Ellsberg – From Vietnam to Afghanistan
As President Obama decides what to do in Afghanistan he must learn the lessons of Vietnam.
(October 25, 2009)

Interview with Daniel Ellsberg by Paul Jay of The Real News Network


Daniel Ellsberg is a former US military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation who precipitated a national political controversy in 1971 when he released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Pentagon study of US government decision-making about the Vietnam War, to The New York Times and other newspapers.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming today from Washington, DC. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. They helped contribute to disillusionment by Americans in the Vietnam War, [were a] contributing factor to the end of the war and the rise of the antiwar movement in the United States. Today Daniel Ellsberg joins us on The Real News. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So you're a legendary figure in modern American history, if you talk about people that stuck their neck out, and you're one of the people that stuck their neck out most, to most affect. Your experiences in Vietnam, what you knew of the whole counterinsurgency planning and efforts, tie that together with what's going on in Afghanistan.

ELLSBERG: My experience in Vietnam, two years, going through 38 of the 43 provinces in Vietnam over a period of two years, looking at pacification, writing doctrine for pacification – actually, for what's now called "counterinsurgency" – taught me that we were not going to succeed in Vietnam, not by what we were doing and really, eventually I realized, not by anything that anyone had proposed. There was no prospect for victory in Vietnam, only endless, bloody stalemate that was likely to escalate as it did not only under Johnson but under Nixon as well – in the air.

JAY: And why? I mean, except for [inaudible]

ELLSBERG: For the same reason it was in Afghanistan. Let me repeat the same words, just change the place names. That's what I could do with the papers I wrote 30 years ago and they would apply now. No victory lies ahead in Afghanistan, no success of any sort that will be lasting once American troops leave. American troops short of hundreds of thousands will not achieve anything that could be called success in Afghanistan. And I'm sure, by the way, that President Obama is being told that, just as President Johnson was and President Nixon. I don't believe that there's one official, like my former colleagues in the Pentagon, one official in Washington or in Afghanistan who believes that 40,000 additional troops, which is the minimum request by General McChrystal, will achieve any kind of success in Afghanistan or will be enough. I don't believe there is one official, civil or military, who believes that 80,000 more troops will achieve any kind of success. Nothing short of hundreds of thousands of combined Afghanistan and American troops would, even in their own terms, by their own calculations, be successful. I believe they're wrong about that, too. Either way, they're not going to get effective operation out of the Afghan troops from any number of more years. We've been training them for eight years. Eight more years, 80 more years will not provide foreign troops the motivation to fight offensively against their own countrymen, against the independence of their own country, for a foreign power – and we are a foreign power in Afghanistan. That may seem like a truism, but it's very hard for Americans to really internalize the meaning of that.

JAY: Isn't there an important difference, though, between Afghanistan and Vietnam?

ELLSBERG: Oh, there are many differences.

JAY: But one very important, which is I was in Afghanistan in the spring of 2002. I made a film there. I was there for about five or six weeks, from one end of the country to the other. Generally people hated the Taliban. It's not that different than in Vietnam. The Vietcong, the Vietnam Communist Party had quite a popular position there. The Taliban doesn't have that in Afghanistan.

ELLSBERG: Yes and no. The Vietcong were respected above all as having beaten the French before us, just as the Taliban or their forerunners are respected for having beaten the Soviets. But the difference is not as great as you may think. There was never majority support for the Vietcong (led by the communists) being the rulers of Vietnam if people had a genuinely free election there, which of course never occurred. They would have had perhaps 10, 15, maybe 20 percent support in comparison to Buddhist leaders, sect leaders, Catholics in some cases (another minority). There weren't too many more people actually actively supporting the Vietcong as their preferred leaders, rulers of Vietnam, than Catholics, maybe 10 or 15 percent. The difference was that they were all united in not wanting to be run either by foreigners, by Americans, or by a regime that was totally dependent on foreigners, as the Saigon regime transparently was and as the Kabul regime transparently is. In other words, what united people behind Vietcong leadership or, I would say, I would expect, behind Taliban support is that they're leading the fight to expel foreigners. That was the essential similarity there, and I think that lies behind my predictions of no success. The more troops we put in Vietnam, the more Vietcong were recruited; and the more troops we put in Afghanistan, the curves show very clearly, from 2005 on, the Taliban has come back, having been, as you say, despised and reviled by most of the country. How can it be that they get the degree of support that they do now? One reason only: the number of troops, of US troops that they're fighting. And when we put more US troops in, more drones, more funeral parties and wedding parties that are destroyed by our drones, which is McChrystal's specialty, along with on-the-ground death squads (is what he was managing in Iraq) the more we do that, the more Taliban we will be facing, despite the fact that they won't be any more popular than they were before.

