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To Lose a War

While America was consumed this summer with quarrels over town-hall radicals, “death panels,” the “public option” and racism’s role in the plunging polls of Barack, what happens to health care is not going to change the history of the world.

What happens in Afghanistan might.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has done his duty. He has bluntly told his commander in chief what he must have in added combat troops and warned that if he does not get them, America faces “mission failure.”

Translation: a Taliban victory and U.S. defeat, as in Saigon 1975.

Not only does President Obama face the most critical decision of his young presidency, this country is facing a moment of truth. Obama, now the Decider, has four options.

There is the Biden option of drawing down troops, drawing away from Hamid Karzai, and focusing McChrystal’s men on what they do best — running down and killing al-Qaida, be they in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Second is the option of indecision — holding off on more troops until the 68,000 already committed have arrived by December, and seeing how McChrystal does with them until spring.

The third option is to give McChrystal some but not all the tens of thousands he says he needs.


Final option: Give Gen. McChrystal the blank check George W. Bush gave Gen. David Petraeus, with the surge of 2007 in Iraq, which radically reduced the violence and set the stage for U.S. withdrawal beginning in 2010.

If Obama meets some or all of McChrystal’s request, America will stave off defeat in the short term. But the cost will be hundreds and perhaps thousands more U.S. dead, tens of billions more sunk, growing divisions in our country and more innocent Afghan victims. And the surge may simply push a U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover a few years off into the future.

This assumes that Afghanistan is unwinnable, that America does not have the perseverance or will to send the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops for the decade needed to crush the Taliban and create a government and army able to stand on their own when we depart.

If, however, Obama comes to believe the cost of “victory” in blood, money and years is not worth it, or the American people, already against the war and adding more troops, will not sustain it, or the war is unwinnable, then we need to look defeat in the face.

For that is what McChrystal says we are risking, if Obama dithers or draws down troops.

Russia’s withdrawal of 1988-89 led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. What would a U.S. withdrawal do to the American Empire?

A Taliban triumph would mean the Afghans who sided with us in this war would face the same retribution as our allies in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Western aid workers would have to flee the country.

Under Taliban control, Afghanistan would be a sanctuary for the Pakistani Taliban, which would be emboldened to settle scores with the Islamabad politicians who had sided with the United States.

Taliban allies in the Pakistan army and intelligence services would be seen as on the wise and winning side, while those who sided with America would be seen as losers. The odds would rise that Pakistan would face a revived insurgency and acts of terror against the regime. The odds on the survival of a pro-American regime in a country already marinated in anti-Americanism would fall.

Among Islamists worldwide, news that the Afghan Sunni Taliban had defeated and driven the United States out, as their fathers had the Soviet Empire, would be electrifying. Muslim governments aligned with America would be shaken and perhaps imperiled.

Al-Qaida, thwarted by U.S. security services and ravaged by U.S. Predator and Special Forces strikes, would be seen as having helped inflict a defeat on America unseen since Vietnam.

Osama bin Laden would be a candidate for Man of the Decade.

With his 9-11 attack, he had fired a shot heard ’round the Islamic world, sucked America into two wars that bled, divided and helped to bankrupt her, and seen the last superpower off in Afghanistan.

Osama’s ultimate goal from the start — the removal of all U.S. troops from sacred Saudi soil and expulsion of all Crusaders from the Islamic world — would no longer be an impossible dream.

For America, loss of Afghanistan would poison U.S. politics as did the loss of China and of Vietnam. It would discredit nation-building for decades and ring down the curtain on Wilsonian interventionism for a generation. And it could bring about the defeat of Barack Obama as the liberal who lost the war al-Qaida began on 9-11.

Whether Obama cuts U.S. forces and advances the day of a Taliban victory, or doubles-down and sends the tens of thousands of U.S. troops Gen. McChrystal demands, Afghanistan has claimed another hubristic imperial power.

Patrick Buchanan is the author of the new book Churchill, Hitler, and ‘The Unnecessary War,’ [1] now available in paperback.


