How Afghanistan Is and Isn't Another Vietnam

The day after President Obama's speech, comparisons to Vietnam are flying

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President Obama's announcement that he would extend American involvement in Afghanistan through at least July 2011 means that it will likely last a full decade. Will the war that began on October 7, 2001 then finally come to an end? Or are we setting ourselves up for an even longer engagement, in a sense repeating America's disastrous quarter-century involvement in Vietnam? There are many essential differences between the civil war that divided Vietnam and the Taliban insurgency that plagues Afghanistan, just as there are important differences between Vietnam's developing economy and Afghanistan's third-world destitution. But many pundits -- especially those with long memories and experience covering Vietnam -- see real similarities between the two wars.

How Afghanistan Is Like Vietnam

  • Taliban Is Like Early Vietcong The New Republic's John Judis makes a strong case. "What bothers me is the echo of Vietnam in 1964 and 1965. Of course, there are differences--and Obama tried to cite them in his speech--but the similarities are disturbing." Judis draws parallels between the Taliban and the early Vietcong: "in the early '60s, the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong, did not have broad support. What it had was funding and organization and an ability to build support against what became a foreign invader." Judis also compares the cultural legacies of neo-colonialism and the popularity of the local governments.
  • Like Vietnam, Politically Unpopular Military expert Robert Haddick notes that politics matter. "Meanwhile, Democrats old enough to remember the 1960s will remember that the rebellion against the Vietnam War began as a civil war within the Democratic Party. That episode seems likely to repeat."
  • Buying Defections Another Small War Journal commenter notes that current efforts to "buy out" Taliban militants had a parallel in Vietnam. "I recall from my time in Vietnam that the Chieu Hoi program was much more effective when the VC and NVA thought they were losing than when they thought they were winning. Defections were low before Tet and shot through the roof after Tet. Of course, they went down again later. Taking back a few high profile provinces would probably do wonders for the proposed program's effectiveness."
  • Karzai Is Diem Politics Daily's David Corn compares Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Vietnam President Ngo Din Diem, whose assassination in 1963 was permitted by U.S. leadership. "During the speech, Obama firmly rejected the Vietnam analogy, noting that those who compare Afghanistan to that war are engaged in "a false reading of history." Obama rightfully noted that in Afghanistan "we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency" and that Americans were "viciously attacked from Afghanistan." But Obama skipped one part of the Vietnam debacle that perhaps offers a cautionary tale for today: The United States' partner in Vietnam was also a government riddled with corruption and alienated from the public."

How Afghanistan Isn't Vietnam

  • Culturally and Historically The Atlantic's James Fallows dismisses the comparison. "There are far more differences than similarities between the situations. (History of colonialism; effects of partition; charismatic nationalist leader; topography; scale; nature of combat; larger Cold War dynamic and spillover; and I could go on.) And even to say 'another Vietnam' discredits opposition in suggesting that it's a reflexive and undiscriminating reaction to the traumas of another age."
  • There's No Taliban Conventional Army A Small Wars Journal commenter writes, "If nothing else, the current war in Afghanistan fortunately doesn't have to confront a conventional light infantry enemy army while trying to defeat a insurgent guerilla force as America faced in Vietnam."
  • Vietnam Never Attacked U.S. The Washington Post's David Ignatius reminds us of the national security stakes. "There has been much talk about how this war is Obama's Vietnam, but the president rejected the analogy. The Vietnamese never killed 3,000 people in America, as al-Qaeda did; we aren't fighting a nationalist movement in Afghanistan; and he isn't making an open-ended commitment."
  • Comparisons Over-Simplify Foreign Policy's Daniel Drezner warns, "The human impulse to see patterns everywhere can lead to the use of inexact analogies -- 'X is another Vietnam' or 'Y is another Minuch.' This in turn leads to bad foreign policy decisions, as anyone with a passing familiarity with this book can tell you." He says that the same is true of comparing Afghanistan now to Iraq in 2006, a comparison frequently used to argue for troop increased like those in Iraq.
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