Monday, August 31, 2009

The unwinnable war in Afghanistan

I rarely agree with Pat Buchanan, the right-wing pundit and onetime Presidential candidate, on anything. But there is one issue on which we do agree: the war in Afghanistan. In a recent column, Buchanan described the war as "unwinnable" and called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"We were seduced by the prospect of converting a backward tribal nation of 25 million, which has resisted every empire that set foot on its inhospitable soil, into a shining new democracy that would be a model for the Islamic world," Buchanan wrote.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan eight years ago, nation-building was not the Bush Administration's mission. The invasion, which was thoroughly justified, was aimed to destroy Al-Qaeda, the Islamic terrorist organization responsible for 9/11, and to punish the country's ruling Taliban regime for providing Al-Qaeda a haven.

Until we foolishly invaded Iraq two years later, we were on the verge of winning in Afghanistan. The Al-Qaeda terrorists and their Taliban hosts were retreating to the neighboring tribal areas in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, and a pro-American government had been installed in Kabul, the capital city. These achievements were derailed by the Iraq invasion.

Much of the U.S. military force in Afghanistan was withdrawn to fight in Iraq. The initial objective was to destroy nuclear and chemical weapons that Saddam Hussein's government was supposed to be stockpiling. But there were no Iraqi stockpiles of such weapons. To justify the Iraq invasion, the mission was subtly altered. We were now going to punish the Saddam government for promoting international terrorism, including the 9/11 attack on the U.S.

When these phony goals were no longer credible, we assumed the role of savior for the oppressed Iraqi people. We would introduce democracy to a country where such a concept was unknown. This goal, of course, was contrary to the Bush Administration's supposed scorn for nation-building.

There was a brief semblance of peace established in Iraq after the Saddam regime had been overthrown and the anti-American insurgency tamed. In recent months, however, communal violence has threatened to tear Iraq apart. The U.S. is being forced to referee conflicts between Arab Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and Arabs, and even civil battles between rival Shiite factions.

As the action in Iraq distracted U.S. forces from our original mission in Afghanistan, the Taliban is rapidly regaining control in Afghanistan while the nation's pro-American regime has proven to be corrupt and incompetent.

Moreover, a civil war between Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun (Pathan) people and the Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities is breaking out. Once again, the U.S. military is being forced to play referee.

Al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies remain hunkered down in neighboring Pakistan, where an allegedly pro-American regime seems unenthusiastic about fighting them. One reason is that Pakistan's huge Pashtun population is sympathetic to its Afghan kinsmen.

Against this complex backdrop, the new Obama Administration has unwisely shipped more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and is planning to send even more. Although the Taliban would impose an autocratic rule on the Afghan people, it appears to be gaining support from a local population that has become increasingly hostile to a U.S. presence.

Even if the Taliban regains full control and dethrones the present government, however, it does not pose a serious national security threat to the U.S.

Al-Qaeda, of course, does remain a major threat. Its leadership is dispersing throughout the Muslim world to such places as Somalia, Yemen and Algeria. All the while, it is recruiting to its ranks local anti-American Islamic terrorists. Indeed, there may even be so-called "sleeper" contingents based in the U.S. ready to conduct operations here.

In effect, Al-Qaeda has become a sort of franchise operations, bestowing its name, resources, and training on disaffected Muslims with no affection for America.

So why the need for more American troops in Afghanistan? There is none. An expanded U.S. military presence there would do nothing to strengthen our defense against Islamic terrorism.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

My love affair with the Yiddish language

I can no longer speak the language in which, according to my parents, I uttered my first words as a small child. The language is Yiddish, the native tongue of East European Jews.

Although I can no longer speak Yiddish, largely because of disuse, I can pretty much still understand the language, particularly if it is spoken with a "Litvak" accent. That's the accent characteristic of Jews from Lithuania, the northeastern tip of Poland, and Belarus. My mother's family migrated to the U.S. more than a century ago from the Belarussian province of Minsk.

Sadly, Yiddish is essentially a dying language. The Holocaust, combined with cultural assimilation by East European Jews and their descendants who have settled in new countries, have combined to make Yiddish almost as obsolete as Latin.

Yiddish is now the primary language only of ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious sects like the Hasidim. Even in Israel, where Hebrew is the official language, the ultra-Orthodox Jews prefer to speak Yiddish. They regard Hebrew as a sacred language to be used only for religious study and worship.

Ironically, the insular ultra-Orthodox communities are indifferent to the vast secular world of Yiddish literature, music and theater. Yiddish art and intellectual endeavor are now the province solely of professional scholars and those who, like myself, still maintain strong emotional ties to the language.

My relationship with the Yiddish language is a matter of nostalgia. The very sound of Yiddish conversation or music links me to a cultural environment in which I was raised and which I have abandoned. I never fail to experience an odd blend of joy and sorrow on the rare occasions when I hear it. It is a love affair that will persist until I die.

Jews of eastern and central European origin are known as Ashkenazim. Ashkenaz is the ancient Hebrew word for the German-speaking territories from which their ancestors migrated eastward in Europe more than a thousand years ago. With them came the Yiddish language.

Yiddish is essentially a blend of other languages. I'm unaware of universally accepted estimates, but I would guess that about 75% of Yiddish is based on medieval German and 20% on Hebrew. The rest is composed of bits of Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Romanian or Czecho/Slovak, depending on where the speaker lived.

A century ago, East European Jewish immigrants to the U.S. began adding English to the linguistic mix. My maternal grandmother, who never learned to speak English, would casually ask me to "open der vinder," failing to realize that she had absorbed words from the language of her new homeland.

