Afghanistan: Echoes of Vietnam


Oct 8, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in The Huffington Post on October 8, 2009.

In February, just a month after he took office, President Obama ordered an additional 17,000 soldiers and marines to Afghanistan. Weeks later, he dispatched 4,000 more.

In his own review of strategy for victory, the new American commander there, General Stanley McChrystal, reportedly concluded that he needs as many as 40,000 American troops above current levels. Anticipating this request, many Democrats and a few Republicans are questioning the wisdom of sending any reinforcements, and some have instead begun to argue for a substantial drawdown.

Beyond that, polls are showing that Americans are increasingly skeptical about this conflict, and citizens of other nations contributing troops, such as Britain, Germany, Canada, and the Netherlands, are even more negative.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Now that U.S. involvement in Iraq has finally begun to require fewer resources, Afghanistan is the new focus of American and European anti-war sentiment, and increasingly Obama's critics are drawing on the analogy of Vietnam. They assert that the United States and its allies are bogged down in a long, inconclusive conflict in support of a corrupt and incompetent government against an elusive, popularly based enemy operating out of an untouchable cross-border sanctuary.

In fact, the two societies, Vietnamese and Afghan, and the two insurgencies, Viet Cong and Taliban, could hardly be more different. Yet the conflicts may, in the end, have a similar impact on American public opinion. And that could have a similar impact on their outcomes. The most decisive battles over Vietnam were fought for the heart and minds of the American people and the most decisive defeat was in the U.S. Congress. The contest for Afghanistan is now being conducted over this same terrain.

In 2008, President Obama campaigned on a promise to withdraw American troops from Iraq and reinforce those in Afghanistan. The first pledge generated the most comment at the time. Then, 10 days after Obama defeated Senator John McCain, President Bush effectively removed withdrawal from Iraq as a source of controversy by committing the United States to removing all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011.

Debate over the second pledge—redoubling U.S. efforts in Afghanistan—has been growing ever since.

The military situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating when Obama took office and continues, with mounting violence and expanded insurgent influence over large parts of the country. Opinion polling shows waning Afghan public support for the U.S. and NATO military presence and for the Afghans' own government over the past several years.

Afghan opium production is down this year, but the drop may be due in part to depressed prices from bumper crops in previous years. Plausible allegations of widespread fraud in presidential elections two months ago portend an even more fractious political environment and diminished public support for the Afghan government in the future.

Obama and other supporters of the engagement in Afghanistan cite the attacks of 9/11 and argue that without U.S. and NATO forces, Afghanistan would likely again become a sanctuary for a global terrorist leadership intent on more attacks against the United States and its allies.

The president has moved away from his predecessor's emphasis on democratization as a rationale for that American presence. At the same time he has stressed that helping the Afghan government win the confidence and support of its people is key to American success and eventual withdrawal. Doing so, he has argued, requires that the population be protected from Taliban intimidation, and this in turn requires additional U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces until sufficient new Afghan military and police can be trained, equipped and deployed.

Critics of the growing troop commitment point out that al Qa'ida is largely absent from Afghanistan, having found refuge in neighboring Pakistan. Facing its own fundamentalist insurgency, Pakistan has largely lost control of its frontier regions bordering Afghanistan.

Obama's critics recall Afghanistan's long record of successful resistance to foreign incursions, from the British in the 19th century to the Soviets in the 20th. They argue that as long as both al Qa'ida and the Taliban can find sanctuary in Pakistan, the conflict in Afghanistan will remain an unwinnable side show.

Instead, they propose that the United States cut back its military commitment on the ground and keep al Qa'ida off balance and on defense by using air and missile strikes from afar, as it is already doing against terrorist networks in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

For years, the war in Iraq diverted resources from Afghanistan. Obama has characterized Afghanistan as a war of necessity, in contrast to Iraq, a war of choice—and a bad one at that. Yet as controversy over Iraq fades, this comparison, perhaps accurate and certainly powerful in its time, has dwindling impact. In its place is a new controversy, Afghanistan as the new Vietnam.

There's no debate about how that war turned out, but little agreement on why. The insurgency in South Vietnam had been reduced to manageable proportions by the time American troops departed in 1973. Counterinsurgency thus largely succeeded, yet the war was still lost when North Vietnam launched a conventional invasion in 1975. Vietnam thus offers material for both sides in current debate over troop levels in Afghanistan. Those who argue for a better resourced counterinsurgency campaign can point to the tactical and operations successes in Vietnam. Opponents recall the strategic failure.

Unfortunately for General McCrystal's advocates, it's the latter image that lingers most strongly in our national psyche.

James Dobbins was special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo during the Clinton administration, and the first envoy for Afghanistan in the George W. Bush Administration. He is the author of After the Taliban: Nation Building in Afghanistan (Potomac Books, 2008), and directs the RAND Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.