Foreign Policy

Afghanistan Another Vietnam? You Bet Your Administration It Is, Obama!

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So says Foreign Policy mag, in this piece by Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason. Here's why:

Let's start with the obvious: There isn't the slightest possibility that the course laid out by Barack Obama in his Dec. 1 speech will halt or even slow the downward spiral toward defeat in Afghanistan. None. The U.S. president and his advisors labored for three months and brought forth old wine in bigger bottles. The speech contained not one single new idea or approach, nor offered any hint of new thinking about a conflict that everyone now agrees the United States is losing. Instead, the administration deliberated for 94 days to deliver essentially "more men, more money, try harder." It sounded ominously similar to Mikhail Gorbachev's "bloody wound" speech that led to a similar-sized, temporary Soviet troop surge in Afghanistan in 1986…..

The president offered three reasons why [Afghanistan now and Vietnam then] are different. And all are dead wrong. First, Obama noted that Afghanistan is being conducted by a "coalition" of 43 countries—as if war by committee would magically change the outcome (a throwback to former President George W. Bush's "Iraq coalition" mathematics). The truth is, outside of a handful of countries, it's basically a coalition of pacifists. In fact, more foreign troops fought alongside the United States in Vietnam than are now actually fighting with Americans today. Only nine countries in today's 43-country coalition have more than 1,000 personnel there; nine others have 10 (yes, not even a dozen people)—or fewer. And although Australia and New Zealand have sent a handful of excellent special operations troops to Afghanistan, only Britain, Canada, and France are providing significant forces willing to conduct conventional offensive military operations. That brings the coalition's combat-troop contribution to approximately 17,000. Most of the other 38 "partners" have strict rules prohibiting them from ever doing anything actually dangerous….

The president went on to assert that the Taliban are not popular in Afghanistan, whereas the Viet Cong represented a broadly popular nationalist movement with the support of a majority of the Vietnamese. But this is also wrong. Neither the Viet Cong then, nor the Taliban now, have ever enjoyed the popular support of more than 15 percent of the population….

The reality on the ground is that Afghanistan is Vietnam redux. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's regime is an utterly illegitimate, incompetent kleptocracy. The Afghan National Army (ANA)—slotted to take over the conflict when the coalition pulls out—will not even be able to feed itself in five years, much less turn back the mounting Taliban tide….

Most critically of all, Pakistan's reaction to Obama's speech was to order its top military intelligence service, the ISI, to immediately begin rebuilding and strengthening covert ties to the Afghan Taliban in anticipation of their eventual return to power, according to a highly placed Pakistani official. There will be no more genuine cooperation from Pakistan (if there ever was)….

Elsewhere at Reason Online, here's Terry Michael with a Democrat's perspective on why Obama needs to get out of Afghanistan.

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  1. Trade you some ANA M4’s. Never been fired and only dropped once.

    1. Fuck Afghanistan and that whole region.
      The sooner we get out the better.

      Let others try to rebuild that shithole.

  2. Oh, God, I wish so badly that this deconstruction of Pres. Obama’s policy didn’t ring so true. I really wish we would succeed in Afghanistan. But I’m afraid it the surge is an escalation of half-measures with a pre-announced withdrawal date that will encourage our enemies to wait it out.

    I would disagree somewhat with the critique of Karzai. John Kennedy made a mistake by permitting the assassination of Diem, the closest thing South Vietnam had to a viable long-term leader. I was concerned earlier this fall when Obama’s cabinet kept trash-talking Karzai, and was worried they were setting us up for Diem coup redux.

    1. Diem was *not* a viable leader. He was insular and viciously persecuted the Buddhist majority.

  3. HYPERBOLE

    I’m not expert on Vietnam or Afganistan, but c’mon. Even if doomed to fail (which under current strategy it seems it is) Afganistan is not Vietnam.

    I found this part:

    Most critically of all, Pakistan’s reaction to Obama’s speech was to order its top military intelligence service, the ISI, to immediately begin rebuilding and strengthening covert ties to the Afghan Taliban in anticipation of their eventual return to power, according to a highly placed Pakistani official.

    …particularly telling about the accademic (nay journalistic) rigor of the authors. Afterall if Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason heard this from a “highly placed Pakistani official” then I’m sure it’s not all that secret.