Linguistic migration, of course, is a two-way street. Yiddish has been slowly creeping into English. Many non-Jewish Americans may be unaware they are using Yiddish when they casually say words like "hutzpah," "meshugah," "shlep," "shlemiel," and "chochkeh." And if they are not concerned about being crude, they will call some one they dislike a "putz" or "schmuck."

Yiddish is one of about a half-dozen distinctive Jewish languages. Until the early 1900s, it was the world's most widely used, largely because Ashkenazi Jews outnumbered other Jewish communities before the Nazi Holocaust.

Descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries are known as Sephardim (from the ancient Hebrew name for the Iberian peninsula). Their language is Ladino. It is largely medieval Spanish with heavy elements of Hebrew and the languages of the countries in which the Sephardim settled--e.g., Turkish, Greek, Bosnian, or Arabic.

The Sephardic Jews' new homelands, particularly in north Africa, Italy and Greece, contained tiny ancient Jewish communities (the last two called Romaniot) existing long before the Sephardim arrived. They spoke Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, and Judeo-Greek. In most cases these Jews were culturally absorbed into the larger Sephardic community.

Still another Jewish community, the Mizrahim or Eastern Jews, lived in Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Kurdistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan. They speak Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic and other local languages that mix the native tongues with bits of Hebrew.

Aside from a common religion, what binds the three Jewish ethnic communities is Hebrew, the language of the Torah, used universally by all Jews for religious worship. Despite their different origins, each Jewish language is written in the Hebrew alphabet.

As the official language of Israel, now the home of about half the world's Jews, Hebrew has replaced Yiddish as the world's most widely used Jewish language. And like Yiddish, Ladino and the Mizrahi languages are becoming obsolete.

I am confident that their devotees, even though they may no longer speak the languages, maintain the same strong emotional links to them that I do with Yiddish. They have linguistic love affairs of their own.

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

The tormented Robert McNamara

My local newspaper recently carried an editorial cartoon showing Robert McNamara, the controversial former Secretary of Defense who died on July 6, standing in front of St. Peter in heaven.

"There are 58,000 soldiers in here who'd like to have a word with you," St. Peter angrily tells McNamara, citing the number of U.S. troops killed in Vietnam. Taking a similarly harsh view of McNamara, the New York Times' front-page headline reporting his death described McNamara as "Architect of Futile War."

From the start, I vigorously opposed the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But I believe that McNamara has been unfairly vilified as the person primarily responsible for the war.

McNamara, a Republican, knew nothing about Vietnam when President Kennedy selected him in 1961 to head the Pentagon. McNamara had been president of Ford Motor Co., where he had gained a national reputation as the ultimate professional manager.

The seeds were sown for a U.S. role in Vietnam as far back as the Truman Administration. After World War II ended, Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of Vietnam's independence movement, sought U.S. aid to gain freedom from French colonial rule.

With the Cold War already under way, President Truman ignored his plea. Had Truman, and later President Eisenhower, shown some sympathy for the Vietnamese independence cause, perhaps Ho's regime might have tempered its Soviet ties.

France finally granted Vietnam its independence only after its disastrous military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The country was split in two. A pro-Soviet regime was established in the north and a pro-Western government was created in the south. The two states were soon at war, with North Vietnam sponsoring a Communist insurgency, the Viet Kong, in South Vietnam.

U.S. military advisers began to arrive in 1959 to support the battle against the Communist forces. When he became president, Kennedy expanded the number of American military advisers from a few hundred to about 17,000. In 1963 his successor, President Johnson, sent U.S. combat units in for the first time to fight the Communists. By 1975, when the U.S. forces finally departed from Vietnam, President Nixon had expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia.

To use George W. Bush's terminology, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were the "deciders" in getting the U.S. involved in Vietnam and for prolonging the war for 15 years. Robert McNamara, who had such a prominent role in Vietnam, quit the Pentagon in early 1968 after belatedly deciding that it was a mistake for the U.S. to continue the war.

As Business Week's Pentagon correspondent for nearly a decade until 1963, I have long had a personal interest in McNamara's career. I interviewed him several times and consider him to be one of the most interesting men I've ever met.

In an industry where eggheads rarely flourished, McNamara made his mark as a thoroughgoing intellectual in his years at Ford Motor Co. He shunned Detroit society, socialized little with auto industry tycoons, and lived instead in Ann Arbor, a university town 40 miles away. His friends there were largely professors and the kind of academic people who go into business. I reported and wrote a cover story about McNamara for Business Week's Feb. 11, 1961 issue.

Although I considered the Vietnam war a tragic blunder, I concede that McNamara vigorously improved the management of the Defense Dept. He firmly unified the three military services that had been plagued by costly rivalry and wasteful duplication of weapons development. He also strengthened civilian authority over the military establishment and enforced managerial control over the billions of dollars worth of military procurement.

Despite McNamara's sudden policy disagreement with the President over Vietnam, Johnson obviously thought so highly of McNamara that he recommended him to become head of the World Bank, where he served until 1981. In his years there, McNamara shifted the bank's focus to the problem of world poverty.

"[McNamara] is like a jackhammer," President Johnson once said. "No human being can take what he takes. He drives too hard. He's too perfect."

I developed a great deal of sympathy for McNamara after he left the Pentagon. For many years before his death, he was seriously tormented by the prominent role he had played in the tragic events in Vietnam. In books, articles, speeches, and a widely publicized documentary film, The Fog of War, McNamara became an anti-war crusader. He was particularly critical of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

McNamara died at age 93. He spent the final years of his life wrestling with the Vietnam war's moral consequences. He lived long enough to see how terribly wrong he had been and how much turmoil and tragedy the war brought to both Vietnam and the U.S. It was rare to see a man of McNamara's stature repent so publicly.

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