Vietnam heads getting Afghan deja vu all over again by mattsteinglass
August 10, 2009, 12:52 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan, Vietnam

There’s been a bit of a dust-up on an email list of Vietnam scholars and related folks lately regarding the similarities between the war in Afghanistan and the late and not at all lamented US effort in Vietnam. Without getting too deeply into details (it’s a private list), some people feel rather strongly that the war in Afghanistan is now as big a cock-up as the war in Vietnam was, and the US should end its military efforts there. Others disagree on various grounds. The topic was launched by a recent AP article on the Obama administration’s consultations with former Vietnam War journalist and historian Stanley Karnow, who thinks the US should get out of Afghanistan. It’s lent added depth by yesterday’s excellent NY Times Magazine feature by Elizabeth Rubin on Hamid Karzai’s increasing isolation, ineffectiveness and unwillingness to confront corruption. A bunch of people are comparing Karzai to the failed US-backed dictators of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu.

I won’t bother here to go through all the similarities between the two wars; they are legion. The essence is that we have a highly disciplined ideological insurgent group with a long-range strategy and strong motivation facing a corrupt, factionalized and unmotivated US-backed regime with a weak leader picked for his suitability to America, not for his local political strength. The differences, however, are significant. For one thing, the Taliban are not the Viet Cong. They have a shallow and violent governing philosophy that has rapidly alienated the local population in most places where they’ve taken power. They are much smaller than the Viet Cong were — estimates run to about 20,000 fighters. They have the qualified backing of some elements of the Pakistani ISI and some Wahhabi funding sources in the Persian Gulf states, rather than the unqualified backing of the Soviet Union and China. They are overwhelmingly Pashtun, and the Pashtun, while the largest ethnicity in Afghanistan, are not a majority. The Taliban had their shot at unifying the country in the late ’90s, when the US was providing no aid to the Northern Alliance, and were unable to do so. It is unclear why they should be able to do so now.

If the Taliban are not the same as the VC, the US war effort in Afghanistan is not the same as the US war effort in Vietnam. It is much smaller, and, partly because it is smaller, it is not having the same kind of horrific effect on the countryside that the US had in South Vietnam. US forces are not sweeping through provinces hurling massive random interdiction artillery fire, blowing away hamlets, and creating semi-deliberate refugee crises to empty the countryside of potential Taliban support. The US is not air-spraying millions of gallons of defoliant to destroy Afghanistan’s forests, or pulverizing entire square kilometers of the mountain highlands with B-52 Arc Light missions. US airstrikes are killing Afghan civilians, this is unacceptable and atrocious, military officers are clearly not getting the outrageousness of the problem, and they have got to be slapped until they start treating the loss of an American soldier as an acceptable price to pay for being sure you’re not bombing an Afghan wedding party. At the same time, these atrocities are not happening on anything like the scale they did in Vietnam. The devastation the US wreaked upon Vietnam gave the need to end that war moral clarity. Whatever the dubious gains to be expected from a prolongation of the brutal, incompetent Saigon regime, it seemed impossible that they could outweigh the damage done.

In Afghanistan, that’s not as clear. After blowing Afghanistan apart in the ’80s by backing the anti-Soviet mujahedin through the ISI, the US did essentially nothing in Afghanistan between 1991 and 1999. The result was pretty disastrous, I think everyone can agree, both for Afghanistan and, unexpectedly, for the US. The question is whether what the US and NATO can do by remaining in Afghanistan might produce an outcome that’s better than the one produced by the previous approach of doing nothing about Afghanistan.

And maybe they can’t. Arguments by people like Andrew Bacevich and Rory Stewart that NATO cannot accomplish its aims in Afghanistan are convincing. Still, the Vietnam analogy seems more depressing than anything else. In Vietnam, the only way to achieve stable governance, ultimately, was for the Vietnamese Communists to win. And that turned out to be an outcome that was good for a lot of people, and horrible for a lot of people, but overall was clearly preferable to the alternative of indefinite slaughter. In Afghanistan, if the model holds, the only way to achieve stable governance would be a Taliban victory. That doesn’t seem like an outcome with a lot of upside.


4 Comments so far
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Mr. Steinglass,

What is absolutely the same is the question of winning the “Hearts and Minds” of the people. The biggest mistake in both cases is the assumption that there is a strictly military solution, basically killing enough of the enemy. Without the support of a sizable portion of the population, the insurgents will have a huge strategic advantage. They will be able to move undetected and undeterred through the country, unlike the NATO troops. The rest is just details.