    1. You’re right. It’s Afghanistan, so we can just compare it to when the USSR invaded. Everyone on the planet seems to recognize that comparison. Especially Russia.

    2. “Afghanistan is not Vietnam.”

      You’re right. Vietnam hasn’t been called the “Graveyard of Empires” for the last 2,000 years.

  4. Its impossible to win without a clear definition of what “winning” is. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that we currently have anything remotely close to a definition of winning in Afghanistan. Clearly define what winning means to us and the best strategy to accomplish this will not be that hard to figure out. More squishy, ineffective leadership from the One.

    1. I completely agree with this. Although it doesn’t seem to be part of Obama’s repertua to set firm objectives (ex “saved or created”).

      1. That’s repertoir.

    2. Define winning: Whatever Obama says it is whenever we pull out of Afghanistan.

      MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

    3. But we do/did have a mission, or at least we did. Kill OBL.

      It became a losing mission the day it was decided to place the Norther Alliance between Tora Bora and Pakistan.

  5. All this sounds about right, though I have some doubt about the 15 percent of the population statistic quoted in regards to Vietnamese supporters of the
    Vietcong. Partly, it’s a matter of how they got this statistic. Vietnam was largely a rural populace, many of whom were illiterate. So, how did they get the statistic? Oral interviews? Given the fact the peasants had been terrorized by South Vietnamese and American forces as well as to some extent by the Vietcong, you have to wonder how reliable any kind of answer to this question would be. For the most part the peasants just wanted to get on with their lives and were not strongly ideological. It’s possible that only 15 percent were fervent Vietcong supporters or party members or hamlet bosses for the Vietcong, but even that statistic would be hard to gather reliably.

    1. Given all the arguments you brought up, I can confidently say that it was not 15%.

      It was 16.23%.

        1. The entire quote from someone who RTFA:

          Neither the Viet Cong then, nor the Taliban now, have ever enjoyed the popular support of more than 15 percent of the population, according to Daniel Ellsberg, the senior Pentagon official who courageously leaked the Pentagon Papers revealing the military’s endemic deceit in the Vietnam War.

          1. I realize they have to condense these things but that seems like a critical omission.
            I think Ellsburg just pulled that one out of his ass.

    2. The other factor missed in the quoted article is that the Viet Cong were largely extinct after the Tet Offensive. When South Vietnam fell, it was to a traditional invasion from the North, which they couldn’t stop because the post-Watergate Congress withheld military aid.

      1. If only we had tried harder.

        http://archive.wfmu.org:5555/a…..Saigon.mp3

  6. South Vietnam was a country besieged by North Vietnam, a totalitarian country with only a land border between the two and a common language and culture which made infiltration easy. Plus the US made infiltration even easier by ceding Laos and Cambodia to the Viet Cong until 1970. And Hanoi was supported by a superpower, Soviet Russia, and a regional power, Red China, which supplied Hanoi with massive quantities of logistical personnel, supplies, and conventional military weapons (like all the T-72 tanks they drove to Saigon in 1975).

    Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the Taliban lacks any totalitarian neighbor’s safe harbor, any superpower sponsorship, or even much in the way of help from any regional powers. They’re certainly not getting any effective tanks, or SAM systems capable of doing any damage to our planes or choppers. Nor are any countries sending hundreds of thousands of troops to relieve the Taliban of logistical work, freeing them up for combat duty.

    So, where’s that similarity again?

    1. Like the Vietcong, who could hide out and refresh and refurnish themselves in Cambodia and Laos, the Taliban can hide out in rural Pakistan. And they can not be easily rooted out in these hills and mountains. Saudi oil money, funneled down through evangelical channels offers at least some measure of financial support. Not completely parallel perhaps, but nevertheless you have any enemy that follows an ideology fervently with both untold resources and places to hide and rebuild.

    2. So, where’s that similarity again?

      Collateral death of civilians? Broken promises? The complete unwinnability? Profoundly foolish decision to get involved without an exit strategy?

