 book on the war in Vietnam that applies today in Afghanistan: What did the president and his senior advisers know about the country in which they intended to wage war before getting the United States deeply engaged?

McNamara, who died a month ago, said In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam: 'When it came to Vietnam, we found ourselves setting policy for a region that was terra incognita.'

He contended: 'Our government lacked experts for us to consult to compensate for our ignorance.'

Nonsense. The reservoir of US officials, military officers, diplomats, scholars, and others who knew much about Vietnamese history, culture, and politics was shallow but wide enough to advise US political leaders about what they were getting the nation into.

As former secretary of state Colin Powell wrote in his book, An American Journey, published the same year, Bernard Fall's book on Vietnam, Street Without Joy, made 'painfully clear that we had almost no understanding of what we had gotten ourselves into'. Fall was a French correspondent who was killed in Vietnam in 1967.

Mr Powell wrote: 'I cannot help thinking that if president [John] Kennedy or president [Lyndon] Johnson had spent a quiet weekend at Camp David reading that perceptive book, they would have returned to the White House on Monday and immediately started to figure out a way to extricate us from the quicksand of Vietnam.'

The question today is whether US President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, National Security Adviser James Jones, and the special envoy on Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, have consulted experts as they plunge US forces ever deeper into a country that has chewed up foreign armies for centuries.

Afghanistan is unlike most countries with which the US has dealt in the past half-century. It has been a republic, a monarchy, a theocracy, and a communist state. Its population has leapt from 13 million in 1979 to 33 million despite decades of strife.

It is a tribal society in which loyalty to family, village, and clan is stronger than that to nation. Disputes are often settled with violence. The literacy rate among men is 51 per cent, while among women it is 21 per cent, another indication of a deep split in Afghan culture.

Mr Obama and his advisers should not be faulted for inattention to Afghanistan.

Perhaps the key statement was Mr Obama's on March 27: 'We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the US, our friends and our allies, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists.'

But that does not reveal whether the administration is setting policy for a land that McNamara might have called 'terra incognita'.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington