By George McGovern
Sunday, December 13, 2009; B02
As a U.S. senator during the 1960s, I agonized over the badly mistaken war in Vietnam. After doing all I could to save our troops and the Vietnamese people from a senseless conflict, I finally took my case to the public in my presidential campaign in 1972. Speaking across the nation, I told audiences that the only upside of the tragedy in Vietnam was that its enormous cost in lives and dollars would keep any future administration from going down that road again.
I was wrong. Today, I am astounded at the Obama administration's decision to escalate the equally mistaken war in Afghanistan, and as I listen to our talented young president explain why he is adding 30,000 troops -- beyond the 21,000 he had added already -- I can only think: another Vietnam. I hope I am incorrect, but history tells me otherwise.
Presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon all believed that the best way to save the government in Saigon and defeat Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Cong insurgents was to send in U.S. troops. But the insurgency only grew stronger, even after we had more than 500,000 troops fighting and dying in Vietnam.
We have had tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan for several years, and we have employed an even larger number of mercenaries (or "contractors," as they're called these days). As in Vietnam, the insurgent forces are stronger than ever, and the Afghan government is as corrupt as the one we backed in Saigon.
Why do we send young Americans to risk life and limb on behalf of such worthless regimes? The administration says we need to fight al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But the major al-Qaeda forces are in Pakistan.
The insurgency in Afghanistan is led by the Taliban. Its target is its own government, not our government. Its only quarrel with us is that its members see us using our troops and other resources to prop up a government they despise. Adding more U.S. forces will fuel the Taliban further.
Starting in 1979, the Soviets tried to control events in Afghanistan for nearly a decade. They lost 15,000 troops, and an even larger number of soldiers were crippled or wounded. Their treasury was exhausted, and the Soviet Union collapsed. A similar fate has befallen other powers that have tried to work their will on Afghanistan's collection of mountain warlords and tribes.
We have the best officers and combat troops in the world, but they are weary after nearly a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why waste these fine soldiers any longer?
Even if we had a good case for a war in Afghanistan, we simply cannot afford to wage it. With a $12 trillion debt and a serious economic recession, this is not a time for unnecessary wars abroad. We should bring our soldiers home before any more of them are killed or wounded -- and before our national debt explodes.
In 1964, Johnson asked several senators who were not running for reelection that year if we would campaign for him. He assured those of us who were opposed to the war in Vietnam that he had no plans to expand the U.S. presence. Johnson won the election in a landslide, telling voters he sought no wider war. "We are not about to send American boys nine or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves," he assured during his campaign.
But once elected, Johnson began to pour in more troops until American forces reached exceeded 500,000. All told, more than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, and many more were crippled in mind and body. This is to say nothing of the nearly 2 million Vietnamese who died under U.S. bombardment.
Johnson had a brilliant record in domestic affairs, but Vietnam choked his dream of a Great Society. The war had become unbearable to so many Americans -- civilian and military -- that the landslide victor of 1964 did not seek reelection four years later.
Obama has the capacity to be a great president; I just hope that Afghanistan will not tarnish his message of change. After half a century of Cold War and hot wars, it is time to rebuild our great and troubled land. By closing down the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can divert the vast sums being spent there to revitalizing our own nation.
In 1972, I called on my fellow citizens to "Come home, America." Today, I commend these words to our new president.
George McGovern, a former senator from South Dakota and a decorated World War II combat veteran, was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972.