    3. The North Vietnam in this war is the de facto independent state of Jihadistan, which comprises the northern third of what used to be Pakistan. Jihadistan meets all the definitions of an independent country — it conducts its own foreign policy, collects its own taxes, runs its own government and education systems, maintains its own standing army, and defends its borders. Pakistan occasionally puts on play acts and staged dramas for an American audience there with its military, but the reality is shielded from journalists. (The proxy war against the US thus conducted by Pakistan suits its own foreign policy goals of strategic depth to a “t.”) With a population of over 20 million, Jihadistan can provide unlimited recruits to the war in Afghanistan, and funnel the hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Middle Eastern donors. The old neocon shiboleth that South Vietnam fell because “Congress withheld money” is like the Nazi “stab in the back” myth — total historical nonsense. The US built an ARVN of over one million men, equipped with the latest tanks and armored personnel carriers and over 200 of the latest model jets with pilots trained in the US. It was so corrupt it sold much of its ammunition and equipment on the international black market. But no one was willing to die for the joke of a government in Saigon. The whole thing was so pathetic that organized resistance ended in a matter of days when North Vietnam sent a few tanks across the border. Please tell me how the 50,000 – man joke of an ANA is going to respond differently in support of the joke of a government in Kabul when we leave this time.

  7. Indochina was a quagmire from which the French finally managed to extricate themselves. The U. S. figured maybe the French couldn’t straighten Southeast Asia out, but by god, *we* could, because our motives were noble and our hearts were pure. So we plunged into Vietnam (with collateral damage to neighboring Cambodia and Laos) and got bogged down just as deep, maybe deeper.

    Afghanistan was a quagmire from which the USSR finally managed to extricate itself. The U. S. figures maybe the Russians couldn’t straighten Afghanistan out, but by god, *we* can, because our motives are noble and our hearts are pure.

    So here we’ve plunged in again (including collateral damage to neighboring Pakistan). Difference is, this time we’re bound to succeed. Yep, this time things are gonna turn out fine, and we will bathe ourselves in glory. You bet.

  8. There will be no more genuine cooperation from Pakistan (if there ever was)….

    There wasn’t.If we were seriously trying to win the war we’d target the ISI.

  9. It sounded ominously similar to Mikhail Gorbachev’s “bloody wound” speech that led to a similar-sized, temporary Soviet troop surge in Afghanistan in 1986…..

    Perhaps. It also sounded similar to George W. Bush’s speech about the surge in Iraq, a surge that went somewhat better than the Afghanistan and Vietnam surges mentioned in the article.

    The article would be more persuasive if it explained why the Iraq surge analogy fails, and the Afghanistan and Vietnam analogies are better. Of course, President Obama has a hard time making that defense, since he was so insistent that the Iraq surge would be a failure.

    Certainly an argument of “this will work, because the Iraq surge worked” would be very unpersuasive, but by the same lights, so is this article.

    For some reason Iraq from a few years ago is so utterly totally different as to not being worth mentioning, but of course it’s obviously just like Vietnam.

  10. There’s another reason the surge parallel fails. The surge in Iraq worked because several Sunni leaders who had worked with insurgents were essentially bought off. I don’t think we should have ever gone to Iraq. Having said that, this was not a bad strategy, as it resulted in far fewer American deaths, and it squeezed the insurgents’ lines of support.

    However, I don’t know that there’s anyone in Afghanistan to buy who hasn’t already been bought.

    1. The surge in Iraq worked because several Sunni leaders who had worked with insurgents were essentially bought off.

      Sure, although that’s also what happened with the Afghan invasion. And now some people argue that that’s the problem, because buying all the people who could be bought resulted in a corrupt government.

      Whether the article’s point is correct or not, it’s barely argued, and doesn’t even try to engage the arguments of the other side. Just sad, and not worth posting to Hit & Run. Not unless getting the right answer is more important than using Reason.

    2. The Iraqis were not religous fanatics. Al Quada came in and started enforcing a bunch of crazy islamic laws and the Iraqis said screw that. The Anbar awakening started when the Iraqis came to the US and said we will help you kill these assholes. But the Afghans might be less offended by the really crazy stuff. And Al Quada consisted of a lot of foreigners. Whereas the Taliban is more local I think.

      Ultimately, the Taliban can’t take over unless we let them. Even if we pulled out all but a few thousand troops, our air power could keep them at bay in out of the cities.

      1. The talibs are in Pakistan, too; they are considered a foreign element, but I think driving them out would be next to impossible unless we completely leveled both Afghanistan and Pakistan (maybe Kashmir too) with nuclear bombs. Keeping them out of the cities through bombing? Hmmm, who else would those bombs land on?

