Afghanistan is today's Vietnam. No question mark needed.
BY THOMAS H. JOHNSON, M. CHRIS MASON
AUGUST 20, 2009
For those who say that comparing the current war in Afghanistan to
the Vietnam War is taking things too far, here's a reality check:
It's not taking things far enough. From the origins of these
North-South conflicts to the role of insurgents and the pointlessness
of this week's Afghan presidential elections, it's impossible to
ignore the similarities between these wars. The places and faces may
have changed but the enemy is old and familiar. The sooner the United
States recognizes this, the sooner it can stop making the same
mistakes in Afghanistan.
Even at first glance the structural parallels alone are sobering.
Both Vietnam and Afghanistan (prior to the U.S. engagement there) had
surprisingly defeated a European power in a guerrilla war that lasted
a decade, followed by a largely north-south civil war which lasted
another decade. Insurgents in both countries enjoyed the advantage of
a long, trackless, and uncloseable border and sanctuary beyond it,
where they maintained absolute political control. Both were land wars
in Asia with logistics lines more than 9,000 miles long and extremely
harsh terrain with few roads, which nullified U.S. advantages in
ground mobility and artillery. Other key contributing factors bear a
striking resemblance: Almost exactly 80 percent of the population of
both countries was rural, and literacy hovered around 10 percent.
In both countries, the United States sought to create an indigenous
army modeled in its own image, based on U.S. army organization
charts. With the ARVN in South Vietnam and the ANA in today's
Afghanistan, assignment of personnel as combat advisors and mentors
was the absolute lowest priority. And in both wars, the U.S.
military grossly misled the American people about the size of the
indigenous force over a protracted period. In Afghanistan, for
example, the U.S. military touts 91,000 ANA soldiers as "trained and
equipped," knowing full well that barely 39,000 are still in the
ranks and present for duty.
The United States consistently and profoundly misunderstood the
nature of the enemy it was fighting in each circumstance. In Vietnam,
the United States insisted on fighting a war against communism, while
the enemy was fighting a war of national reunification. In
Afghanistan, the United States still insists on fighting a secular
counterinsurgency, while the enemy is fighting a jihad. The
intersection of how insurgencies end and how jihads end is nil. It's
hard to defeat an enemy you don't understand, and in Afghanistan, as
in Vietnam, this fight is being played out in a different war.
This is but the tip of the iceberg of a long list of remarkable
parallels. What's really startling are the deeper strategic
connections. The United States lost the war in Vietnam, historical
revisionism notwithstanding, because of a fatal nexus of political
and military failure, and the exact same thing is happening in
Afghanistan. As Andrew Krepinevich noted many years ago, the army
failed in Vietnam because it insisted on fighting a war of maneuver
to "find, fix, and destroy" the enemy (with what became known as
"search and destroy missions") instead of protecting the people in
the villages. Today these tactics are called "sweep and clear
missions," but they are in essence the same thing -- clearing tiny
patches of ground for short periods in a big country in hopes of
killing enough enemy to make him quit. But its manpower pool was not
North Vietnam's Achilles heel and neither is it the Taliban's. Almost
exactly the same percentage of personnel in Afghanistan has rural
reconstruction as its primary mission (the Provincial Reconstruction
Teams) as had "pacification" (today's "nation-building") as their
primary mission in Vietnam, about 4 percent. The other 96 percent is
engaged in chasing illiterate teenage boys with guns around the
countryside, exactly what the enemy wants us to do.
Meanwhile the political failure in Kabul is Saigon déjà vu. A
government that is seen as legitimate by 85 or 90 percent of the
population is considered the sine qua non of success by
counterinsurgency experts. After the Diem coup, this was never
possible in Vietnam, as one incompetent and utterly corrupt
government succeeded another. None was legitimate in the eyes of the
people. Contemporary descriptions of the various Saigon governments
read almost exactly like descriptions of the Karzai government today.
Notwithstanding all the fanfare over this week's presidential voting
in Afghanistan, the Kabul government will never be legitimate either,
because democracy is not a source of legitimacy of governance in
Afghanistan and it never has been. Legitimacy in Afghanistan over the
last thousand years has come exclusively from dynastic and religious
sources. The fatal blunder of the United States in eliminating a
ceremonial Afghan monarchy was Afghanistan's Diem Coup: afterwards,
there was little possibility of establishing a legitimate, secular
It doesn't matter who wins the August elections for president in
Afghanistan: he will be illegitimate because he is elected. We have
apparently learned nothing from Vietnam.
Thomas H. Johnson is a research professor of the Department of
National Security Affairs and director of the Program for Culture and
Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey,
California. M. Chris Mason is a retired Foreign Service officer who
served in 2005 as political officer for the PRT in Paktika and
presently is a senior fellow at the Program for Culture and Conflict
Studies and at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, D.C.
From Saigon to Kabul
Vietnam haunts Barack Obama as he decides what to do in Afghanistan
Oct 1st 2009
MAO ZEDONG called it protracted war; the Spanish in Napoleonic times
knew it as guerrilla; and Muslim militants from Indonesia to
Mauritania call it simply jihad. Perhaps the best description of
insurgency is "War of the Flea", the title of a 1965 book on
revolutionary warfare by Robert Taber, an American who witnessed
Fidel Castro's success in Cuba. "The guerrilla fights the war of the
flea," he wrote, "and his military enemy suffers the dog's
disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous and agile an
enemy to come to grips with." In the end, exhausted, the dog dies or
gives up the fight.
