March 24, 2009 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security, Terrorism

U.S. Must Avoid Half-Measure Wars

He's the All-American general. Already a hero from one war, he has inherited another. It's a long war -- fought in villages against an enemy that, when pressed, simply melts back across the border. And he will fail. In part, because his president is willing to fight a "half-measure" war -- the kind of war that cannot be won.

This is not the story of Gen. David Petraeus, the "surge" architect now responsible for prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. It is a cautionary tale -- one the general and his president should remember as the White House prepares to unveil its new Afghan strategy at next week's NATO summit.

America's most notable half-measure war was Vietnam, led by Gen. William Westmoreland. President Lyndon Baines Johnson took on the war so no one could call him "soft on Communism." But he was more interested in with pumping money into an ambitious domestic agenda.

His solution: an "incremental" strategy for the war. He would give the Pentagon the bare minimum in forces and commitment that still might convince the North Vietnamese to throw in the towel. To further keep costs down, Johnson forced the Joint Chiefs to raid other parts of the defense budget to help pay for the war.

Unfortunately, an incremental strategy gives a determined and resourceful foe the time and space to adjust. North Vietnam adjusted -- pulling back into sanctuaries in the north when pushed by U.S. forces and drawing heavily on support from Communist allies.

The war steadily escalated -- increasing both our military commitments and Johnson's political investment in the conflict. Half-hearted and increasingly costly is no way to fight a war. Johnson's popularity plummeted to the point that he didn't even try to win re-election.

Certainly President Obama would not pick Johnson as his role model. So how well does this White House seem to be avoiding LBJ's mistakes?

On the positive side, Obama has listened to his generals. He did not cut and run in Iraq according to the arbitrary timetable he laid out in the snows of Iowa years ago. And officials in the White House (holdovers from the Bush administration) say the new team is not ignoring useful work done for the old regime.

Last year, a series of military reviews took a hard look at the strategies for South Asia and made some serious proposals for doing things differently. Rather than throw out this work and start over, Obama's team is -- wisely -- building on the sobering proposals already on the table.

On the other hand, the war in Afghanistan has never been less popular here at home. Obama is also losing the support of his own party, as well as that of some Republicans. When the Pentagon announced 17,000 more troops were going to Afghanistan, a bipartisan coalition of Congress balked.

"What does it mean to get Afghanistan right?" asked Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "I think some of us believe there is not a military solution to be had." He joined over a dozen colleagues from both parties writing to complain to the president about the deployments.

It is easy enough to outline what "getting Afghanistan right" means. It means an Afghanistan that can defend and govern itself, and a Pakistan that battles the terrorists in its own territory while remaining at peace with India. But it is hard to imagine how the United States can achieve that without a robust strategy that commits all the resources needed to get the job done.

It is also easy to imagine the results of pursuing a half-baked strategy. In two or three years, an incremental strategy could well produce: a President Obama finding himself with a much bigger military commitment and no support from the right or the left; a Taliban win in Afghanistan; al Qaeda entrenched in Pakistan; an unstable nuclear power; an anxious India; a nervous China, a meddlesome Iran, and host of other "istans" turning into the Wild West.

The president needs a sound strategy and a full commitment now. Anything less and it could be "Hello 1968."

James Jay Carafano is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of GI Ingenuity: Improvisation, Technology and Winning World War II.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in The D.C. Examiner