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#1 Comment By Adam Rurik On September 25, 2009 @ 4:00 am

I’m inclined to agree with Joe Biden on this: Right now, you’ve a conventional military force vs. an insurgency. Not only did such not work for you in Vietnam, it likewise didn’t yield good results for the British…in the late 18th century.

#2 Comment By tz On September 25, 2009 @ 9:31 am

Buchanan does see a very bright side to the outcome:

For America, loss of Afghanistan would poison U.S. politics as did the loss of China and of Vietnam. It would discredit nation-building for decades and ring down the curtain on Wilsonian interventionism for a generation. And it could bring about the defeat of Barack Obama as the liberal who lost the war al-Qaida began on 9-11.

Perhaps the poison will be fatal to the politics this time.

Nation Building has always been an utter failure – the problem is not so much it is ever discredited, but when memory wanes and hubris waxes we
think we can do better this time.

Same with Wilsonian interventionism. The only unfortunate thing is it will be gone ONLY for a generation and not permanently.

Though I wouldn’t be too sure about Obama. The very narrow exit is this – withdraw, but instead of pretending the Taliban aren’t running things, bring them up to an actual state (instead of the failed state) and recognize them, and let them take Afghanistan’s seat at the UN and do the full diplomatic relations and everything else. The price: They give us Osama’s head (whether it is still attached to the body, and whether the body is breathing are optional). That will show Obama accomplished the mission Bush should have done and actually got the terrorist instead of forgetting the terrorists and doing nation building. From what I read, just after 9/11 the Taliban were also shocked and were willing to give up Osama, but we treated them like we did when Iran wanted to give us everything on a silver platter.

When someone is willing to hand us something with little effort on our part, being a superpower, an Empire instead of a republic, means we rebuff them and use a huge display of stupid force to show we are as insane and dangerous as the roman emperors of legend.

#3 Comment By Barney Rebble On September 25, 2009 @ 10:04 am

So, this means that we are pretending that decisions weren’t made when the 2009 budget began to gut the military purse?

Decisions weren’t made by the 2008 congress, when they gutted the US economy, last October for political purposes, and it began to spill over worldwide, to our current situation?

Decisions haven’t been made when we say we intend to cripple our power-generation industry?

Decisions haven’t been made when we say we intend to dismantle the US healthcare industry, with the shadowy promise that this will bring improvements for the street people and ethnic minorities?

Decisions haven’t been made when the US president surrounds himself with individuals with an avowed hatred for capitalism and hatred for the ethnic majority of americans of european christo-centric descent?

Some of you generals seem to be trying to lead your armies from a hidden bunker that has no communication to the outside world.

#4 Comment By Barney Rebble On September 25, 2009 @ 10:20 am

Try to convince yourself that the folks in Washington want your input:


#5 Comment By Philip Giraldi On September 25, 2009 @ 10:48 am

I am confused by this article. Pat seems to be supporting an American empire on one hand while acknowledging that Wilsonian interventionism and nation building have failed. Pat’s praise of the surge is also a bit odd as he must know better – it accomplished little and has merely introduced a new set of problems to that poor country that we first invaded and then reduced to chaos.

Nor do I understand the concept “US defeat” or of being a “loser” in a war that has no real meaning for the United States except that it continues to bleed us. All of the problems that Pat cites that might possibly develop as a result of a US withdrawal are hypothetical, sometimes wildly so, and oddly reminiscent of the good old domino theory. They also appear to be problems only insofar as they are part and parcel of the US’s maintenance of a global empire, which may no longer be in our interest to support in any event. As far as I am concerned the sooner that empire disappears the better. America walked away from Vietnam and we were the better for it. Does Pat really think that if we were to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan it would be bad for the United States? Would the Taliban come after us because we, like the British and Russians before us, just decided that Afghanistan was not worth it?

#6 Comment By Jonny Scrum-half On September 25, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

“Our” “defeat” in Saigon in 1975 didn’t end up hurting us at all, as far as I can tell. I, too, am confused by Mr. Buchanan’s reasoning.