It happened, among others, to the British in Palestine, the French in
Algeria and, momentously, the Americans in Vietnam. The helicopters
whisking evacuees from Saigon in 1975 still haunt America. "Vietnam",
synonymous with "quagmire", is shorthand for an unwinnable war. So it
was over the war in Iraq. And so it is now over the one in
Afghanistan. President Barack Obama rejects the comparison with
Vietnam"You never step into the same river twice," he says. But the
V-word is back in vogue.
In the most recent version of the allegory, the backdrop is the Hindu
Kush, with an even fiercer reputation for breaking foreign armies
than Indochina. President Hamid Karzai, besmirched by a fraud-ridden
election, plays the role of Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam's repressive
and corrupt prime minister and later president. General Stanley
McChrystal who, having received 21,000 extra American troops wants up
to 40,000 more, is cast as General William Westmoreland, whose answer
to every problem was to use more force. Mr Obama's role is undecided.
The chorus asks: will he play John Kennedy, who rejected his
generals' demand for combat troops (he sent advisers); or Lyndon
Johnson, whose misguided air- and land-war doomed his presidency?
The characters consult oracles, but the advice is ambiguous. Gordon
Goldstein's "Lessons in Disaster" tells the story of the Vietnam-era
national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, who later recanted his
hawkish views. Rufus Phillips's "Why Vietnam Matters" argues that
America's error was to take over the war from the South Vietnamese.
To many, Vietnam proves the futility of Western powers using force in
somebody else's country. The West's record in colonial wars, and
later interventions, is hardly glorious. Yet there have been some
successful counter-insurgency campaigns, notably by the British in
Malaya in the 1950s and by the Americans in the Philippines a century
ago. Even in Vietnam, many scholars argue, the Americans belatedly
got the knack for irregular warfare, blending political, economic and
military action. South Vietnam, they note, was largely pacified after
the 1968 Tet offensive; it succumbed not to the insurgents, but to
the regular armies of North Vietnam, after the war effort was starved
of support by Congress. America did not lose the fight; it lost the
will to fight.
Such lessons have been learnt, or rather relearnt, by the American
army and encapsulated in the now-famous counter-insurgency (COIN)
manual, FM 3-24, issued in 2006. Seeking to exorcise the ghost of
Vietnam, it says the main objective is to protect the population
rather than kill the enemy. Such ideas were adopted with considerable
success (and luck) in Iraq. Even as Mr Obama withdraws from Iraq, it
looked as if he would apply the same theory to what he called the
"war of necessity" in Afghanistan. He sent more troops there,
approved a "comprehensive" counter-insurgency strategy for
Afghanistan and appointed General McChrystal, a veteran of the Iraq
war, to put it into action.
But suddenly Mr Obama is wobbling. He says he will consider the
general's request for troops with a "sceptical" mindset even though
it should have come as no surprise. Protecting a population needs
lots of boots on the ground. General McChrystal wants around another
200,000 Afghan soldiersrecalling America's abortive attempt at
A'stan is not 'Nam
Yet the comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam has obvious flaws.
The Vietcong had the full-blooded support of North Vietnam which, in
turn, was backed by China and the Soviet Union. The Taliban enjoy a
haven in Pakistan (and perhaps the help of some of its spooks) but
they have no state sponsor. The scale of fighting is much smaller
today. In Vietnam America lost hundreds of aircraft and about 55,000
soldiers; in Afghanistan America has mastery of the skies and has
suffered about 850 dead (one-fifth the losses in Iraq). NATO allies
have lost some 570 soldiers. American opinion is ambivalent rather
than hostile. There is no draft, and no taunts that American soldiers
are "baby-killers". The memory of the attacks on September 11th 2001,
ordered by al-Qaeda leaders who lived in Afghanistan, is still powerful.
In some respects, though, lessons of Vietnam should be heeded.
Winning over a population requires a credible and legitimate
government. It must be tempting to dump Mr Karzai. But the
American-backed coup that killed Diem in 1963 brought in an even less
savoury bunch. Mr Karzai may be deeply flawed, but he is probably
more popular than the other options. The message is that America
should compel Mr Karzai to reformor at least set a clearly better
example than the Taliban.
Mr Obama's understandable caution is starting to look like
weaknesseven Pakistan's former leader, Pervez Musharraf, says so.
Prevarication is encouraging the sceptics of counter-insurgency (the
so-called COINtras) to call for withdrawal from Afghanistan, or for a
diminished campaign that focuses on air strikes and raids by special
forces to kill al-Qaeda leaders. America's qualms will sap European
allies' readiness to stay in Afghanistan. And they will embolden the
Taliban into thinking that, after eight years of flea-bites, the
American dog is about to roll over.