        1. we completely leveled both Afghanistan and Pakistan (maybe Kashmir too) with nuclear bombs

          Considering that Afghanistan is essentially a pile of rocks with dirt landscaping, the bombing thing might be a little superfluous. Who would even notice?

          1. …the Afghanistanians?….the Pakistanis?….the Kashmirrrr(whatever).

            1. So genocide is the answer!!

              All this time we thought those evil regimes were wrong.

  11. “Let’s start with the obvious: There isn’t the slightest possibility that the course laid out by Barack Obama in his Dec. 1 speech will halt or even slow the downward spiral toward defeat in Afghanistan. None.”

    Was this written by a 17 year old? You can argue all you want about the chances of winning or losing in Afghanistan but absolute statements like the above are simply silly.

    As somebody said above, this is nothing like Vietnam. A simple understanding of both conflicts makes that glaringly clear. So the article is a big, adolescent tantrum.

    I don’t know what awaits us in Afghanistan but I certainly am not looking for dopes like this for insight.

  12. Are you able to extrapolate at all from the past 7 or 8 years of the U.S. insurgency or from the Russian experience?

  13. Looking at the present situation, it doesn’t seem like anything is going to change for a long time…exit or don’t exit!

  14. Similarities and differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam abound. Have fun quibbling about what they are.

    One similarity that sticks in my mind (and craw) is thousands of deaths in a conflict we are going to lose. The elected* Karzai regime will fall or be reduced to ineffectiveness when the US leaves. Now or in five years, a corrupt totalitarian government, Islamic fundies or just plain ol’ warlord thugs, will “rule” over the tribal hellhole that is Afghanistan.

    Same as it ever was
    Same as it ever was
    Same as it ever was
    Same as it ever was

  15. Plus, there are no scantily clad Afghani women here offering to “sucky, sucky” or “love [me] long time”.

    And yet, I fear that J sub D is correct: in the end, it will all be for naught.

  16. As Americans we love options. So here they are in regards to Afghanistan. If we DO NOT win, then we will have a 9/11 every single day, until A: we die in a terrorist attack ourselves, or B: we manage to live to old age and get to tell our grandchildren what the US was like when we were FREE. So there you go. We have started something that must be finished, victory is the only option.

    1. This reminds me of something about dominoes….

      Here’s another option that would greatly reduce terrorism: stop inviting it. Remove the U.S. forces from the region and much of the rest of the world. Turn the U.S. back to a republic instead of an empire.

  17. I think that the key to victory in Afghanistan is simple. I mean simple for a government that understands its limits and the constitution. I think.

    I think the war should be done entirely by small SF type units. they should work with and for local and tribal leaders.

    They should disregard the drug war entirely, to the point that they even protect drug dealers that are respecting of human rights, and are working with us.

    They should leave the dealing with the Karzai government up to the local leaders. Federalism. And we don’t get involved in that one way or another.

    Our only concern is that human rights are observed, and that the tribes do not initiate aggression to others.

    The war is won in a year.

  18. “”Our only concern is that human rights are observed, and that the tribes do not initiate aggression to others.””

    So you want to police the tribes?? That’s a life long commitment.

  19. Nah, not police the tribes. Something more along the lines of help them fight the Taliban, and help build some infrastructure for them.

    In exchange, we ask that they let women vote and study, and if we can we ask them to not rape little boys. Allowing women to vote and study might help with the not raping boys part.

    it might also help with the fighting the Taliban part.

  20. In 1981 I tested for the army in Santa Barbara, Ca and got about 95%. They got me to take another test that they said was to replace the other one and would be easier so as to make it easier to get in the army. It was.
    I was invited top join the US army but refrained from signing as it meant being sent to N carolina to train or somewhere in the East.
    I had graduated as a beautician in Kentucky but had never read a newspaper in my life. I had no idea where Asia was. Japan would have been out of the question even though their cars were pretty popular at the time.
    I had been invited to fight for an army even though I didn’t know anything about politics or where anywhere was apart from England which is where I had come from when I was 25.
    What worries me is that soldiers may be are like me even today. In truth we try to find the most stupid people we can to join the army because they won’t ask any questions.
    I guess that we might win this time because we have increasingly trained professional soldiers who kill with no feeling or interest in what they are fighting for. Introducing the draft may be the reason for hastening America’s loss in Vietnam

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  23. The number of attacks on students

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