Afghanistan: “Obama’s Vietnam,” or America’s “War of Necessity?”

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Many have compared the Iraq war to the Vietnam War, especially as in “quagmire.”

Recently, some are beginning to compare the war in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War.

Some are even beginning to refer to the Afghanistan war as “Obama’s Vietnam.”

I don’t have a problem with the Iraq-Vietnam comparison. There are indeed some similarities and historical analogies, both in how and why the two wars were started and in how the two wars were executed.

Just consider “containing communism,” the “domino theory” and a threat to our national security in Vietnam, to “installing Democracy,” “weapons of mass destruction,” and the “imminent threat” in Iraq.

Our troops always fight brilliantly and heroically. As to the political management —or, rather, mismanagement—of the two wars, volumes have been written on it. It suffices to say that the cost of the two wars in terms of treasure and human lives is staggering. One fortunate difference is the lower number of casualties we have suffered thus far in Iraq—thank God.

While no war is a “good” war, we went into Afghanistan because the dastardly 9/11 attacks were indeed planned, organized, funded, directed and perpetrated by Al Qaeda in and from Afghanistan—not Iraq. It wasn’t a war of choice, as was the Iraq war. The hostilities were thrust upon us and the real terrorism threat was and continues to be in Afghanistan.

Perhaps Richard N. Haass, a former Bush administration official said it best in a recent New York Times Op-Ed: “In the wake of 9/11, invading Afghanistan was a war of necessity. The United States needed to act in self-defense to oust the Taliban. There was no viable alternative.”

But, let’s remember him…

President Obama, a week ago, told the Veterans of Foreign Wars at their convention in Phoenix:

This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.

Obama inherited the Afghanistan war, just as he inherited the Iraq war and the economic recession

But just as he is trying to honorably wind down our tragic involvement in Iraq and to revive our floundering economy, he is also working hard to achieve some semblance of progress in Afghanistan.

As Peter Baker says in a New York Times column:

Mr. Obama has launched a new strategy intended to turn Afghanistan around, sending an additional 21,000 troops, installing a new commander, promising more civilian reconstruction help, shifting to more protection of the population and building up Afghan security forces. It is a strategy that some who study Afghanistan believe could make a difference.

But could Afghanistan become Obama’s Vietnam?

Could Afghanistan become for Obama what Iraq was for George W. Bush, and what Vietnam was for Lyndon Johnson?

In a recent edition of The Economist, the frank headline is “Losing Afghanistan?” and the content bluntly touches upon this question:

…as a deeply flawed election went ahead in Afghanistan this week, there were echoes, in the mission by America and its allies, of the darkest days of the Iraq campaign: muddled aims, mounting casualties and the gnawing fear of strategic defeat. Gloomy commentators evoke the spectre of the humiliations inflicted by Afghanistan on Britain in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th.

And,

Americans, relieved to be getting out of Iraq, and caught up in a national row about health care, are paying little attention to the place. But if things there continue to slide, Afghanistan could turn out to be the biggest blot on the Obama presidency.

In his “Could Afghanistan Become Obama’s Vietnam?” Baker specifically and eloquently addresses that question.

Baker uses the “L.B.J. model”: “— a president who aspired to reshape America at home while fighting a losing war abroad — is one that haunts Mr. Obama’s White House as it seeks to salvage Afghanistan while enacting an expansive domestic program.”

Baker cites several experts who are equally concerned:

According to the Stanford University historian, David M. Kennedy: “The analogy of Lyndon Johnson suggests itself very profoundly…He needs to worry about the outcome of that intervention and policy and how it could spill over into everything else he wants to accomplish.”

L.B.J.’s biographer, Robert Caro: “Any president with a grasp of history — and it seems to me President Obama has a deep understanding of history — would have to be very aware of what happened in another war to derail a great domestic agenda.”

And even Richard N. Haass (remember him?) who once considered the Afghanistan war “a war of necessity,” now calls it a “war of choice — Mr. Obama’s war of choice.”