Why Rufus Phillips Matters
October 12, 2009
by George Packer
Rufus Phillips, raised in rural Virginia and educated at Yale, was a
young C.I.A. officer in Saigon in the nineteen-fifties, a protege of
the legendary Colonel Edward Lansdale. Over the next decade, Phillips
became that rare thing in American foreign policyan expert in the
politics of another country. (Leslie Gelb, the former Times columnist
and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, once told
me, "American foreign-policy experts don't know anything about
countries. That is a fundamental and tragic problem in our
policymaking process.") Phillips got to know South Vietnamese
politicians and military officers better than any other American. He
ran the U.S. civilian counterinsurgency program in the early sixties
and traveled all over rural South Vietnam (he was Richard Holbrooke's
first boss). When the Saigon government started to collapse, in 1963,
Phillips returned to Washington and, though he was far down the
bureaucratic pecking order, was asked to brief President Kennedy.
Phillips was one of the few officials in a position to know how badly
the war was going, and he and a blithely optimistic Marine general
argued it out in front of Kennedy, in a scene that made Phillips's
reputation as a fearless straight-talker (David Halberstam recorded
it in "The Best and the Brightest").
After 1963, Phillips ended his official work in Vietnam. But he was
one of those young men who never got over it, never again found
anything else as interesting and important. A couple of decades ago,
Phillips started to write a memoir, but he put it aside when
publishers told him that no one wanted to read another Vietnam book.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caused him to take it up again, and
last year, at the age of seventy-nine, Phillips published "Why
It is, among other things, a wonderful read, full of detail and
drama. It tells you what it felt like to live and work in Saigon
before the Americans arrived by the hundreds of thousandsthe Saigon
of the French hangover and the American operatives who met their
Vietnamese contacts at colonial hotelswhere Ngo Dinh Diem seemed for
awhile like the best hope of stopping Communism, and Americans had a
sunny confidence in their own democratic faith. Phillips might have
been the prototype for Graham Greene's "quiet American," except that
through the lens of Greene's Catholic-and-Communist loathing for
liberalism, Phillips would have been caricatured, his idealism turned
to dangerous arrogance, his kindness to naïvete.
Last week, I wrote about two Vietnam books making the rounds of the
Obama Administration, one on White House decision-making early in the
war, the other on military counterinsurgency near its end. I'd
suggest "Why Vietnam Matters" as a third. To my mind, it's the most
useful of the threethe only book that recounts in detail, from the
inside, the failure of America's effort to reform the government of
South Vietnam. Today's Times makes its relevance pretty clear.
Phillips is tall, though not as tall as he used to be, with an open,
blue-eyed face, and when I met him over the summer in his condominium
in Arlington, Virginia (the side table in his living room came from a
Saigon market circa 1955), it wasn't hard to identify him as the
young man in the black-and-white pictures taken half a century ago,
towering over Vietnamese counterparts amid banana trees and thatch
roofs. About to turn eighty, Phillips was contemplating a trip
halfway around the world to Kabul. He was worried about the war in
Afghanistan and thought that the presidential election, set for
August 20th, would be a critical event. An independent Afghan group,
the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, had invited him
to come over as an unpaid adviser. Having seen America try and fail
to win a war without a political strategy once before, he thought he
had something to contribute in Afghanistan. He asked me for advice on
what to wear, what kind of cell phone to bring, how to get into the
city from the airport. I asked him why he was going to put himself
through it, and he replied that he believed in putting your money
where your mouth is. "I've still got the fire," he said as he walked
me to the elevator.
A few weeks later, at the end of July, I saw Phillips again, in
Kabul. He had just arrived, jetlagged and exhausted; without the
right clothes for an embassy dinner, he was wearing a tan safari
jacket. Holbrooke introduced him to the guests and alluded to their
long-ago connection in "a war that was completely different from and
remarkably similar to this one." Phillips stayed on in Kabul through
the election. He worked with an inspiring group of Afghans, including
many women, who were risking their lives for a fair vote. And he saw
the beginnings of the overwhelming tide of fraud, in evidence
gathered by the group's twenty-four hundred workers from around the
country. Phillips spent his eightieth birthday in Kabul and then came
home to celebrate it with his wife, distressed that the U.S. had
relied so heavily on the U.N. to keep the elections reasonably
honest, and that both had clearly failed. International officials
seemed prepared to accept that, one way or another, Karzai would
remain president, regardless of legitimacy. All the current
Washington talk of military strategy and troop numbers missed the
main point: wars like this are ultimately won or lost through
politics, and there are no short cuts. It was all too familiar.
This past weekend, Phillips wrote me:
I'm afraid the President, who seems like a supremely rational being,
is trying to find the most rational policy option on Afghanistan,
without thinking about whether it is feasible given political
conditions on the ground, as well as who is going to implement it and
how. What seems the most rational option here could be likely
unworkable over there.
This is part of what happened to President Johnson during Vietnam.
He relied exclusively on policy 'experts' who understood military and
geopolitical strategy in the light of World War II and Korea, but who
had no direct experience combating a 'people's war,' while
underestimating the North Vietnamese and misunderstanding the
importance of the South Vietnamese, who were treated as bystanders.
His advisers constructed strategies whose feasibility never got
tested by those who knew Vietnam first hand. Pure reliance on the
chain-of-command was disastrous in Vietnam because much of the most
relevant information, the nuances which counted, could not be fully
described in writing and were strained out as information flowed to
the top. At a minimum, [General Stanley] McChrystal and [Ambassador
Karl] Eikenberry, who have that first-hand knowledge, should be
sitting in these strategy sessions.
