Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Vietnam and Afghanistan, Past and Present

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on November 10, 2009
Can the lessons from Vietnam apply to the war in Afghanistan?

Can the lessons of Vietnam apply to the war in Afghanistan?

If anyone happened to pick up the latest issue of Newsweek, I would guess that the first thing that jumped on people’s mind was the cover story.  Surprise Surprise, it was another in-depth comparison of Vietnam and Afghanistan by political journalists.

Yet for some reason, I could not help but turn the page directly to the story.  And much to my chagrin, the piece by Evan Thomas and John Barry was not a repeat of previous articles addressing the same mundane topics.  Rather, Mr. Barry and Mr. Thomas focused on the many lessons that the United States learned in its eight-year Vietnam struggle…and what- if any- can be applied to America’s current quandary in Afghanistan.

What a great piece! I not only applaud Mr. Thomas and Mr. Barry for their extensive research on the subject…I also applaud their willingness to report what many Americans do not want to hear; namely that President Obama will sow the seeds of his own destruction if he implements a middle ground to the war in Afghanistan. With the Taliban insurgency only growing stronger, and with Islamic jihadists in Pakistan continuing to wreak havoc on Islamabad’s civilian government, the Obama administration could very well be entering into THE crucial period among a wider war. I fear that Mr. Obama is currently engaging in the same debate that transformed the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon; debates that will inevitably result in a failed war policy (although Nixon was relatively successful in other areas).

While it is easy for me to say, politics and partisanship should never dictate what resources are provided to U.S. troops on the ground. Likewise, political bickering on Capitol Hill should never pressure a wartime President into acting prematurely. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is occurring in Washington today. Thanks to the atmosphere surrounding Washington, the President has been delaying his Afghan strategy review for over a month…depriving our military with a unified and coherent strategy for pacifying Afghanistan and eventually mitigating the influence of the Taliban.

I know most Americans will most likely hate what I am about to say, but President Bush- for all of his blunders, failures, and mismanagement- was relatively resilient during the Iraq War. In fact, he not only refused to limit his choices based on partisanship; he provided the generals on the ground with a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan (albeit a little too late). Compare and contrast that with Presidents Johnson and Obama, two men who refuse to enact tactics that are unpopular. The sad thing is that these same unpopular tactics may prove to be the decisive factor in the Afghan theater; much the same way as the unpopular surge turned the page in Iraq.

Certainly, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Barry are correct to distinguish Vietnam from Afghanistan. The Vietcong, although insurgents, were much more organized compared to the Taliban. Likewise, Vietnam and Afghanistan are very different, both historically and culturally. Yet, at this point in time- when the United States appears lost in a “war of necessity”- going back to the days of Vietnam may not be such a bad thing. Perhaps we will learn from our mistakes.

-Daniel R. DePetris


9 Responses

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  1. greenkinkink said, on November 10, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    DePetris says: “Thanks to the atmosphere surrounding Washington, the President has been delaying his Afghan strategy review for over a month. . . ”

    This comment should be accompanied by an explanation of how DePetris knows that the “atmosphere surrounding Washington” is the reason for the time the President has taken to formulate his strategy. A month does not seem to be an excessive amount of time to spend researching and developing a strategy of such importance. We invaded Iraq without taking the appropriate amount of time to develop an exit strategy. Is there any reason to repeat that horrible mistake?

    • Dan said, on November 10, 2009 at 5:44 pm

      How about the widely-known fact that the majority of the Democratic Party is lobbying against a substantial troop increase? That seems like a pretty clear example of a partisan atmosphere. In fact, if partisanship was not involved in the decision-making process, President Obama would have accepted General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment back in August and September; you know…the man that really knows what it takes to reverse America’s most horrific blunder since Vietnam.

  2. 4th Estate Observer said, on November 10, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    The authors made two crucial errors in their reporting: They have applied revisionist simplistic history to the Phoenix Program, which in reality resulted in thousands of horrific killings of South Vietnamese villagers caught up in political rivalries, paybacks, people seeking favoritism, and so thousands were killed in gruesome ways not because they were Viet Cong but because they were snitched on by people trying to save their own skin. Second, the reporters failed to interview the people who could have shed critical light on whether we could have won in Vietnam: The former Vietnamese political leaders, military leaders, and soldiers who fought against Americans in the Vietnam War. Did the reporters watch any of the many documentaries made on the Vietnam War, The Year of the Pig, Hearts and Minds, Two Days in October, and many more, which would have offered perspective on whether North Vietnam would have ever caved to our fighting? Vietnam fought enemies for 10,000 years, most recently the Japanese, the French, and the Americans, and they were not about to quit. Get real, and get out of Afghanistan.

    • Repubnomas said, on November 10, 2009 at 5:45 pm

      4th. Precisely.
      Odds of either proposition being enacted?

      Perhaps I have seen too much. Too cynical, some say. Perhaps.

