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.
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