Neil Sheehan

Obama, Vietnam, and Afghanistan

I've spent a good part of the last week re-reading Neil Sheehan's book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Partly, this is just happenstance; I found a nicely annotated hardback copy in a local used book store. But it's also because I wanted to look again at the 1962-64 period of the Vietnam War to see how much it resembles our current situation in Afghanistan. I don't have good news to report.

Starting in earnest in 1962, the U.S. began arming the Viet Cong inadvertently through the strategic hamlet and strategic outpost programs. The communist side in the South was not relying on Chinese or Soviet supplies, except for heavy weapons that could not easily be captured. They got all the guns and ammo they needed simply by taking them from the people the U.S. handed them out to. The strategic hamlet program turned the peasants against the Saigon regime for good. Indiscriminate bombing of villages turned the rural populace into mortal foes of the United States. The cities were lost because the Catholic regime was brutal, corrupt, and attempted to crush the power of the Buddhist leadership.

The parallels to Afghanistan are not perfect, but the situations have enough commonality to give serious pause. The most worrisome feature is the corruption and illegitimacy of the Karzai Regime. If this was 1963, our ambassador would be plotting a coup to make sure Karzai and his opium-selling brother were assassinated and replaced by a (hopefully) more competent and popular successor. But, with hindsight, we know that that gambit didn't save South Vietnam and it probably wouldn't save Afghanistan either.