“Never Get Involved in a Land War in Asia”: Gates’ West Point Speech and a Tipping Point in Afghanistan

We couldn’t have said it any better ourselves…

In a remarkably blunt speech to the cadets at West Point last Friday, Defense Secretary Gates gave aspiring SecDef’s of tomorrow sitting in the crowd a sure-fire way to determine whether they need to seek psychological counseling:

“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Sage advice, and had he been so inclined, Gates might have offered his audience another tried-and-true test of (in)sanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
And yet, if these mental health tests were applied to the policy of military escalation in Afghanistan endorsed by Secretary Gates and the Obama administration the whole lot would have to be committed.

In December of 2009, after eight years of a war in Afghanistan that had cost 947 US servicemen and women their lives and American taxpayers over $230 billion dollars, the Obama administration doubled-down on an already failed strategy in the hopes that it would produce a different outcome.

It hasn’t.

The “surge” of 30,000 additional troops (a “big American land army” unto itself) and $105 billion taxpayer dollars in 2010 failed to stop increases in civilian casualties, troop deaths, and perceptions of government corruption among Afghans. The security situation in Afghanistan has continued its downward spiral and is now at its lowest point in ten years.

As Afghanistan Study Group member Steve Clemons put it yesterday on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown, “I don’t know how you keep a straight face looking at what we’re doing today in Afghanistan when you’ve had one of the biggest indictments of that policy and that style of warfare by your Secretary of Defense.”

Joe Scarborough echoed Clemons’ sentiment from the conservative end of the political spectrum saying that Gates’ statement at West Point was further evidence that “…keeping our troops in Afghanistan makes no sense.” Council on Foreign Relations president Leslie Gelb asks, “So, if it doesn’t make sense to fight in Afghanistan tomorrow, why do it now?

Yet despite the growing chorus against the war and his own statement at West Point, Secretary Gates’ has managed to maintain his poker face. Just last week he told the Weekly Standard that the Obama administration’s gamble on escalating the current Big American Land War in Asia was beginning to pay off, that things looked better the closer one is to the front, and that erratically shifting the deadlines for troop withdrawal was going to trick the Taliban without confusing our Afghan partners or the American public.

All these dissonant voices are enough to make one’s head spin. Then again, maybe spin is the point. However, as ASG member Stephen Walt put it in a Foreign Policy blog post yesterday, no amount of spin by the administration can change the fact that the U.S. will eventually leave Afghanistan to its fate once it has “…finally figured out the stakes aren’t worth the effort, especially given the low odds of meaningful success.”

Secretary Gates’ speech at West Point suggests that he may have finally come to this realization himself. If that is the case, his continued support for the militaristic status quo in Afghanistan really is crazy and he and the Obama adminstration should seek help in trying to make sense of our strategy. In doing so, they would benefit greatly from listening to the increasingly unified voice of the American public calling for a plan that prioritizes the responsible withdrawal of troops.

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