Not Vietnam. Not Vietnam. Not...not Vietnam?

by Andrew Sprung

Whatever the nature of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, the Administration and supporters have labored to convince themselves and others of one thing  it is not.

Here's the President at West Point, Dec. 2:

First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we're better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now -- and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance -- would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies. 

Robert Gates, before the Senate Foreign Relations Comimttee, Dec. 3:

What makes the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan uniquely different from any other location – including Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere – is that this part of the world represents the epicenter of extremist jihadism: the historic place where native and foreign Muslims defeated one superpower and, in their view, caused its collapse at home. For them to be seen to defeat the sole remaining superpower in the same place would have severe consequences for this country and the world.

Some say this is similar to the “domino theory” that underpinned and ultimately muddied the thinking behind the U.S. military escalation in Vietnam. The difference, however, is that we have very real – and very recent – history that shows just what can happen in this part of the world when extremists have breathing space, safe havens, and governments complicit with and supportive of their mission. Less than five years after the last Soviet tank crossed the Termez Bridge out of Afghanistan, in 1993 Islamic militants launched their first attack on the World Trade Center in New York. We cannot afford to make a similar mistake again.

Point taken by Fareed Zakaria, Dec. 5:

The picture today is more promising on all three fronts. In Afghanistan, for all its problems, the Karzai government has been elected and does have the support of significant sections of the population. More important, the Taliban is deeply unpopular almost everywhere. As for safe havens, it's true that the problem of Pakistan is perhaps the central challenge in defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda, both of whose leaderships are now based there and not in Afghanistan. But the United States has been getting better at attacking these safe havens using drones, while Pakistan's military is beginning, slowly and reluctantly, to accept that some action will have to be taken against militant groups that it has long supported. Perhaps because this war is seen as one of necessity and not choice by most of the American public, there is much greater support for such policies than there was for the very similar efforts to attack the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia.

That argument played out at length within the Administration.  George Packer, shadowing Richard Holbrooke reported back in September:

There were obvious similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam: a rural insurgency, a weak and corrupt American ally, and an enemy sanctuary across the border. The differences were also worth noting: the Vietcong had a strong base of support in South Vietnam, while the Taliban were reviled across much of Afghanistan, and their popularity, confined to Pashtun areas, was based on tribal and ideological, not nationalistic, grounds. In the view of Holbrooke and the other members of Riedel’s group, one difference was paramount: Vietnam had never posed a direct threat to the United States, but the Taliban, because of its alliance with terrorist networks, did. This argument won the day, and it set the Obama Administration on a course of escalation that would be difficult to undo. But a shadow hovered: a prolonged war had once destroyed a Democratic Administration. As Riedel put it, “Johnson sort of slid into an escalatory ladder, without any strategy for measuring the results.”