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.

Another commonality is the weakness of the Afghan National Army. Like the ARVN before it, the Afghan Army is losing the countryside to a more determined and dedicated foe. It's undermanned, most of its troops are AWOL, and it serves a corrupt and incompetent government. We tried to turn the ARVN into a lethal fighting force for two decades, and we failed. If the Afghan Army is going to turn out better, we need to know why.

Like Lyndon Johnson, President Obama has to take over the war planning from a previous president. He still has some of the same advisers that Bush relied upon. He's being urged to make a major investment in troops to salvage a deteriorating situation. It's no wonder he's just rejected all of the options presented to him by his national security team. Obama is demanding the kinds of answers that were never answered in 1964-65 when the decision was made to escalate in Vietnam. Namely, how are these investments going to change the basic reality that the central government is weak, corrupt, and illegitimate?

Now, the one big difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam is that the Taliban are not considered to be heroes like Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh armies were by the Vietnamese. The Taliban don't have nationwide legitimacy, and they are openly feared and loathed by most of the Afghan population. In that sense, we can be sure that we aren't fighting on the wrong side of this war. But we can't be sure that we will be any more successful, because there is little evidence that we can be at any realistic price.

I hope Obama holds out until he has a plan that makes sense and has a definite end point.

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In Vietnam, we cherished a lot of Cold-War myths about virtually all of the players involved: we had drunk the McCarthy Koolaid for so long, and terrorized ourselves with fear of Communism for so many years, that we persuaded ourselves that Communism was so obviously horrible that Communism's grip on the North Vietnamese would waver, while the American people and the South Vietnamese would never hesitate in pursuing the enemy. The fact was that Ho Chi Minh was much more a nationalist than a Communist and he was giving his people what they wanted, the expulsion of the invaders; that the South Vietnamese didn't see the difference between northern dictators and southern dictators as worth dying for; and that the American people were ready to take a breath and rethink the whole adventure.

LBJ wanted to get out of Vietnam but he felt as though he was being dragged helplessly to the right; he was positive the right would crush him if he surrendered Vetnam to the Communists. Nixon, contrariwise, felt pulled to the left -- he committed from the beginning to withdrawal, and fatally compromised the South Vietnamese government to get out quickly. Obama is perfectly willing to put troops in or pull them out, regardless of the political blowback -- provided that the strategy is right.

Also, LBJ's decision maing process was crippled by the terror generated by the Tet offensive, coming just at the start of the 1968 campaign. Contrariwise, not only has the terror of 911 worn off over eight years, bin Laden has made it almost impossible to terrorize us, by hitting us harder than any future terrorist ever could (probably), and the Bush administration also wore out our Fear Reflex by the constant, endless efforts to push our fear buttons. Day after day: "FOX TERROR ALERT! FOX TERROR ALERT! FOX TERROR ALERT! FOX TERROR ALERT! FOX TERROR ALERT! FOX TERROR ALERT!"

America still has fears and hatred about al-Qa'ida just as we did about the Communists, but that has not blinded us (most of us, anyway) to the notion that the cost/benefit score on this conflict simply may not justify staying the course. We are facing reality about the eating-soup-with-a-knife effort to nail down the Taleban which usually is hiding in Pakistan where we can't go, and about the crooks in Kabul. Unlike 1968, we are allowed to have a public debate about these issues -- Eikenberry and McChrystal are publicly trading potshots. The brickbats which the Republicans are throwing at Obama are being written off as just another slam-Obama effort. And again, Obama has publicly shown his willingness to reject an escalation plan if it is not backed with realistic, well-crafted strategy.

We as a people are more clear-eyed, harder to frighten, more ready to consider crafting Afghan policy based on logic instead of emotion, and led by a man who isn't afraid to make unpopular decisions if he needs to.

So relax! It's not 1968!

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