I don't see evidence of any real political thinking about how to
deal with Karzai and the local political scene, no matter what option
is selected. As we swing between counterproductive table pounding and
passive non-interference, we must muster the will to interfere
quietly but firmly when we are on solid moral groundstanding up for
the Afghan people and for principles of honest governance.
My Afghan friends tell me as soon as he is confirmed, Karzai is
going to launch a big initiative on talks with the Taliban, which are
not likely to go anywhere if he leads them. Are we thinking that if
we cede territory to the Taliban because they promise not to let Al
Qaeda back, we will be able to hold an imaginary line, including
Kabul, with the Afghan and international forces we will have? What
will that tell the Afghan people, except to signal ultimate
abandonment? And how will that affect their support for the Taliban
to avoid being killed or severely punished?
I just have an uneasy feeling that this is too similar to the policy
discussions Johnson went through, except those were mainly out of
public view and these are not. The whole notion that we can speed up
the training of the Afghan armed forces and this will do the job is
unrealisticanother numbers game. I guess not being in the meetings
puncturing balloons is what is really frustrating me. That and the
fact that nobody seems to factor in our moral obligation to the
Afghan people. We abandoned them twice. Will this be the third time?
What does that say about us? It seems more convenient to equate
Karzai with the Afghan people. Maybe it will all come out for the
bestbut the process, and what I see from the outside being discussed
so far, doesn't pass my gut check.
The outcome of the Afghan struggle is ultimately going to be
determined not by our unilateral actions or geopolitical moves, but
by whom the Afghan people wind up supporting, even reluctantly.
Could Afghanistan Become Obama's Vietnam?
By PETER BAKER
Published: August 22, 2009
WASHINGTON President Obama had not even taken office before
supporters were etching his likeness onto Mount Rushmore as another
Abraham Lincoln or the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Yet what if they got the wrong predecessor? What if Mr. Obama is
fated to be another Lyndon B. Johnson instead?
To be sure, such historical analogies are overly simplistic and
fatally flawed, if only because each presidency is distinct in its
own way. But the L.B.J. model a president who aspired to reshape
America at home while fighting a losing war abroad is one that
haunts Mr. Obama's White House as it seeks to salvage Afghanistan
while enacting an expansive domestic program.
In this summer of discontent for Mr. Obama, as the heady early days
give way to the grinding battle for elusive goals, he looks ahead to
an uncertain future not only for his legislative agenda but for what
has indisputably become his war. Last week's elections in Afghanistan
played out at the same time as the debate over health care heated up
in Washington, producing one of those split-screen moments that could
not help but remind some of Mr. Johnson's struggles to build a Great
Society while fighting in Vietnam.
"The analogy of Lyndon Johnson suggests itself very profoundly," said
David M. Kennedy, the Stanford University historian. Mr. Obama, he
said, must avoid letting Afghanistan shadow his presidency as Vietnam
did Mr. Johnson's. "He needs to worry about the outcome of that
intervention and policy and how it could spill over into everything
else he wants to accomplish."
By several accounts, that risk weighs on Mr. Obama these days. Mr.
Kennedy was among a group of historians who had dinner with Mr. Obama
at the White House earlier this summer where the president expressed
concern that Afghanistan could yet hijack his presidency. Although
Mr. Kennedy said he could not discuss the off-the-record
conversation, others in the room said Mr. Obama acknowledged the L.B.J. risk.
"He said he has a problem," said one person who attended that dinner
at the end of June, insisting on anonymity to share private
discussions. "This is not just something he can turn his back on and
walk away from. But it's an issue he understands could be a danger to
Another person there was Robert Caro, the L.B.J. biographer who was
struck that Mr. Johnson made some of his most fateful decisions about
Vietnam in the same dining room. "All I could think of when I was
sitting there and this subject came up was the setting," he said.
"You had such an awareness of how things can go wrong."
Without quoting what the president said, Mr. Caro said it was clear
Mr. Obama understood that precedent. "Any president with a grasp of
history and it seems to me President Obama has a deep understanding
of history would have to be very aware of what happened in another
war to derail a great domestic agenda," he said.
Afghanistan, of course, is not exactly Vietnam. At its peak, the
United States had about 500,000 troops in Vietnam, compared with
about 68,000 now set for Afghanistan, and most of those fighting in
the 1960s were draftees as opposed to volunteer soldiers. Vietnam,
therefore, reached deeper into American society, touching more homes
and involving more unwilling participants. But the politics of the
two seem to evoke comparisons.
Just as Mr. Johnson believed he had no choice but to fight in Vietnam
to contain communism, Mr. Obama last week portrayed Afghanistan as
the bulwark against international terrorism. "This is not a war of
choice," he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars at their convention in
Phoenix. "This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on
9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban
insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda
would plot to kill more Americans."
But while many Americans once shared that view, polls suggest that
conviction is fading nearly eight years into the war. The share of
Americans who said the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting slipped
below 50 percent in a survey released last week by The Washington
Post and ABC News. A July poll by the New York Times and CBS News
showed that 57 percent of Americans think things are going badly for
the United States in Afghanistan, compared with 33 percent who think
they are going well.