#7 Comment By WRW On September 25, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

I agree with Mr. Giraldi. PJB seems confused in this article. He does not grapple with (1) whether the “Taleban” actually is the monolithic entity perpetuated by the war hawks or a groups of disparate groups with potentially divergent interests a portion of which may be appeased; (2) whether Al Qaeda today is the AQ of 2001–it seems to be not and now far more diffused and technologically sophisticated where it doesn’t need a “safe haven.”

How do we know what would happen to the mayor of Kabul and his warlord allies? Maybe they’d cut their own power-sharing deal with the Taleban. If the foreigners are gone, maybe they reach an accomodation with most of the Talibs. And why would the Talibs dally with AQ now when they don’t need them to get back in power, even under PJB’s theory, and their last dalliance cost them their power? (The only argument Fred Kagan came up with was a pathetic assertion of “personal and ideological” affinity between AQ and the Taleban. Prove it, I say.)

And where’s the US interest anyway? On the one hand, we say the Afghans don’t want the Taleban back, so how would the Talibs take over? (And don’t say, “they did it in 1996”–many Afghans welcomed the Taleban who stopped the murderous warlords who were shelling Kabul.)

Finally, we withdrew from Saudi during the Iraq War (or base is now in Qatar and Kuwait.) So Bin Laden already has that prize. (There’s no evidence he wants us completely off the peninsula–he focuses on the SA kingdom.)

PJB cannot escape Vietnam nor can he see Vietnam for the failure of policy and strategy that it was.

If everything is “Munich” for a neocon, then every foreign adventure is “Tet” and “Saigon” for PJB.

#8 Comment By Michael Orlowski On September 25, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

I am also confused by trying to decipher the main message that this article is trying to point out.

#9 Comment By Norwegian Shooter On September 25, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

Uncle Pat, the youngsters are scratching their heads, and with good reason. So instead of pointing out the obvious mushiness of the post, I’ll answer one of your questions:

“What would a U.S. withdrawal do to the American Empire?”

It would decrease it slightly. A good thing, no matter how small.

#10 Comment By K. W. Jeter On September 25, 2009 @ 5:41 pm

The only error PJB made in this article was in assuming that all the people reading it would be as familiar with his anti-Wilsonianism, anti-Empire (and anti-hubris, for that matter) positions, previously and eloquently expressed.

#11 Comment By Neuyawker On September 26, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

Isn’t it remarkable how so many men who have not served in combat are so frequently ready to send young men and women not related to them to do the fighting they chose to avoid? Patrick Buchanan could have fought in Vietnam had he chosen, just as Kissinger and Nixon could have ended the war in 69/70 had they so decided. G W Bush could have gone to the Nam had he decided that the Texas air force might have survived without his flying skills (oh that’s right, he was AWOL)

But I digress. Ask yourself this, what might we have lost as a country had LBJ pulled the troops out of Nam in 64, and then compare that to Afghanistan. It might help to understand that in large part the Taliban are Pashtun tribesmen engaged in what they consider to be a perfectly justified civil war. It might also help understanding if we consider that the Talibs are financed to a large degree by the Pakistan ISI to whom we give very large sums of money. Beware of men hiding behind a flag.

#12 Comment By Adam Rurik On September 27, 2009 @ 12:00 am

Obviously, Neuyawker, you’re a New Gawker at Pat Buchanan’s record! He OPPOSED both Desert Storm and the current debacle in Iraq. My suggestion to you, sir, is to check this magazine’s Buchanan archive for a piece entitled, “Come Home, Sam.”

#13 Comment By Nathan P. Origer On September 27, 2009 @ 11:01 pm

Nice pun, Mr. Rurik!

#14 Comment By TomB On September 28, 2009 @ 2:07 am

I think Buchanan is simply ambivalent about what to do, and further think that being so is simply being realistic. At least in my case maybe 90% or more of that ambivalence arises from what Buchanan notes is the chance that if we withdraw from Afghanistan right now Pakistan would fall to the fundamentalists.

I was against us staying in Afghanistan for very long after we had gone after al Queda: The Taliban opposed us going after them so we had the right to smash them, and afterwards I thought there was some argument to trying at least a little nation-rebuilding/humanitarian work to see how that went and show the world our good face.

