What Obama Can Learn from Saddam Hussein
by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET)
January 25, 2013
Having met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington to work out the post-2014 mission for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama could learn a lesson from the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In September 1980, Saddam attacked Iran but was soon driven back into Iraq. The Iranians were determined to fight their way to Baghdad. After numerous military setbacks, several Iraqi generals gathered their courage to tell Saddam his interfering with military planning denied them the ability to fight the war effectively. While picturing himself a grand strategist, Saddam lacked military training -- being rejected by the military academy years earlier.
Not a military professional, Saddam "played" one -- his "expertise" established by having appointed himself a general after taking to power in 1979. Saddam accepted his generals' advice, enabling them to stop Iran's advance. While the Iran-Iraq war then turned into a World War I Maginot Line-like stalemate, ultimately ending in a negotiated settlement in 1988, Saddam avoided defeat by having heeded them, recognizing the importance of doing so.
With a U.S. force drawdown in Afghanistan possibly being advanced to this spring, there is a direct correlation between U.S. troop numbers and assets needed to be left behind and the ability of Afghan troops to maintain security on their own. This end turns on fostering Afghan nationalism over cultural tribalism which, in turn, is dictated by the U.S. post-withdrawal mission. Ignoring this correlation guarantees the Talibanization of Afghanistan.
Obama says the mission focuses solely on counter-terrorism operations and training of Afghan security forces. This has raised a range of proposals -- from an advisory group of no more than 2,500 troops to a reactionary force of up to 30,000 capable of assisting Afghan forces with air support. The range reflects a significant decrease from the current 66,000 force level.
Although U.S. combat operations have been scaled down with Afghans leading most, their effectiveness has been reduced as well.
The worst decision of the Afghan war made to date by Obama was letting the Taliban know the U.S. commitment to Kabul was on a December 2014 timeline. This allowed the enemy to wait the Americans out and discouraged locals from assisting U.S. forces fearing Taliban reprisals post-U.S. withdrawal.
The second worst decision Obama could make is choosing the 2,500-man "minimal" option above. A smaller U.S. footprint encourages Taliban activity and is an admission of U.S. defeat as it does little to ensure stability. The minimal option also raises the question, "why even put another U.S. life at risk by leaving just 2,500 troops in harm's way for a cause we are admitting has been lost?"
While White House civilian advisers press the president to pursue the minimal option, Obama's generals press for a stronger commitment to show Afghan allies the United States isn't abandoning them as the Americans did in Vietnam almost four decades earlier.
If, as Obama states, he seeks to bring the Afghan war to a "responsible end," the minimal option isn't the solution. Indications are, however, it is Obama's.
During his Washington visit, Karzai complained a continuing U.S. presence threatens Afghanistan's independence. Additionally, contrary to the opinions of U.S. military leaders, Karzai assured Obama Afghan forces are ready to replace U.S. forces.
As was the case when Washington and Baghdad went through the same dance trying to determine the mission and size of a U.S. post-withdrawal footprint, a grant of immunity from prosecution for U.S. forces operating in the host country was first necessary. When no such agreement was reached, the U.S. declined to leave troops behind subject to Iraqi prosecution. Iraqi troops were much better trained and more cohesive than Afghan troops are today.
Thus, there is a greater need exists for a U.S. post-withdrawal mission in Afghanistan than in Iraq. (A Shiite-majority state, Iraq ultimately was influenced by Shiite-majority Iran to deny U.S. troop immunity.)
It is worrisome Karzai suggests a post-withdrawal U.S. presence threatens Afghan independence and Afghans are prepared now to move more quickly in taking over responsibility for the war effort.
While the immunity issue is yet to be resolved, Karzai suggests he will "go to the Afghan people and argue" in its favor.
However, one doesn't sense Karzai offers to do so with great efficacy. As it is well known Afghanistan's president accepted cash payments from Iran previously, one cannot help but wonder whether money will cause him to surrender the stability afforded by a post-withdrawal U.S. presence in his country. If Karzai proves unable to "argue" immunity for U.S. troops, treason may be the real culprit.
Both Obama and Karzai are dancing around the issue of a post-2014 U.S. presence and its size. Karzai suggested, "Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan." He is wrong. Leaving vague military support and tribal culture issues brings to mind George Orwell's observation, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity."
Thousands of U.S. lives were lost bringing democracy into Iraq; a subsequent U.S. withdrawal left a vacuum filled by Iran. While the Iran-Iraq Shiite link provided common ground for Iran's influence, no such link exists with Sunni-majority Afghanistan where thousands more U.S. lives similarly were sacrificed to introduce democracy. What a national tragedy for both the U.S. and Afghanistan that, as U.S. troops depart through the front door, Karzai may leave the back door open for Iran.
Accordingly, Obama's military advisers caution against both an early withdrawal and a smaller post-2014 footprint in Afghanistan, should immunity be granted. Karzai's god is money; therefore, it might be wise to tie reduced Afghan funding to his rejection of immunity or a larger footprint. Why throw good money after bad if our post-withdrawal actions acknowledge Afghanistan is a lost cause?
When threatened with defeat on the battlefield, Saddam logically chose to heed his warfighters. In rushing to end America's longest war, Obama must heed his, less defeat in Afghanistan loom, like a vulture, on the distant horizon.
© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.