That growing disenchantment in the countryside is increasingly
mirrored in Washington, where liberals in Congress are speaking out
more vocally against the Afghan war and newspapers are filled with
more columns questioning America's involvement. The cover of the
latest Economist is headlined "Afghanistan: The Growing Threat of Failure."
Richard N. Haass, a former Bush administration official turned
critic, wrote in The New York Times last week that what he once
considered a war of necessity has become a war of choice. While he
still supports it, he argued that there are now alternatives to a
large-scale troop presence, like drone attacks on suspected
terrorists, more development aid and expanded training of Afghan
police and soldiers.
His former boss, George W. Bush, learned first-hand how political
capital can slip away when an overseas war loses popular backing.
With Iraq in flames, Mr. Bush found little support for his
second-term domestic agenda of overhauling Social Security and
liberalizing immigration laws. L.B.J. managed to create Medicare and
enact landmark civil rights legislation but some historians have
argued that the Great Society ultimately stalled because of Vietnam.
Mr. Obama has launched a new strategy intended to turn Afghanistan
around, sending an additional 21,000 troops, installing a new
commander, promising more civilian reconstruction help, shifting to
more protection of the population and building up Afghan security
forces. It is a strategy that some who study Afghanistan believe
could make a difference.
But even some who agree worry that time is running out at home,
particularly if the strategy does not produce results quickly.
Success is so hard to imagine that Richard Holbrooke, Mr. Obama's
special representative for Afghanistan, this month came up with this
definition: "We'll know it when we see it."
The consequences of failure go beyond just Afghanistan. Next door is
its volatile neighbor Pakistan, armed with nuclear weapons and
already seething with radical anti-American elements.
"It could all go belly up and we could run out of public support,"
said Ronald E. Neumann, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and now
president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. "The immediate danger
is we don't explain to Americans how long things take. I certainly
get questions like, 'Is the new strategy turning things around? Is
the civilian surge working?' We're not going to even get all of those
people on the ground for months."
Others are not so sure that the new strategy will make a difference
regardless of how much time it is given. No matter who is eventually
declared the winner of last week's election in Afghanistan, the
government there remains so plagued by corruption and inefficiency
that it has limited legitimacy with the Afghan public. Just as
America was frustrated with successive South Vietnamese governments,
it has grown sour on Afghanistan's leaders with little obvious recourse.
Lt. Col. Douglas A. Ollivant, a retired Army officer who worked on
Iraq on the National Security Council staff first for Mr. Bush and
then for Mr. Obama, said Afghanistan may be "several orders of
magnitude" harder. It has none of the infrastructure, education and
natural resources of Iraq, he noted, nor is the political leadership
as aligned in its goals with those of America's leadership.
"We're in a place where we don't have good options and that's what
everyone is struggling with," Colonel Ollivant said. "Sticking it out
seems to be a 10-year project and I'm not sure we have the political
capital and financial capital to do that. Yet withdrawing, the cost
of that seems awfully high as well. So we have the wolf by the ear."
And as L.B.J. discovered, the wolf has sharp teeth.
The analogy isn't exact. But the war in Afghanistan is starting to
look disturbingly familiar.
By John Barry and Evan Thomas
Published Jan 31, 2009
About a year ago, Charlie Rose, the nighttime talk-show host, was
interviewing Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the military adviser at the White
House coordinating efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. "We have never
been beaten tactically in a fire fight in Afghanistan," Lute said. To
even casual students of the Vietnam War, his statement has an eerie
echo. One of the iconic exchanges of Vietnam came, some years after
the war, between Col. Harry Summers, a military historian, and a
counterpart in the North Vietnamese Army. As Summers recalled it, he
said, "You never defeated us in the field." To which the NVA officer
replied: "That may be true. It is also irrelevant."
Vietnam analogies can be tiresome. To critics, especially those on
the left, all American interventions after Vietnam have been
potential "quagmires." But sometimes clichés come true, and,
especially lately, it seems that the war in Afghanistan is shaping up
in all-too-familiar ways. The parallels are disturbing: the
president, eager to show his toughness, vows to do what it takes to
"win." The nation that we are supposedly rescuing is no nation at all
but rather a deeply divided, semi-failed state with an incompetent,
corrupt government held to be illegitimate by a large portion of its
population. The enemy is well accustomed to resisting foreign
invaders and can escape into convenient refuges across the border.
There are constraints on America striking those sanctuaries.
Meanwhile, neighboring countries may see a chance to bog America down
in a costly war. Last, there is no easy way out.
True, there are important differences between Afghanistan and
Vietnam. The Taliban is not as powerful or unified a foe as the Viet
Cong. On the other hand, Vietnam did not pose a direct
national-security threat; even believers in the "domino theory" did
not expect to see the Viet Cong fighting in San Francisco. By
contrast, while not Taliban themselves, terrorists who trained in
Afghanistan did attack New York and Washington in 2001. Afghanistan
has always been seen as the right and necessary war to fightunlike,
for many, Iraq. Conceivably, Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of
the successful surge in Iraq and now, as the head of Central Command
in charge of the fight in Afghanistan, could pull off another
Privately, Petraeus is said to reject comparisons with Vietnam; he
distrusts "history by analogy" as an excuse not to come to grips with
the intricacies of Afghanistan itself. But there is this stark
similarity: in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, we may now be facing a
situation where we can win every battle and still not win the warat
least not within a time frame and at a cost that is acceptable to the
A wave of reports, official and unofficial, from American and foreign
(including Afghan) diplomats and soldiers, present and former, all
seem to agree: the situation in Afghanistan is bad and getting worse.
