Afghanistan is Vietnam

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

American troops patrol in a far-off land. The crafters of American foreign policy in Washington have laid down an ultimatum. Though few Americans have any interest in this place, it will not be allowed to fall to the opposition, at any cost. Failure will result in an immediate threat to U.S. security.

We fight a dedicated indigenous force that is constantly bolstered by our own missteps. Each week, innocent civilians are killed in a regrettable yet inevitable trend of collateral damage, to which no bomb, however “smart”, holds an antidote. On paper we should be winning (just as the last occupying army was ostensibly winning, before they were forced to limp home in an embarrassing defeat), but lists of casualties for and against will never tell the full story. For every innocent killed, we turn away a village. And we harden the opposition’s already steely resolve.

Despite our best attempts to offer military training programs and economic aid to the current government, corruption, complacency, and greed run rampant. “Our man” there barely exerts influence over his capital city, let alone the whole country, and charges of fraud and incompetence have led to large-scale protests against his government. U.S. policy-making in the region is approaching a fork in the road. Do we ramp up our efforts into a full-scale commitment, or draw down while we still have the chance?

Back in Washington, The Pentagon is pushing hard for more troops, and the freshly inaugurated president is feeling the heat. He is a learned man, brilliant, articulate, yet not immune to the barbs of partisans on the Hill, or the baiting of the media. He has swept into the White House on a wave of enthusiasm and idealism, offering a comprehensive changing of the guard, but now finds himself facing the same dilemma as the man before him. He knows that sending troops is a slippery slope, but more than anything he refuses to be labeled as “soft” by his Republican critics.

It was in the face of these pressures that President John F. Kennedy conceded to military demands, and took the first blundering steps towards a long, exhausting, and deadly conflict in Vietnam.

But doesn’t it remind you of something else?

The parallel story-line offered above, which describes the similarities between President John F. Kennedy’s decision on Vietnam circa 1962, and the choice President Obama faces in Afghanistan in 2009, is perhaps a bit of a pacifist trope. After all, it is quite easy to invoke the word “Vietnam” in any effort to discredit U.S. military involvement. Those who oppose a conflict will always find analogies to what is surely our most painful and embarrassing collective memory.

But when talking about Afghanistan, it would be sheer negligence to leave an analysis of Vietnam out of the conversation. If the U.S. pursued a ruinous course in Indochina, then at least we might hope not to make the same mistakes again. David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest”, written in 1973, gives a lucid and detailed analysis of the Vietnam era, and focuses particularly on the flaws of the decision-making process of the Washington bureaucracy. Halberstam, a journalist who covered Indochina for Harper’s in the late 1960s, interviewed dozens of top-level policy makers over a span of three years in the course of researching his book. His thesis—that a group of brilliant, articulate, and well-intentioned policy makers still managed to make all the wrong choices in Vietnam—has obvious implications for the situation the Obama White House faces today.

There are, very generally, two key notions in Halberstam’s book that should apply to U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

The first is that people on the ground—infantrymen, the diplomatic core, etc.—must be able to speak their minds freely. A critical error in Kennedy’s Administration, contends Halberstam, was that it lapped up the positive news flowing out of Vietnam while ignoring, or punishing, pessimistic reports. This set up an incentive structure through which the Administration was only told what it wanted to hear. By the time the President realized that the military reports he was receiving were sugar-coated, it was too late, and we were already in knee deep.

The second piece of analysis that Halberstam gives, and something that directly relates to the Afghanistan situation today, is that troop commitment is a one-way street. Once shipped in, military troops cannot be easily pulled out. This weekend, a report was leaked by General Stanley A. McChrystal, the Commander of U.S. Military Operations in Afghanistan. In it, he claimed that unless he is provided more troops within the year, success is not possible.

There will be considerable pressure on the Obama Administration to act on this request, for fear of “losing” Afghanistan to the Taliban. But rather than concede to this pressure, the White House needs to remember the lessons of our not-so-distant past. As more troops are sent to Afghanistan, it becomes more difficult to envision any kind of exit, and more necessary to claim that we are winning, regardless of the realities on the ground.

It’s time to rethink the American commitment towards Afghanistan. What was a small counterinsurgency, and is now a military presence, could very easily blossom into a full-blown occupation.

As Halberstam points out, President Kennedy never imagined that the relatively small troop contingents he deployed to Vietnam would result in a conflict so bloody or so disastrous. This fact made no difference to the men in body bags.