      Where many see a post-post modern absurdity and still others see a re-enactment of Rome’s erasure, I see the United States and much of the so-called Western world as the latest model of the Old Ones, the mysterious people who left the cliff dwellings of the Americas and just disappeared from history. The best we can determine is that they were cultures who fed on themselves and could not think/act beyond the bubble. Some call them Anastazi to emphasize the mystery. The Hopi call them the Old Folks or some near term. Whatever, they are gone without a trace having left art, architecture, and civilization that mocked the primitive feudalism of the Europe of the age.

      Some say they were victims of their own excess. Apparently their bubble never burst, it just consumed them alive.

      That’s us.

      Reality… everything is virtual, even war planning.

      Wisdom is an archaism.

      Freedom… just a word for nothing left to lose.

      By the time our grand-kids grow old, if they do, America as we have experienced it will be an archeological tell. People will dig in the rubble for clues.

      Our history, lost; our grandeur, toast.

      Too much fantasy and virtuality.
      Too stupid and vainglorious to save our incomparably great nation, too stupid to save our souls.

  3. mindfullyaware said, on November 10, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    We, the U.S., are in this mess because we fail to understand that you can’t occupy other countries without generating great resistance from those whose land and homes we occupy and/or destroy. Adding larger numbers of invaders only generates more resistance. This is the lesson that we have not learned from Viet Nam. I would resist any invader of my home, wouldn’t you? Why then is this so difficult for so many to see?

    Meanwhile, by resisting the resistance, we harm ourselves further. Those who go to war will not come home unchanged. They will be scarred, some physically, but all mentally and emotionally, many to the point of not being able to live with themselves. Man’s inhumanity to man cannot simply be turned off when the warrior returns home. They will suffer shameful memories for the rest of their lives, and by our failure to understand this, we inflict this fate on them by having them do our bidding.

    The failure to see the real consequences of trying to solve our problems by attempting to kill each other is insanity. (It seems strange to have to say what is so obvious.) But many will still argue that sending more troops IS the answer. As the sixties folk, protest song states, ???When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn????

  4. Firefoxgs said, on November 10, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    The fact of the matter is that we lost the war and nothing changed. The Domino Theory was disproven: Neighboring countries did not fall to communism. What we failed to recognize is that it was a nationalist movement – for independence. It was not controlled by Moscow or Peking. The North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon in 1975, and now Vietnam is a trading partner of the U.S. Fifty-eight thousand American lives lost, for nothing. The Vietnamese were willing to pay any price for their independence.

  5. nomdeflume said, on November 10, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    I am appalled to read this in, of all places, a Newsweek publication. During 1962-64 Newsweek had brains enough to ignore Henry Luce and his club of dandies dancing about the question of how soon the Communists were about to take
    over Indonisia (speculated to happen in October 1964). Now after the Bernard Falls, Merton Perrys and Arnaud deBorchgraves are all gone Newsweek speculates on the case for victory in Vietnam? Boy has Newsweek let their
    grasp of world events go to their heads. This after having proven Luce to be an idiot from upper Eastside New York
    who had no idea what drove post WWII politics in Sourtheast Asia. I was a civilian working for USAID in My Tho Hospital
    about 44 miles south of Saigon from 1965-1967. I can NOT believe what I read.

    I recommend that you amateurs talk with Gen. Colin Powell for awhile. At least he had some experience rebuilding the
    US Army after Vietnam.

  6. Amanda B Reckonwith said, on November 10, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam is ridiculous. The Vietnamese were not trying to attack us on our soil, and the Vietnamese were not trying to gain nuclear weapons from their neighbor. The Vietnamese were not trying to be part of a world wide religious movement threatening the future of every existing nation on earth.

    In Vietnam we could have ignored the situation and it would have fixed itself, as it ultimately did when we pulled out. The same cannot be said for Afghanistan. If we pull out it virtually guarantees that Al Queda and the Taliban get control of Pakistani nukes.

  7. bobcat4424 said, on November 10, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    I am a Vietnam vet — USAF 67-68 — and I take would like to point out a few of points that the authors conveniently don’t mention.

    1) The Viet Minh were very successful against the Japanese during WWII. MacArthur disarmed them and re-armed the Japanese to “maintain” Vietnam until the French came back. This earned the U.S. undying distrust.

    2) The U.S. brokered the Geneva Accords of 1952 that guaranteed that the country would be divided and then re-united in a winner-take-all popular election in 1962. When it appeared that the Communists would win, we reneged. And then we had the President of South Vietnam and his family assassinated.

    3) But worst of all, Ho Chi Minh was pre-disposed to be pro-American as long as we were not taking a “French” position of disenfranchisement of the Communists. “Uncle Ho” spent WWII as a chef at the Parker House in Boston, loved Americans, respected America and would have stopped the war at any time in return for honoring the 1952 Geneva Accords.

    A good book to read that pre-dates out loss in Vietnam, but is an accurate forecast of what happened is Bernard Fall’s “Rue Sans Joi (The Street Without Joy)” See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_B._Fall

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