JAY: Now, talk about McChrystal, 'cause McChrystal's known, his reputation's built around his counterinsurgency theory. But that's something you worked on in Iraq.

ELLSBERG: If McChrystal, has not read counterinsurgency theory -- I don't know if he read any of the things I wrote 30 years ago, but they may look very familiar to him from what he's been reading. When I read his assessment, I could have written it. In fact, I did write it 30 years ago, with the main place names changed for the embassy. I know that doctrine, that horseshit, when it comes to situations like this. I learned to be disillusioned from its prospects when run by a foreign power. It might have some power with a regime that is faced with an insurgency where the regime itself is recognized as legitimate by the people and can recruit without simultaneously recruiting for the opposition by its very presence, a regime that plans to stay there, that is the same religion, the same language, is the same color as the people there. For foreigners it has never, ever worked, and it is not going to work for us now.

JAY: So what do you think are the objectives? Why is the US on a course that seems to be McChrystal's course, an increasing of troops?

ELLSBERG: Well, Larry Wilkerson, the former chief of staff of General Powell when he was Secretary of State, and others, felt then and apparently feels now that the major thing behind US policy here is the need for a pipeline through Afghanistan from the gas and oilfields of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and others. That, I'm sure, is not the major thing in the minds of the military. It seems as though many of them want to re-fight the Vietnam War and do it right this time and show that they're not doomed to failure against these ill-armed, ill-uniformed peasants that they're facing, that surely they can do better. They want to do it better this time. They're going to [they think]. It's an understandable motive. They're going to fail. The French, by the way, went from Indochina, where they failed, to Algeria, determined to do better, and to some degree they did. They used torture very effectively in Algiers. And that so turned the population against them that in the end de Gaulle had to pull them out. The same here. McChrystal's troops in Iraq, one of his units was strongly condemned for the torture they were using there. He says that was aberrational. We'll see. I think what he mainly was doing was managing death squads throughout Iraq in his Joint Special Operations Command, and I'm sure that's what he has in mind now. And in the short run that can be effective in clearing a particular unit, like clearing Algiers, of your opponents, except that it creates so many people who hate you, who are determined to wreak revenge and to expel these murderers and torturers from their homeland, that the situation … it does not mean that you'll be driven out militarily, it means that the idea of beating the resistance is simply, absolutely beyond hope.

JAY: When you released the Pentagon Papers, when you leaked the Pentagon Papers, it was a media culture didn't really want to hear what you had to leak. And if I remember it correctly, it took some effort to get it out.

ELLSBERG: No, no, no, that's not the case. In fact, The New York Times set out right away, as soon as they had the documents, to work very hard and put it out. And, contrary to what you're saying, after they were told, when The New York Times came out, that any page of this, being top secret, was hurting American security and it was virtually treasonous to be doing it, 19 papers in all defied the attorney general and defied the president in the face of four injunctions, each one of which was unprecedented in America,that is, the first one was unprecedented. But the four of them together were unprecedented in American history. And yet 15 other papers continued to publish them until the Supreme Court ruled that the injunctions were invalid and that they were allowed to print. So it was a wave of civil disobedience that I think has not occurred in any institution in any modern society known to me.

JAY: Compare that to the media of the last eight years, and then today.

ELLSBERG: Well, the media in the last eight years have acted like lap dogs, like scribes or stenographers to the press, with a few honorable exceptions. But that was true in Vietnam as well, except for the Pentagon Papers, and in that case the field reporting was much freer than it's been allowed to be for a generation now. I think England to some degree led the way with their censorship of what they called the Falklands War, controlling the media in that operation. But we imitated it in Grenada, in Panama, in the first Gulf War, and the embedding process in this war. So the media have allowed themselves to be very much tamed in the field in terms of what they can show. This movie, by the way, The Most Dangerous Man Alive, I was watching newsclips.

JAY: Which is how you were described.

ELLSBERG: Yeah, it was Henry Kissinger's term for me. But it had a lot of newsreel clips from that time, including clips of wounded and dead Americans. And I was very struck by that, because I'm aware you cannot show that on television now. They've censored that for more than a decade. So Americans are totally kept ignorant of the bloody side of war. And, of course, war is bloodletting.

JAY: Now, the film, which is about you, The Most Dangerous Man Alive, that's going to be coming out soon?

ELLSBERG: I don't know. They have to have a distributor. I didn't mean to get onto that subject.

JAY: No, but we can plug it a bit, so if people want to know, follow what happens with that film, I guess there's a website or something?

ELLSBERG: Yes, there is a website. I think it's called The Most Dangerous Man Alive, that the directors -- it was done independently of me -- but I'm interviewed in the film.

JAY: So just to end up, in terms of how the media is covering Afghanistan now, how do you rate it?

