A few weeks ago, I found myself in a distant, foreign land surrounded by U.S. military personnel facing a big challenge. The setting was Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. The challenge was to begin reducing U.S. troop numbers in a war not yet finished.
A few decades ago, I also found myself in a distant, foreign land surrounded by U.S. military personnel facing a big challenge. The setting was Saigon, South Vietnam. The challenge was likewise to begin reducing U.S. troop numbers in a war not yet finished.
There are as many differences as similarities between the two wars, so I am not going to weigh in on that here. However, there is one important lesson from Vietnam our elected officials need to remember as the United States hands Afghanistan responsibility for its own security and covets the budget savings of a reduced U.S. presence there.
When I was stationed near Saigon in the early 1970s, the process of “Vietnamization” was under way. The idea was that we could ratchet back troop numbers and reduce war cost by ramping up efforts to train and equip the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. One of the reasons this did not work is that once our troops were on their way out, our government’s commitment to the ARVN began to evaporate, too, and the North Vietnamese were able to simply watch it unfold. As U.S. support declined in more ways than troop count, South Vietnam’s fate was sealed.
Fast-forward to the Afghanistanization process. The training and arming of a self-sufficient Afghan army has been woven into the U.S. war mission since Operation Enduring Freedom began. At Bagram and in Kabul, I was impressed to see how Afghan soldiers are trained not just to fight insurgents but to read, write, organize and handle budgets. Our troops – some of the most professional, skilled, disciplined and intelligent men and women I have ever met – say the Afghans are making great progress and are enthusiastic. More and more, they are leading their own combat patrols and security missions.
Afghanistan has the potential to reinvent its economy if given the opportunity to do so without the threat of terrorism. India and China are already investing in the country’s vast mineral and energy resources, worth an estimated $1.2 trillion. It strikes me that U.S. companies could do worse than make similar investments, but if our military is not there, the risks may outweigh the rewards.
The first wave of U.S. force reduction from Afghanistan – 10,000 – is taking place right now. The next wave – 23,000 – is scheduled to be complete by September 2012; time will tell if that’s too many too soon. U.S. troops are expected to nearly be gone from Afghanistan by 2014.
Some time back, The American Legion reacted coldly to the idea of predetermined deadlines for troop withdrawal from the war. Believe me, no one wants our troops out of harm’s way more than those of us who have served in wartimes past. But as we go through this process, let’s be certain Afghanistan has more than a fighting chance to succeed on its own. If we withdraw too fast, based on budget savings or predetermined deadlines, we run the risk of allowing history to repeat itself. In honor of all who have fallen in both wars, I pray that won’t happen.