I was about to write that there can be no military solution to the war in Afghanistan, only a political one. But I almost fainted with boredom and had to stop.

So begins Jonathan Schell’s brilliant deconstruction of possible "political solutions" in Afghanistan.

Is there anyone on earth who doesn’t know by now that you can’t win a guerrilla war without winning the "hearts and minds" of the people?

We "learned this lesson" in Vietnam, and although analogies between Vietnam and Afghanistan are easy enough to criticize, it’s also worth noticing that the equation usually breaks down in favor of Vietnam.

Johnson’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara, pointed out in 1965 that the government of South Vietnam was a "non-government." And the same year Under Secretary of State George Ball, an in-house dissenter, wrote, "The ‘government’ in Saigon is a travesty. In a very real sense, South Vietnam is a country with an army and no government."

The difference in Afghanistan in 2009? No army, either.

So it’s perfectly possible that Afghanistan is an even more hopeless quagmire than Vietnam, with an even more delusional "light at the end of the tunnel" in the form of a political solution.

This would be a government friendly to the United States and yet somehow acceptable to the majority of Afghans. Jonathan Schell collapses this fantasy with the more or less undeniable observation that "the more United States does to set up such a government, the more the "Afghans themselves" (or the Vietnamese themselves or the Iraqis themselves or the whoevers themselves) are tainted by the association."

If the paradox of military engagement in such a conflict is that the more you fight the more you lose, then the paradox of political engagement is that the more you rule the weaker the native component of the government becomes, and the more likely it is to collapse when you leave, as the South Vietnamese government did in 1975.

Afghanistan has no government now, no one can even conceive of a government branded by the United States which could survive our departure, and anyone still expecting a political solution in Afghanistan has obviously forgotten or never learned the "lesson of Vietnam," although…

That so-called "lesson" was obvious in advance to anyone who thought about it, including Lyndon Johnson, McGeorge Bundy, Robert MacNamara and all the other architects of the war, as Jonathan Schell demonstrates in excruciating detail from records of conversations at the highest level, beginning in 1964.

In the taped conversations with Senator Russell in May 1964, a year before Johnson embarked on his buildup of combat troops, Russell describes the war as "the damn worst mess I ever saw," and Johnson murmurs agreement. Russell tells the president that if it were up to him he would "get out" rather than expand the war. Johnson asks Russell, "How important is it to us?" Russell answers, "It isn’t important a damn bit," and Johnson gloomily says of sending in combat troops, "I just haven’t got the nerve to do it, and I don’t see any other way out of it."

All of them knew that invading Vietnam was a fool’s errand, but they wanted to get themselves re-elected with the mantle of fearless warriors, although none of the principals had anything to fear, and none of them ever paid the price of their inevitable failure.


Jacob Freeze

Jacob Freeze

I'm a painter and photographer who supplements his meager income by hurling rotten fruit and screaming "Welcome to the Bu!" at the Humvees of hedge-fund managers and their nightmare spawn who get stuck in the ridiculously narrow drive-through at McDonald's in Malibu. They inevitably poop their pants and abandon the vehicle, which I subsequently strip and sell for parts, and that is how I can afford to live in Malibu.