ELLSBERG: Well, again, they don't seem able to get out in the field that much. We're learning a lot from these that was especially true in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, too, it seems to be very hard for media to get outside Kabul with a few people who take heroic measures to get out. As you say, you were all over. Very good.

JAY: But that was 2002.


JAY: Two thousand and two it was not difficult to get all over.

ELLSBERG: A different story.

JAY: It's changed dramatically.

ELLSBERG: So on the one hand I doubt if they are. They're not getting the kind of coverage that we got in Vietnam.

JAY: But in terms of the debate about Afghan policy, what do you make of how the...

ELLSBERG: Ah, in terms of the DC coverage. Well, there are some differences. There have been more leaks this side, on both sides of the dispute. We're aware that there is a policy dispute going on. There was a dispute, very much so, in Vietnam, but that was totally kept silent. On the other hand, we haven't seen a Pentagon Papers and I would like to see a Pentagon Papers of Afghanistan right now, last month, next month, this week. Very important. For example, I think it would show something that the media have not shown at all, that I'm certain that President Obama is seeing standard figures in counterinsurgency doctrine, that the total number of troops, Afghan and American, have to add up like something for the country like 600,000, 700,000 troops. That has not been shown at all. There was one leak by Andrea Mitchell and NBC that used the figure of 500,000, not followed up by anyone. Now, they're presuming that most of that will be Afghan, but it won't. The Afghan army hardly exists, as a very good column by Ann Jones on the web on [inaudible]

JAY: The Afghan ambassador to the United States was on one of the Sunday morning programs a couple of weeks ago saying that he was asked what should be done to change the situation in Afghanistan, and he said, well, how about actually investing some money in the Afghan army, 'cause apparently there's next to no financing going on.

ELLSBERG: Well, they can invest the money, but where has the money that's been invested in it so far actually gone? Are there Afghan troops? Ann Jones actually raised that question. Now, the reason I know that's not just a rhetorical question is that the Vietnamese armed forces, the figures for those were enormously inflated every year of the war, and what they had were phantom soldiers whose pay was collected by their commanding officers. They had deserted or had been killed, and the ranks had not been refilled by anyone else, and the pay was simply collected by their commanding officers. Why does it take Marines in Helmand province to be taking that back right now, so many, 1,100 here, 1,100 there? Where are the Afghan armies? How many stories have you seen on them? They've been trained for eight years now. No doubt you could put more money into them. But where would it go? Switzerland?

JAY: So we're at a moment right now where President Obama's about to announce a decision about whether to expand American troop presence or not. There's a grand debate taking place between the military and the White House and within the White House. What does your experience in the Vietnam days tell us about this?

ELLSBERG: I think that I'm reliving the period when I was in the Pentagon in June and July of 1965, when President Johnson was about to enter an open-ended escalation of the war. He had at that time about 70,000 troops in Vietnam exactly what Obama has in Afghanistan at this time. And he was facing, actually, requests for an initial 100,000 to go over. Let's say that corresponds to the 80,000 that is McChrystal's least-risk figure that he's getting right now, or 40,000 as a less-risk. What is the meaning of that? And if the president does what the BBC says he has already decided to do, if he sends 45,000 troops, which is McChrystal's minimum at this point, why will he have done that? The Pentagon Papers showed basically what Johnson's reasons were, and I think the reasons for Obama would be the same: to keep the military, the top military, from resigning and going public with complaints that he has abandoned a winnable war, a war that the president doesn't himself believe can be won, and yet he goes into what he foresees will be a bloody, long, escalating stalemate in order to prevent his military from making a political case to his public and to the Congress that he has been weak, unmanly, indecisive, weak on terrorism, and has endangered American troops and Americans, simply [inaudible]

JAY: But if he's really afraid of that, then why not fire these guys before if this happens?

ELLSBERG: And he doesn't feel he can fire them, actually, because like Johnson he appointed them, and he can count on Senators from his own party saying, like Dianne Feinstein right now, "You appointed these crackerjack people, you signed on to this policy, and now you're changing your mind. Isn't that flip-flopping? You're not trusting military judgment." Now, the president, I feel sure in this case, doesn't trust the advice that he's getting. That's why he's delaying as long as he is. And he's right not to trust it. And the advice he's getting from people like General Powell and John Kerry, both of whom have experience in Vietnam, is that he should not trust that advice, that it's invalid. And nevertheless I think he will do what Johnson did: go against his own instincts as to what's best for the country and do what's best for him and his administration and his party in the short run, facing elections, which is to avoid a military revolt. We're almost facing something like the threat of something like a coup, that the military will impose their authority against his in this case, and in order to do that, many Americans, many Afghans, will die in order to protect the president from that kind of blame.

JAY: Thanks for joining us. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.