Michael Hastings was the Rolling Stone reporter whose article on “The Runaway General” ended the illustrious military career of General Stanley McCrystal.
In 2012, Hastings greatly expanded on his article with a vividly-written book: The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan.
According to its hardcover dust jacket: “General Stanley McCrystal, the innovative, forward-thinking, commanding general of international and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was living large. He was better known to some as Big Stan, M4, Stan, and his loyal staff liked to call him a ‘rock star.’
General Stanley A. McCrystal
“During a spring 2010 trip across Europe to garner additional allied help for the war effort, McCrystal was accompanied by journalist Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone.
“For days, Hastings looked on as McCrystal and his staff let off steam, partying and openly bashing the Obama administration for what they saw as a lack of leadership.
“When Hastings’ piece appeared a few months later, it set off a poltical firestorm: McCrystal was ordred to Washington where he was fired uncereminously.”
But there is an even deeper element to be found within Hastings’ book–that is, for anyone with even a general knowledge of the war in Vietnam.
Hastings does not make any direct parallels between the almost 14-year conflict in Afghanistan and the conflict that raged in Vietnam from 1961 to 1975. But those parallels are definitely there for anyone to see.
- Ngo Dinh Diem, the “president” of South Vietnam (1955-1963) was a Catholic mandarin who was alienated from an overwhelmingly poor, 95% Buddhist country.
- Hamid Karzai, the “president” of Afghanistan (2001-2014t) is from a wealthy Pashtun family and is alienated from members of other Afghan tribes.
- Diem’s authority didn’t extend far beyond Saigon.
- Karzai’s authority didn’t extend beyond Kabul.
- Diem didn’t believe in democracy–despite American claims to support his efforts to bring it to Vietnam.
- Ditto for Karzai–despite American claims to support his efforts to bring democracy to Afghanistan.
- Diem was widely regarded in Vietnam as an illegitimate leader, imposed by the Americans.
- Ditto for Karzai.
Ngo Dinh Diem
- American soldiers were sent to Vietnam because America feared Communism.
- American soldiers were sent to Afghanistan because America feared terrorism.
- Americans were ordered to train the South Vietnamese to defend themselves against Communism.
- American troopss were ordered to train the Afghan army to defend themselves against terrorism.
- Americans quickly determined that the South Vietnamese army was worthless–and decided to fight the Vietcong in its place.
- Americans quickly determined that the Afghan army was worthless–and decided to fight the Taliban in its place.
American soldiers in Vietnam
- There was massive distrust between American and South Vietnamese soldiers.
- Ditto for relations between American and Afghan soldiers.
- American soldiers in Vietnam felt surrounded by enemies and hamstrung by unrealistic orders to win “hearts and minds” at the risk of their own lives.
- Ditto for American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.
- President John F. Kennedy doubted that Americans could win a war in Vietnam and tried to contain the conflict.
- President Barack Obama came into office determined to contain the Afghan conflict and withdraw American troops as soon as possible.
- In the early 1960s, the Pentagon saw Vietnam as “the only war we’ve got” and pressed to insert greater numbers of men.
- In 2001, the Pentagon saw Afghanistan as “the only war we’ve got” and pressed to insert greater numbers of men.
American soldiers in Afghanistan
- The Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) posed no threat to the security of the United States.
- The Taliban poses no threat to the security of the United States.
- The far Right embraced the Vietnam war as a way to assert American power in Asia.
- The far Right embraced the Afghan war–and later the war on Iraq–as a way to assert American power in the Middle East.
- Counterinsurgency was preached as the key to defeating the Vietcong in Vietnam–where it didn’t work.
- Counterinsurgency is now being preached as the key to defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan–where it hasn’t worked.
- Americans entered Vietnam without an exit strategy.
- Americans entered Afghanistan without an exit strategy.
From this, the United States should draw several conclusions:
- Commit forces only when American security is truly threatened.
- Go in with overwhelming force, destroy as much of the enemy as quickly as possible, then get out.
- Occupations are costly in lives and treasure–as Napoleon and Hitler discovered–and should be avoided.
- Don’t try to remake the cultures of other nations–especially those of a primitive, alien nature such as Afghanistan.
Hastings’ book does not cover the Afghan war to its end. It can’t, since there is no telling when that war will end.
But by the end of its 379 pages, it’s clear what that outcome will be: Another futile exercise in “nation-building” at an exorbitant cost in American lives and treasure.