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Afghanistan's slide toward chaos has raised fears of an Al Qaeda domino effect and prompted the top U.S. commander in the region, General Stanley McChrystal, to warn the president that he must boost troop levels or face the possibility of failure. This has brought back comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam. In the past, these have usually been made by anti-war skeptics predicting defeat. But more and more commentators are pointing out that there are legitimate lessons to be learned from Vietnam.

Recently, pundits have framed the Afghanistan war within the context of the Vietnam war, as well as those in Iraq and Bosnia.

  • Don't Lose Sight of Big Picture  Frank Rich, sensing "remarkable parallels" between the two wars, warned over the weekend that Obama could overvalue Afghanistan's importance the same way Kennedy overvalued Vietnam. "Even if we routed the Taliban in another decade or two, after countless casualties and billions of dollars, how would that stop Al Qaeda from coalescing in Somalia or some other criminal host state?" he asked. "How would a Taliban-free Afghanistan stop a jihadist trained in Pakistan’s Qaeda camps from mounting a terrorist plot in Denver and Queens?"
  • Adapt Strategy When Necessary  Mark Bowden presented Iraq as a counterpoint to Vietnam, praising Bush for the surge. "President Bush made a courageous decision in the summer of 2006 to reverse direction," Bowden wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Instead of cutting our losses and pulling out of Iraq, as we did in Vietnam, Bush doubled down. He invested more troops and, more important, embraced an entirely new strategy. And Bush was right." He added, "I am not a military expert, but I suspect that most wars that last for more than a few weeks follow a roughly similar trajectory" of initial failure followed by understanding and, finally, adaptation.
  • Determine and Stick To a Concrete Plan  John Kerry cautioned in the Wall Street Journal that absent a clear plan we may be setting ourselves up for a second Vietnam. "One of the lessons from Vietnam—applied in the first Gulf War and sadly forgotten for too long in Iraq—is that we should not commit troops to the battlefield without a clear understanding of what we expect them to accomplish, how long it will take, and how we maintain the consent of the American people," he wrote. "All the numbers are meaningless if the goal is ambiguous or the strategy is wrong."
  • Three Ways Afghanistan is Different Brian Katulis in the Los Angeles Times acknowledged the similarities but wrote, "We can't assume that what we're facing today is a carbon copy of what we faced in the past." Katulis listed the key differences. "First, we're waging the war in Afghanistan with an all-volunteer military, whereas in Vietnam we had a draft," he wrote. "Second, though the war in Afghanistan has been deadly, it seems quite unlikely that we'd ever see the levels of casualties and human costs we saw in Vietnam." In the third, Katulis suggested that the Taliban, which he said has been estimated at around 20,000 fighters, is much smaller than the North Vietnamese army.
  • Understand What's Necessary and What's not  The New Yorker's George Packer, in a long profile of Richard Holbrooke, examined Vietnam's shadow over U.S. foreign policy. Holbrooke, Obama's top civilian official on Afghanistan, had worked on the failed Vietnam war effort and later brokered the 1995 Bosnian peace agreement.
In both Vietnam and the Balkans, [Holbrooke] said, "there was always a fixed adversary, with whom you could talk even while fighting." This time, the enemy had no capital, no government. It was very hard to imagine a cast of characters, in suits and uniforms and turbans, seated around a table, preparing to end the Af-Pak war, with Holbrooke standing over them, smiling the smile that told you he had won.

In our conversation, Holbrook admitted that much of his new job had a "back-to-the-future quality," but he was way of the subject of Vietnam, as if he smelled a trap. On the flight home, exasperated with my questions about his earlier life, he wrote out and handed to me a short account of the main reasons for America's failure in Vietnam, which concluded, "The mission itself was based on a profound misreading, by five presidents and their advisers, of the strategic importance of Vietnam for the U.S."

On the trip, I watched him avoid the mistakes of his predecessors in Vietnam. He informed himself deeply, asked hard questions, pressed for an exit strategy and emphasized the need to "Afghanize" the war. Vietnam helped Holbrooke understand the fine details of pacification programs, and made him confront the largest strategic question--whether a war should be fought at all. In Vietnam, what couldn't be done didn't need to be done.

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