Some four decades ago, American presidents became accustomed to
hearing gloomy reports like that from Vietnam, although the public
pronouncements were usually rosier. John F. Kennedy worried to his
dying day about getting stuck in a land war in Asia; LBJ was haunted
by nightmares about "Uncle Ho." In the military, now as then, there
are a growing number of doubters. But the default switch for senior
officers in the U.S. military is "can do, sir!" and that seems to be
the light blinking now. In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, when in doubt,
escalate. There are now about 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The
outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration
appear to agree that the number should be twice that a year or so from now.
To be sure, even 60,000 troops is a long way from the half million
American soldiers sent to Vietnam at the war's peak; the 642 U.S.
deaths sustained so far pale in comparison to the 58,000 lost in
Vietnam. Still, consider this: that's a higher death toll than after
the first nine years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. And what is
troubling is that no one in the outgoing or incoming administration
has been able to say what the additional troops are for, except as a
kind of tourniquet to staunch the bleeding while someone comes up
with a strategy that has a chance of working. The most uncomfortable
question is whether any strategy will work at this point.
It's still too early to say exactly what President Obama will do in
Afghanistan. But there are some signsdifficult to read with
certainty, yet nonetheless suggestivethat reality is sinking in, at
least in some important corners of the new administration. Defense
Secretary Robert Gates, the one Bush cabinet holdover, worries that
increasing the size of the U.S. military's footprint in Afghanistan
will merely fan the locals' antipathy toward foreigners. "We need to
be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in
Afghanistan," he told a congressional committee last week. "My worry
is that the Afghans come to see us as part of the problem, rather
than as part of the solution. And then we are lost."
Vietnam, half a world away, seemed alien to many Americans and to
Westerners generally. Afghanistan might as well be the moon. At least
Vietnam had been a French colony, albeit a troubled one. Afghanistan
resisted colonization, dispatching 19th-century British and
20th-century Russian soldiers with equal efficiency. "Afghanistan is
not a nation, it is a collection of tribes," according to a Saudi
diplomat who did not wish to publicly disparage a Muslim neighbor. In
Vietnam, the Ngo Dinh Diem government was seen as illegitimate
because Diem was a Roman Catholic in a mostly Buddhist country and
because it was propped up by the United States. In Afghanistan, Hamid
Karzai's government was essentially created by the United States
after local warlords, backed by American airpower, ousted the Taliban
in 2001. (Karzai was elected in his own right in 2004, but at a time
when he was clearly favored by America and faced no serious rivals.)
As in Diem's Vietnam, government corruption is epic; even Karzai says
so. "The banks of the world are full of the money of our statesmen,"
he said last November. His former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani,
rates his old government as "one of the five most corrupt in the
world" and warns that Afghanistan is becoming a "failed, narco-mafia
state." In a country where seven out of 10 citizens live on about a
dollar a day, the average family each year must pay about $100 in
baksheesh, or bribes (in Vietnam, this was known as "tea" or "coffee"
money). Foreign aid is, after narcotics, the readiest source of
income in Afghanistan. But it has been widely estimated that because
of stealing and mismanagement in Kabul, the capital, less than half
of the money actually finds its way into projects, and only a quarter
of that makes it to the countryside, where 70 percent of the people live.
To Afghans now, as to Vietnamese then, the government is more often
an arbitrary force to be feared than a benevolent protector. Ordinary
Vietnamese lived with the fear of crossing someone more powerful, who
could always turn them over to the Americans as an enemy sympathizer;
a similar fear pervades Afghanistan now. When U.S. forces quickly
crushed the Taliban after 9/11, many Afghans welcomed them, thinking
the all-powerful Americans would transform their streets and schools
and the economy. Now bitterness has set in. "What have the people of
Afghanistan received from the Coalition?" asks Zamir Kabulov, the
Russian ambassador to Afghanistan. "They lived very poorly before,
and they still live poorlybut sometimes they also get bombed by mistake."
Nation-building in Afghanistan may be a hopeless cause. Periods of
peace under centralized rule have been few and far between. Violence
has been the norm: in the 18th century a Persian king, Nadir Shah,
suppressed a revolt and beheaded 6,500 tribesmen (chosen by lot). He
stacked their heads in a pyramidwith one of the instigators of the
revolt entombed inside. And the Saudi diplomat is right in this
sense: especially across the Pashtun belt in southern Afghanistan,
local leaders have traditionally held more sway than whoever's in
power in Kabul. The Taliban may not be fighting in a nationalist
cause per se, as the Viet Cong were. But they certainly are more
local, better rooted than the U.S.-led coalition.
The basic mantra of counterinsurgency is "clear, hold and build."
Clear the area of insurgents. Hold it so the insurgents cannot
return. Build the civic works and government structures so that the
community decides to back the government. That's a coherent approach.
