Whither Thy Course, O Ship of State?

I for one feel a little less alone on the issue of Afghanistan now, reading George Will in today’s Globe (6/24/2010).  He even used the phrase, “Viet Nam redux”.  He also said, “The American undertaking in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand . ..”   I said as much in my post of March 13, 2010, “Is Afghanistan the Next Viet-Nam?”.  In that post I detailed some reasons why I thought Nation-building was a hopeless proposition in that distant,

A Hospital Corpsman attached to the 3rd Battal...

Image via Wikipedia

corrupt and strange land.

The Ship of State is like a mighty oil tanker and one does not put the helm over for a serious course change carelessly or lightly – there is massive

credit: the-amazing.com

momentum to overcome.  And then there is the political cost of changing one’s mind.  President Obama has been committed to this Afghanistan strategy since his campaign.  To radically change now would open him to charges of poor vision and might well end his political career, but it is conceivable that the people will admire him for doing what is right.  I know I would.  There comes a time when it is apparent that a strategy isn’t working and needs to be re-thought.  That time is now.  Will the President opt for stubbornness, or for what is right?

America needs a national debate on the Afghanistan War, its sources, its validity and its goals.  I believe the President should publicly recognize that the nation and the experts are divided and declare the subject open to debate.  He should lay out all the issues in public, including the appropriate intelligence, and set out at least two options for future strategy for the War on Terror, one of which should be a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, perhaps coupled with increased support for the use of Pakistani forces in putting down the Taliban.  The President should formally offer his own recommendation on which course to take and demand a Congressional endorsement of one or the other, in effect a formal declaration of War (which Congress has thus far avoided, but which is its duty).

In considering this thinking I came across a thoughtful essay by a Libertarian writer shortly after 9/11 which I found instructive, so far as reasoning out the motivations for military intervention in Afghanistan.  The link is HERE.

I do not profess to be a Libertarian, but I will take good ideas anywhere I can find them and on some days, maybe I am that color.  What do Libertarians think about the war now, 10 years later?  It too gives food for thought.  The link is HERE:

O Ship of State

Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
We know what Master laid thy keel,
What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!
Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
‘Tis of the wave and not the rock;
‘Tis but the flapping of the sail,
And not a rent made by the gale!
In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee.
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o’er our fears,
Are all with thee, -are all with thee!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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3 Responses to Whither Thy Course, O Ship of State?

  1. ansonburlingame says:


    It is now very popular to call for withdrawl from Afghanistan. Before we rush to that end, I agree we need another national debate, as apolitical as possible. No looking back and saying Bush did it or Obama (now) did it. Look only to the future to make that decision.

    In doing so, I would challenge all to ask two fundamental question.

    1. Is American military power capable of achieving the current goals enuciated by Obama of destroying Al Qaeda and denying the Taliban the opportunity to resume their authoritarian rule in Afghanistan.

    At nine years and counting the obvious answer would seem to be a loud “NO” to that question. I would agree IF we continue to use the military power at our disposal in strictly a counter insurgency mode of deployment. Unless Iraq becomes the example, American military power has NEVER successfully “won” a counter insurgency war, thus Vietnam redux.

    Petraeus and others are great thinkers and have tried every trick all the collective thinkers can come up with to win such a war. I’m not sure more thinking along those lines will result in much more “winning”.

    Imagine if possible what George Patton would say about how we fight in Afghanistan. I doubt that he would approve. I wonder what his alternatives would be. We should at least find a really good George Patton like military leader and listen to what he has to say. I wonder if any are left or has our political system and war colleges driven them all silence?

    What if we found some really old Indian fighter to offer suggestions as well? No fair booing him out of town before or even for what he says. Just listen and evaluate his ideas. He probably could tell us how to win, but…..

    Then we would have to think hard about whether we were willing to “do what it takes” which would in all liklihood cause civilian lives to be lost. I know of no war where that has not been the case yet we seem to be trying to do just that. Which is more important, THEIR civilians or OUR national security.

    Which of course leads to the second question.

    2. What are the consequences short, mid and long term in our immediate and precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan.

    I have never heard an opponent of that war articulate the answer to that question or than saving American lives and treasure for now.

    Well Charlie, I want to hear ideas about the “what if’s” of Al Qaeda remaining a “force in the field” wherever that “field” may be for training and financial support. Also “what if” the Taliban returns to power. How to either or both of those square with our short, mid and long term reasonable national security needs.

    After answering that one go back to #1. and see if we are then willing to “do what it takes” to win.

    Would it be fair to say that in WWII we “raped” Germany and Japan meaning we drove them to their knees and were capable of doing whatever we choose to do to them. In that sense we certainly beat them to a pulp but never actually consumated the act of rape. Acutally we helped them back up from their knees but only after “beating them to a pulp”.

    To me that is WAR. And for sure in such a war American is far from impotent (to use a sexual term). I believe that we presently “can’t get it up to win” because we have talked ourselves out of doing so out of political correctness. AND maybe that is the right thing to do.

    And you are dead right in terms of Congressional action. Make those bastards vote for war or vote for withdrawal and may the best ideas win. But stop this incessant sniping from the sidelines by arm chair strategists, all.

    Finally I admired Obama’s courage to stay the course in Afghanistan but always was suspicious he would drastically change the course because the original one would become too difficult.

