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Con: Obama must win fast in Afghanistan or risk new wars across the globe

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James Jay Carafano
January 2, 2010
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Will Afghanistan become a quagmire in 2010?

There’s little chance Kabul will become Saigon 1968. If the war in Afghanistan starts going south for allied forces, President Obama will probably quit rather than risk getting bogged down.


President Lyndon B. Johnson considered Vietnam more a distraction than a national mission, yet he ramped up the troop commitment all the same. In 1968, the North Vietnamese launched a major offensive during the Tet holiday. They lost that battle. Badly! But the fact that they were able to mount such a large-scale offensive gave many Americans—including Walter Cronkite—the impression that the war wasn’t winnable. As “the U.S. is bogged down” became the common view, Johnson’s presidency fell to ashes.


Not much chance Obama will go that route. If the violence skyrockets next year and it looks as though the president’s ambitious objectives can’t be met, Afghanistan could look a lot more like Vietnam in 1973. U.S. forces withdrew. Our abandoned ally was soon overrun. South Vietnam became a gulag; Cambodia sprouted the killing fields; life in Laos was just plain lousy. By 1979, the Sino-Vietnamese war erupted.


We can expect similar results if Obama’s Afghan strategy fails and he opts to cut and run. Most forget that throwing South Vietnam to the wolves made the world a far more dangerous place.


The Soviets saw it as an unmistakable sign that America was in decline. They abetted military incursions in Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia and Latin America. They went on a conventional- and nuclear-arms spending spree. They stockpiled enough smallpox and anthrax to kill the world several times over. State-sponsorship of terrorism came into fashion.


Osama bin Laden called America a “paper tiger.” If we live down to that moniker in Afghanistan, odds are the world will get a lot less safe. Al-Qaida would be back in the game. Regional terrorists would go after both Pakistan and India—potentially triggering a nuclear war between the two countries.


Sensing a Washington in retreat, Iran and North Korea could shift their nuclear programs into overdrive, hoping to save their failing economies by selling their nuclear weapons and technologies to all comers. Their nervous neighbors would want nuclear arms of their own.


The resulting nuclear arms race could be far more dangerous than the Cold War’s two-bloc standoff. With multiple, independent, nuclear powers cautiously eyeing one another, the world would look a lot more like Europe in 1914, when precarious shifting alliances snowballed into a very big, tragic war.


The list goes on. There is no question that countries such as Russia, China and Venezuela would rethink their strategic calculus as well. That could produce all kinds of serious regional challenges for the United States.


Our allies might rethink things as well. Australia has already hiked its defense spending because it can’t be sure the United States will remain a responsible security partner. NATO might well fall apart. Europe could be left with only a puny EU military force incapable of defending the interests of its nations.


None of this is to suggest that staying in Afghanistan is an easy option. Wars never are. They require good men and women to put their lives on the line every day for our security. We should put them at risk only for an issue of vital national interest. Afghanistan is one such issue.


And that—not cost—is the real bottom line. The war won’t bankrupt America. Multitrillion dollar proposals like “cap and trade” environmental schemes or government-managed health systems might well kill our economy. But the $30 billion required for the Afghanistan surge represents about 0.20 percent of our GDP.


In terms of D.C. budget debates, that’s a rounding error. But in terms of national security, the cost of failure in Afghanistan would be incalculably high.


James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation and directs its Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies. Readers may write to the author in care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: www.heritage.org.

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