But while foreign troops can clear better than the Taliban, they
simply can't hold as well. In fact, the Taliban are getting pretty
good at counterinsurgency themselves"clear, hold and build" is what
they're doing across southern Afghanistan. Their strict brand of
justice is appealing to some Afghans, who crave order and security.
In some areas Taliban commanders have even relaxed some of their more
unpopular dictates, allowing girls to go to school, for instance.
Last month, the sober and respected International Council on Security
and Development reported that the Taliban "now holds a permanent
presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan, up from 54 percent a year
ago." They are moving in on Kabul; according to the ICOS report,
"three of the four main highways in Kabul are now compromised by
The Taliban also has one resource that the Viet Cong never enjoyed: a
steady stream of income from Afghanistan's massive heroin trade.
Afghan poppies produce roughly 93 percent of the world's opium.
Although, nominally, eradication has been a high priority since 2004,
poppy cultivation has more than doubled. Farmers can't be persuaded
to switch to other crops unless they feel confident that the Taliban
won't return to kill them as punishment. And besides, they'd need
passable roads to move more legitimate crops to functioning markets.
The Americans don't have anywhere near enough troopstheir own or
those of increasingly disillusioned NATO alliesto secure the roads
and the farm areas. That's not only because of Afghanistan's size
(similar to Texas), but also because of a failure of strategy
reminiscent of Vietnam.
America has been trying to pacify Afghanistan essentially through a
counterterrorist campaign. The consequence has been that some of the
military's most valuable warriorsits Special Forceshave been
largely misused. Most people think of Special Forces as jumping out
of helicopters on secret and dangerous missions. Actually, until
George W. Bush launched his Global War on Terrorand Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave the Special Operations Command the
lead roletheir normal (and arguably more useful) mission was to
train up the armies of developing countries. In Vietnam, the Green
Berets were initially (and successfully) sent into the highlands to
train indigenous tribesmen as guerrilla fighters.
After 1962, however, they were diverted to fruitless efforts to seal
Vietnam's frontiers. Similarly, the Special Forces in Afghanistan
have been used mostly as strike teams to go after Al Qaeda and
Taliban leadersor deployed along the 1,400-mile border in an effort
to stop insurgents from Pakistanrather than to train Afghanistan's
own forces. "The development of Afghan security forces has been a
badly managed, grossly understaffed and poorly funded mess,"
concluded Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst
Anthony Cordesman in a briefing to Democratic congressional leaders
in January. The United States didn't even seriously fund the
development of Afghanistan's own forces until 2007.
Even now, America and its NATO allies have provided fewer than half
the trainers the Afghans need; and many of those are unskilled. As a
result, the Afghan Army is too small and too poorly trained to take
over the counterinsurgency missions that constitute the real battle
in Afghanistan. The Afghan Army is getting better, but slowly. U.S.
commanders privately think it may be five years before most units are
able to operate on their own. The Afghan police remain a
disasterleaving U.S. forces to fill the vacuum.
As in Vietnam, efforts to seal the frontier have failed. The Taliban,
like the North Vietnamese, has depended crucially on supply routes
and sanctuaries just over the border. Just as NVA units were able to
slip up and down the Ho Chi Minh trail running through Laos, the
Taliban can fade away into the mountains and over the border into the
lawless regions of Pakistan. These safe havens give them an
invaluable space in which to train and resupply. Taliban fighters are
much more willing to return to the fight knowing that their families
are parked safely in Pakistan, and that they themselves can retreat
there if wounded. One Taliban commander based in Pakistan even gave
his men five cell-phone numbers to call for help if they got shot
fighting U.S. troops across the border, promising they'd be evacuated
and treated quickly.
The Americans have to be careful about chasing after the Taliban into
their sanctuaries. In Vietnam, American strategists worried about
bringing Russia or China into the war if they bombed too freely in
and around Hanoi (by, say, sinking a Russian freighter in Haiphong
Harbor). In Pakistan, the Americans worry that a heavy-handed
intervention could destabilize the government, a risky move in a
country with nuclear weapons. The Pakistanis have shared intelligence
on Qaeda targetsand have from time to time launched offensives
against Pakistani Taliban fighters along the borderbut meanwhile,
members of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, have formed
covert alliances with some Afghan Taliban factions. The Pakistanis
have a strategic interest in keeping Afghanistanwhich has developed
close ties to archenemy Indiaweak. Since many Pakistani leaders are
convinced that America will eventually leave, they're covering their
bets for the future.
In Vietnam, America worried about covert Russian and Chinese backing
for the North Vietnamese (some would say too much). Here, Pakistan
may not be the only country playing a double game. While neighboring
Iran is predominantly Shiite, and has traditionally backed the Sunni
Taliban's foes in the Northern Alliance, Tehran may also be the
source of some of the more sophisticated IEDs turning up on the
battlefield in Afghanistan. Certainly Iran has some interest in
seeing the American forces on its border bleed a little. At times,
though, the United States can seem like its own worst enemy in
Afghanistan. Lacking enough troops, forced to cover vast areas, U.S.
forces depend far too heavily on strikes by A-10s, F-15s, even B-1
bombers. In 2004, the U.S. Air Force flew 86 strike sorties against
targets in Afghanistan. By 2007, the number was up to 2,926and that
doesn't count rocket or cannon fire from helicopters. U.S. commanders
have become much more careful about collateral damage since Vietnam.