Once it was obvious however that it was not going well I think we should have left after inviting the Int’l community to take up the work, even if that meant it would not and the Taliban would just come back. If they did and just let bin Laden back, well we could always whack at him again from over the horizon.

But we didn’t, and now we’ve destabilized Pakistan and that’s the reality, like it or not. So what happens if Pakistan falls? A nuke-armed Pakistan, mind you?

First off what are the consequences for us in its almost inevitable on-the-brink war with India? Wouldn’t it seem at least a bit incumbent on us to try to help India avoid a nuke war with Pakistan? Especially since we so clearly destabilized it in the first place and were responsible for its fall to some degree? And if that meant us helping bomb places in Pakistan think of the anti-U.S. fervor then in the arab/muslim world.

Secondly though think of an al Queda-friendly Pakistan with nukes. No way bin Laden is against giving nuke tech to terrorists. And even though we’ve essentially pulled out of Saudi Arabia he still regards the regime there as our puppet so he isn’t neutral about us yet. And his other big gripe with us has been our Israel policy which hasn’t significantly changed and isn’t likely to either. So suddenly right there no matter how much you think the terrorism problem the U.S. has faced has been over-hyped, well, maybe it would suddenly be time to worry a helluva lot more on that front alone.

And even more immediately, what position does anyone think we’d be in if now, instead of Israel just looking to attack Iran, it might have to start thinking about doing Pakistan too? Or any of the various scenarios in which you’d now have a nuke-armed Pakistan piling in actively against Israel?

Of *course* the U.S. would do almost whatever for Israel, and that’s not good, even if it made no sense from the standpoint of our own interest.

So at any rate those seem to me to be some of the possible realities out there and I don’t know that it’s enough to just say “oh if Pakistan gets into a conflict with India we should just stay out of it and the same goes with it getting into a conflict with Israel too.” (Because, in the latter case at least, we most certainly could not and would not stay out of it.)

On the whole I still tend to think bugging out of Afghanistan and going “over the horizon” would let the Taliban and Fundies ooze back over into it and relieve the pressure on Pakistan. But maybe not and maybe Buchanan is right that the psychic effect would be to just invigorate those trying to overthrown Pakistan and demoralize its present defenders and it would fall more readily, I don’t know. Does sound a little … domino theory-ish, but hey, in the wake of us leaving S. Vietnam at least some dominos did fall, right? And here the Paki domino has nukes.

I just don’t know, but it does seem to me that this is the big question.


#15 Comment By Jack Tracey On September 28, 2009 @ 9:03 am

K. W. Jeter is correct. Readers need to put this piece in the context of PJB’s other writings.

#16 Comment By Carl Wicklander On September 28, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

This video might better illustrate the whole of Buchanan’s thinking regarding the war on al Qaeda:

#17 Comment By WRW On September 29, 2009 @ 7:39 am

Jeter and Tracey make good points about context. TomB may well be right about ambivalence from PJB that doubtless many other share toward “AfPak”.

But I’d still expect more than the cartoon/Bush II version of conflating Taleban with Al Qaeda and making Taleban monolithic. I’d also expect PJB to update his view of AQ from current intel.

And he needs to give the Vietnam/Saigon analogy a rest. America was broken in Vietnam before we coptered off the embassy roof.

PS However I should make clear that PJB is nowhere her advocating increasing troops. I suppose I expected him to be clearly opposed.

PPS And PJB could not serve in Vietnam owing to severe arthritis he has suffered from since a teenager. He has a vivid anecdote in his auto (“Right from the beginning”) of sitting on a bus bench and talking arthritis with an elderly lady.

#18 Comment By JihadLizard On September 29, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

Some of us generals are now gathering our armies to retake our Republic from neocon hucksters posing as guardians of freedom, Mr. Rebble. The military budget was not gutted in 2009, it still grew compared to 2008 in real dollars. This is the same dubious argument the Democrats used for proposed “cuts” to social spending. Time to get out a calculator and stop posting FoxNews talking points.