January 9, 2009

Afghanistan: Obama's Vietnam

The analogy isn't exact. But the war in Afghanistan is starting to look disturbingly familiar

by John Barry and Evan Thomas

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 cliches 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. . . .


Enver Masud, "Bin Laden Not Wanted for 9/11: The 'FBI has no hard evidence connecting Bin Laden to 9/11'. Vice President Cheney says, 'We've never made the case, or argued the case, that somehow Osama Bin Laden was directly involved in 9/11'," The Wisdom Fund, June 8, 2006

Larry Everest, "Afghanistan: A War for Empire,", October 17, 2008

Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Faceless Taliban Rule Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province," Asia Times, January 29, 2009

Chalmers Johnson and Tom Engelhardt, "Economic Death Spiral at the Pentagon,", February 3, 2009]

[The U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban suffered two logistical blows Tuesday as the president of Kyrgyzstan announced that he'd shut a U.S. airbase in his country and insurgents in Pakistan blew up a bridge, disrupting the main U.S. supply route into Afghanistan.--Tom Lasseter and Jonathan S. Landay, "U.S. supply routes to Afghanistan suffer two huge blows," McClatchy, February 3, 2009]

Jacob G. Hornberger, "Immediately Withdraw from Afghanistan Too,", February 9, 2009

Gary Langer, "Frustration With War, Problems in Daily Life Send Afghans' Support for U.S. Efforts Tumbling," ABC News, February 9, 2009

M. Shahid Alam, "Afgahn Pitfalls,", February 13, 2009

[The mountainous borderlands where Afghanistan meets Pakistan have been described as a Grand Central Station for Islamic terrorists, a place where militants come and go and the Taliban trains its fighters. Now Barack Obama has made solving the 'Af-Pak' question a top priority. But could the battle to tame the Pashtun heartland become his Vietnam?--Jason Burke, Yama Omid, Paul Harris, "'Pashtunistan' holds key to Obama mission," Guardian, February 15, 2009]

[ . . . the annual budget for the entire Afghan government, which is largely provided by the United States and other international donors, is about $1.1 billion, which means the annual price of the program would be about twice the cost of operating the government of President Hamid Karzai.--Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, "U.S. Plans Expanded Afghan Security Force," New York Times, March 19, 2009]

Simon Jenkins, "Obama Must Call Off This Folly Before Afghanistan Becomes His Vietnam," Guardian, June 25, 2009

back button