Comment by davidlosangeles


I think the Vietnam analogy is most useful in looking at how American officials involved in Vietnam thought about Vietnam, and how American officials involved in Iraq and Afghanistan think about Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve found that, in general, the U.S. official view hasn’t changed much over 40 years: by fighting a war, we can, in some fashion, impose a government to our liking on X, Y, or Z country. This government will then stand as a bulwark against X force that threatens our intersts. (Communism then, Islamic extremism now.) Maybe this is too simple of a point, but whenver I read Vietnam literature, so often you cld subistute the words “Vietnam” for Iraq or Afghanistan, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. There are of course plenty of differences between the three countries, and the nuts and bolts of the conflicts, but the general mindset that got us involved there is what fascinates me.

One question. Do you think if the U.S. did more in Afghanistan from ’91-99 that we would have prevented the September 11th terrorist attacks? Or would Bin Laden and Al Qaeda just have found some other failed state to find “safe haven” in? I think we need to question the entire wisdom of the “safe haven” rational, as the nature of terrorism is that it will move to whatever safe haven it can find, and there will always be plenty of those…

Comment by Michael Hastings

Michael: I think you’re absolutely right that in many ways the American style of aid, development and diplomacy hasn’t changed, and elements of this style are ineffective or counterproductive. The US still throws money at problems, which blows up impoverished economies in places like Iraq and Afghanistan in the same way it did in South Vietnam. The US still walks into new countries and situations with strongly pre-formed ideological categories that distort its views of what’s happening, or of what a realistic and desirable outcome might be. And so on. But I think it’s important to recognize those aspects of the general mindset that really have changed from Vietnam to Afghanistan. There is no equivalent today of the military philosophy pursued by Gen. William Westmoreland in Vietnam, the idea that the guerrilla war was a mere sideshow and that the war could be won through the pure application of firepower against the enemy’s main units. And if you watch the amazing 1974 documentary “Hearts and Minds”, you’ll see Walt Rostow, the top development thinker in Kennedy/Johnson-era America, saying with absolute certainty that the Vietnam War was launched in Moscow by international Communism during the expansionist euphoria of the Sputnik moment. Nobody these days is thinking in such stupidly reductive ways about what motivates the Taliban.

I have no idea whether more US attention to Afghanistan in the ’90s could have prevented spectacular terrorism against the US in the early 2000s. But we do know that the 9/11 attacks developed as part of a coordinated strategy by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban to finally win the war against the Northern Alliance. The plan was for the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud to take place in August, the Taliban to launch a final offensive, followed by 9/11; with the Alliance in disarray, the idea was the US would have no effective way to retaliate. This may have been a dumb strategy on Al-Qaeda’s part, but it’s still not really clear to me what Al-Qaeda wants to accomplish, so I don’t know. But I don’t think it was coincidence that Al-Qaeda, after trying out Sudan and being chased out pretty easily, ultimately ended up in Afghanistan. The thing about AfPak is that the way the US was involved there in the ’80s, the pure anarchic military intervention through the CIA, left an incredible reservoir of anti-American conspiratorial thinking, and the ethnic and religious divisions there, on the borders of Islam, plus the poverty and high birth rates and sexual repression, create a self-replenishing supply of conflict and antagonism. The Afghan war created Osama bin-Laden, and while the 9/11 attacks were plotted in Hamburg, I don’t think that just anyplace in the world would be an equally good locus for anti-American Islamicist terrorist organizations.

I think the real vicious question remains whether the US, by intervening more strenuously, only exacerbates the problem. I think there’s a very good case for that proposition, made by Rory Stewart and others. Benign neglect of some of these places might really be the best policy, but it’s hard to embrace it, in part because it probably involves accepting a certain level of anti-American terrorism.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

I’m a big proponent of the Vietnam/Afghanistan analogy. Not so much for military similarities, but rather because of the sense of inertia.

Studying the Vietnam War is depressing because you had a lot of smart decision-makers who had doubts about the war, but felt they had no choice. They had to see it through because of the Domino Theory, or Peace with Honor, or because they were afraid the hawks would accuse them of losing Vietnam just like Nationalist China.

There seems to have been a fatalism in U.S. foreign policy during those years, and I worry that the same thing is happening in Afghanistan. We don’t really want to be there anymore, we’re starting to doubt that we can win, but we’re afraid to leave for foreign and domestic considerations. So we kind of muddle along and peer in vain for the light at the end of the tunnel.

My money is on some kind of Hanoi peace accords in Afghanistan. Some kind of power-sharing between the Taliban and Karzai that no one expects to be honored the minute U.S. ground forces are withdrawn. Perhaps as in 1975, the Karzai regime will falter before a Taliban advance, and then the pundits and demagogues in the U.S. will thunder about whether to commit U.S. troops. It’s hard to believe we would leave Afghanistan to the Taliban, but who would have believed in 1969 that we would have abandoned Saigon to North Vietnam?

Comment by Michael Peck

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