    Now we will really see what he is made of, and that doesn’t necessarily mean he should unleash all the hounds of war at our disposal (less nucs). But he sure as hell should talk about it.



  2. Jim Wheeler says:


    On 27 March of 2009, soon after taking office, President Obama issued a comprehensive “new” strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Link:


    The main drivers/goals were to defeat al Qaeda and its allies, including their allies among the Taliban. Specifically mentioned were enemy leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. NATO was mentioned as partners in the effort. It mentioned that progress would be measured with rational “metrics” and that the goal was to transition to turning operations over to the Afghan military and police.

    Now, more than a year later we have an Iraq-style “surge” of troops and new rules that lessen civilian casualties even as operations ramp up, but the our troops are complaining that the new strategy benefits the enemy as they pick us off a few at a time and then slip back into civilian anonymity.

    At the same time, Canada is pulling some of their troops out of the conflict and our main ally, the UK, is under heavy voter pressure to do the same. There is talk of Australia pulling out. The Afghan government is still riddled with corruption and seems no more ready to take over than they were before. The metrics are all against us. There is a growing sense that we are engaged in nation-building and that process is unlikely to succeed.

    I was startled to discover that the Wikipedia entry for “al Qaeda” includes the statement that probably fewer than 100 of its members remain in Afghanistan, the bulk of them having moved to Pakistan and other areas. The entry describes an organization poorly understood and strangely amorphous. This was confirmed in an AP article in today’s Globe about Panetta’s interview yesterday. (I wonder if he gets his information from Wikipedia?) Panetta indicated that the Taliban is now the main threat in Afghanistan, but the article didn’t address the Taliban’s motives. They obviously don’t like us but I am wondering if it’s simply because we are in their country, uninvited.

    Al Neuharth of USA Today makes these points:

    Great Britain tried to help govern Afghanistan with three wars between 1839 and 1919. It failed each time and lost more than 28,000 lives.
    Russia (then the USSR) left after nine unsuccessful years in Afghanistan in the 1980s, with approximately 14,000 Soviet soldiers killed.
    We’ve been there nearly nine years and have lost the lives of 1,039 servicemen and women. It is now the longest “war” in United States history.

    Another new development is the announced discovery of vast mineral deposits in Afghanistan, including iron, copper, gold, cobalt and lithium. Link:


    These, it was said, were found by a team of U.S. military people and geologists using aircraft surveys. Some say this could be a game changer. However, call me paranoid, but I am suspicious of the validity of these claims. Nobody seems to be checking these claims out on the ground and I never heard of prospecting from the air before. Have you? I also recall the placing of false mineral claims by the US Navy in the ’70’s as a cover for the Glomar Explorer when it raised parts of a USSR missile submarine. They said it was mining the ocean sea bed for manganese nodules. They had me fooled. With the timing what it is and the involvement of the military in the discovery I’m wondering if these new claims might be false too? But even if the claims are valid, it will be hard to capitalize on them working with a regime riddled with corruption.

    I’m glad you agree, Anson, that a serious review and debate is now required. Among the questions that need to be answered are these.

    How big is al Qaeda now and exactly who and where are they? (Shall we ask Mr. DNI?)
    Where are the enemy leaders now?
    Is the Taliban still committed to al Qaeda? (There is talk that maybe they aren’t.)
    Are we making any progress in stabilizing Afghanistan politically? (Don’t think so.)
    What will success look like? A better Afghan government? How long will that take?
    If we are successful in Afghanistan, will al Qaeda simply move elsewhere? What would we do if the enemy moves to the Philippines, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Indonesia, or all of the above? In other words, what is our Global, long-term strategy, or do we even have one?

    So, in my opinion the answers to your two questions are:

    1. Can our military defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban? Not by ourselves, because it’s guerilla warfare against an ethnically and religiously inspired enemy.
    2. The consequences of an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan would be disastrous, but I believe some kind of phased withdrawal can be done. Canada has already started.

    Your “suspicion” that Obama might do a drastic course change in the war because of a “lack of courage” is exactly what he would be accused of if he did, by the disloyal opposition, and that would resonate even among many in the Democratic Party. In truth, I think it would take mighty courage to do so for just that reason. Therefore I predict he will continue to stay the course, just as we did year after year after year in Viet Nam.

    Interesting that you bring up George Patton. I think he is obsolete for today’s “warfare”, which has evolved into something he wouldn’t even recognize. Not only do the enemy not wear uniforms anymore, they morph into civilians after every battle. He would probably want to nuke the whole country. Given that, there is perhaps an alternative to “war”. Instead of playing whack-a-mole guerilla warfare with conventional forces, perhaps we could shift to more special ops tactics to pursue just their leaders under “letters of marque”. I was not familiar with the term until yesterday when I discovered that Ron Paul had recommended them after 9/11. Wikipedia has a good write-up on that subject too. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letters_of_marque

    (What a phenomenon Wikipedia is! It has no “guaranteed” accuracy, but I have yet to find it wanting in any serious way, and it stays up to date. A veritable bootstrap phenomenon and a triumph of democratic communication. Thomas Paine would salivate over it! Who would have predicted its rise? Certainly not I.)



  3. Pingback: Way, Way Too Much « Still Skeptical After All These Years

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