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In Afghanistan: The U.S. is once again misbranding a war

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In Afghanistan, the U.S. government is putting the wrong brand on a war. It is the third time that the U.S. has done this since the early 1960s. In each case -- in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan -- the consequences have been disastrous.

In the first case, the administration of Lyndon Johnson dispatched hundreds of thousands of American troops to fight against the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. Over the course of the war, the United States dropped a greater tonnage of bombs on North Vietnam than were dropped during the whole of the Second World War. In South Vietnam, civilian casualties vastly outnumbered military casualties. Much of the countryside was defoliated by the use of chemical weapons, among them Agent Orange. In the end the United States lost the war.

The case of the Johnson administration to justify American intervention was that this was a war against International Communism, the combined forces of the Soviet Union, China and the local government in North Vietnam. Victory for the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front would cause other countries throughout South East Asia to fall, like a row of dominoes, under the sway of International Communism.

By the time the Johnson administration used this justification for its mission in Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union had fallen out with each other. The enormous tension between the two Communist giants soon led to fighting between the armed forces of the two countries along their lengthy boundary, some of which was in dispute. Following the fall of South Vietnam and the integration of the country under the forces of the North, Vietnam and China fought a war on their common border.

In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration, following the realpolitik prescriptions of Henry Kissinger, opened the door to a new relationship between the United States and China, concluding that it was better to play the Chinese and the Soviets off against each other than to falsely brand Communism as a united global force. Not long after winning its war in Vietnam, the regime in Hanoi sought better relations with the U.S., among other things, seeking an inflow of American investments.

In 2003, the administration of George W. Bush justified its invasion of Iraq on two grounds. First, the White House claimed that the regime of Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction that could threaten the United States and its allies. Soon after the American occupation of Iraq, that claim was shown to be entirely specious. Second, key members of the administration, Vice President Dick Cheney among them, insisted that there were close ties between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda. That too was false. Saddam Hussein's secular dictatorship was, in reality, an implacable foe of Al Qaeda's messianic Islamism.

Misbranding Iraq and its regime led the Bush administration into a strategic catastrophe. Not only did the United States stretch its military too thin and mire itself in a war it could not afford, a conflict that pushed the country toward economic crisis, it vastly enhanced the power of Iran in the Middle East. Today's divided Iraq is much more likely to become an ally of Tehran than was Saddam's Iraq.

In recent days, the administration of Barack Obama has been contemplating whether to send as many as 40,000 additional troops to fight in Afghanistan. Again, the war in that country has been falsely branded. The United States and its allies, Canada included, have made the case that they are fighting on behalf of a regime in Kabul that is committed to the rule of law, human rights (in particular the rights of women) and the establishment of democracy. The Taliban foe is portrayed as the ally of Al Qaeda, a pillar in the forces of international terrorism and therefore a threat to the West.

While the ties between the Taliban and Al Qaeda are not in dispute, there is no evidence to suggest that the Taliban is committed to an agenda of global terrorism. The insurgency in the south of Afghanistan and in the border regions of Pakistan is motivated by ethnic nationalism and the pursuit of a social agenda inspired by an extreme version of Islam. The members of the Taliban are sustained by their drive to establish a political entity dominated by ethnic Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, and to rule their territory as an Islamist state. What they have in mind is authoritarian and misogynist, but their aspirations are local not global.

Meanwhile the West is allied with a regime in Kabul that is corrupt, implicated in the narcotics trade, and that clings to power on the basis of a flawed election. Once again the United States has misbranded a war, whose implications are largely regional. The Obama administration is considering escalating that war in the expenditure of additional blood and treasure that the U.S. can ill afford to invest in such a quagmire.

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