There are no more "free fire zones" or Marines using Zippo lighters
to torch villages. But innocents die in the most carefully planned
raids, especially when the enemy cynically uses civilians as coveras
the Viet Cong did, and the Taliban does. Already, civilian casualties
have climbed from 929 in 2006 to close to 2,000 in 2008, according to
the United Nations. "When we kill innocents, especially women and
children, you lose that village forever," says Thomas Johnson of the
Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. In the dominant Pashtun
tribe, revenge is a duty. Kill one Pashtun tribesman, sadly observes
a U.S. Special Forces colonel who spoke anonymously to be more frank,
and you make three more your sworn enemy.
This, then, is the mess that faces General Petraeus. He was a
nearmiracle worker in Iraq, and it may be that just as Lincoln
eventually found Grant, Obama will have been lucky to inherit
Petraeus. So far, Petraeus is not signaling a new grand strategy,
instead letting various policy reviews go forward. A shrewd
politician, he may be seeking to quietly educate the new president on
the high cost and many years required to "win" in Afghanistanif such
a thing is even possible.
It is a sure bet that Petraeus will want to unify the different
commands now muddling the situation in Afghanistan. (Divided command
was a chronic problem in Vietnam, too.) Some soldiers report to the
Special Operations Command, some to the regular military; some to the
U.S. Central Command and some to NATO; and, within NATO, to their own
national governments. There are some 37,000 NATO troops in
Afghanistan but many are more concerned with "force protection"not
sustaining casualtiesthan seeking out and engaging the enemy.
Petraeus will work closely with Richard Holbrooke, a veteran diplomat
who helped broker peace in the Balkans. Holbrooke is being sent by
the State Department to coordinate the scattered and easily corrupted
foreign-aid programs and to knock heads to make sure the diplomats,
politicians and soldiers are on the same page. Holbrooke is a force
of nature; still, he could wind up like Robert (Blowtorch Bob) Komer
in Vietnam in the late 1960s brilliant, capable and too late.
In some ways, there is no mystery to what must be done to fight a
successful counterinsurgency. As Petraeus himself has said, the
United States cannot kill its way to success. Foreign troops cannot
defeat insurgents. Only local forces with popular support can do
that. (A RAND study of 90 insurgencies since World War II showed that
"governments defeated less than a third of the insurgencies when
their competence was medium or low.") It is a good bet that Petraeus
will want American soldiers to train local village militias to fight
the Taliban. The catch is that the Soviets already tried this
(nothing is really new in counterinsurgency) and failed. In
Afghanistan, local warlords quickly turn to fighting each other. The
local saying is that they can be rented, not bought. And who wants to
kill a Taliban fighter if the result is a blood feud?
Americans are appropriately skeptical about the chances of success in
Afghanistan. A recent NEWSWEEK Poll shows that while 71 percent of
the people believe that Obama can turn around the cratering economy,
only 48 percent think he can make progress in Afghanistan. Deploying
a U.S. force of 60,000 will cost about $70 billion a year. Training
and supporting the 130,000 to 200,000 troops required for a proper
Afghan Army would take another decade and could cost at least $20
billion. Petraeus has consistently warned that Afghanistan will be
"the longest campaign in the long war" against Islamic extremism. But
it's far from clear that Americans have the appetite for such a
commitment: after the economy, their top priority is health care (36
percent). Only 10 percent put Afghanistan at the top of their list,
even fewer than nominate Iraq. If there is no real improvement on the
ground, by the 2010 midterm elections, candidates for office may be
decrying "Obama's war."
So why not just get out? As always, it's not so simple. If the
Americans pull their troops out, the already shaky Afghan Army could
collapse. (Once they lost U.S. air support, South Vietnamese troops
sometimes refused to take the field and fight.) Afghanistan could
well plunge into civil war, just as it did after the Soviets left in
1989. Already, the Pashtuns in the south regard the American-backed
Tajiks who dominate Karzai's administration as the enemy. The winning
side would likely be the one backed by Pakistan, which may end up
being the Talibanjust as it was in the last civil war.
Some argue this wouldn't be such a bad outcome, if the Taliban could
be bribed or persuaded to not let Al Qaeda set up terrorist training
bases on Afghan territory. According to one senior Taliban leader, a
former deputy minister in Mullah Mohammed Omar's government who would
only speak anonymously, some Pakistani officials are urging the
insurgents to do something like this nowin return for talks with the
Americans. On the other hand, Islamabad could be playing with fire.
Given the longstanding ties between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban,
a jihadist state on its border is a threat to Pakistan, too. And
here, U.S. national-security interests definitely do come into play.
Some problems do not have a solution, or any good solution. Two
studies of the Afghanistan mess cochaired by retired Marine Gen. Jim
Jones, now President Obama's national-security adviser, asserted last
year that America cannot afford to lose in Afghanistan. Who wants to
be the American president who allows jihadists to claim that they
defeated and drove out American forces? Daniel Ellsberg, the
government contractor who leaked the Pentagon papers, used to say
about Vietnam, "It was always a bad year to get out of Vietnam." The
same is all too true for Afghanistan.