Haass, while saying that he still “supports” the war, explains his change of mind with suggestions such as, “Now, however, with a friendly government in Kabul, is our military presence still a necessity?”, and argues that there are alternatives to Obama’s current policy. For example:

One would reduce our troops’ ground-combat operations and emphasize drone attacks on terrorists, the training of Afghan police officers and soldiers, development aid and diplomacy to fracture the Taliban.

He even suggests withdrawing all U.S. military forces from Afghanistan and “center on regional and global counterterrorism efforts and homeland security initiatives to protect ourselves from threats that might emanate from Afghanistan.” Something like our approach towards Somalia and other countries “where governments are unable or unwilling to take on terrorists and the United States eschews military intervention.”

How quickly we change our minds.

But, Haas is not the only one who is having a change of heart.

Recent polls suggest that support for the war in Afghanistan is slipping, especially as casualties mount and additional troops are sent into harm’s way.

According to Baker:

The share of Americans who said the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting slipped below 50 percent in a survey released last week by The Washington Post and ABC News. A July poll by the New York Times and CBS News showed that 57 percent of Americans think things are going badly for the United States in Afghanistan, compared with 33 percent who think they are going well.

Many claim that “liberals,” in particular, are opposed to our involvement in Afghanistan.

This may be true, but I hope that in the end all Americans: Democrats, Republicans, Independents, etc., will support a satisfactory outcome to what once was a war of necessity—and in my opinion still is.

And I hope that it will include that small but vocal minority who want Obama to fail at any cost, because this is not Obama’s war, it is America’s war, a war that started on September 11, 2001.

To answer the original question, “Could Afghanistan become Obama’s Vietnam?” Yes it could, but presidents come and go, their legacies are written only with ink. America’s legacy is written with the blood of our men and women who give their lives, not for a Party, not for a President, but for their country. That legacy cannot afford any more Vietnams.

Image: Courtesy U.S Military

         

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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4 Comments

  1. Like many questions, the answer to whether Afghanistan is Obama's Vietnam depends on your definition. As I said in another thread Afghanistan may be both more justifiable and less winnable than the Iraq war. The Afghan population is less educated, the terrain is much different, and Pakistan is kind of a wild card with Afghanistan. Whether Petraeus' tactics will work in Afghanistan is unclear.

    If by Vietnam you mean an unjustified war, I would say that does not describe Afghanistan. We are going after the Taliban who attacked our country.

    If by Vietnam you mean a costly, painful, dragged-out war with a possible unsatisfactory conclusion, then Afghanistan could well be the next Vietnam. If things go badly I can't see history looking kindly on Obama's CIC role no matter how noble his intentions.

  2. DG:

    Thanks for your comments.

    Actually, the thrust of my post is that, while there are valid comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq, Afghanistan is a different matter: Vietnam and Iraq were in my opinion are wars of choice, while I believe Afghanistan was and is the “necessary war.”

    Sorry I didn't make that clearer.

    In addition, while some are now claiming Afhanistan to be “Obama's Vietnam,” I totally dispute that and hope it will not become that in any sense of the comparison. Again, sorry I did not make that more clear.

    “If by Vietnam you mean an unjustified war, I would say that does not describe Afghanistan. We are going after the Taliban who attacked our country.”

    I believe that is exactly what I said:

    “While no war is a “good” war, we went into Afghanistan because the dastardly 9/11 attacks were indeed planned, organized, funded, directed and perpetrated by Al Qaeda in and from Afghanistan—not Iraq. It wasn’t a war of choice, as was the Iraq war. The hostilities were thrust upon us and the real terrorism threat was and continues to be in Afghanistan”

    Finally, you say:

    “If by Vietnam you mean a costly, painful, dragged-out war with a possible unsatisfactory conclusion, then Afghanistan could well be the next Vietnam. If things go badly I can't see history looking kindly on Obama's CIC role no matter how noble his intentions.”

    Agreed on the first part, and hoping the second part does not materialize.

    Dorian

  3. Full disclosure:

    In a post almost seven months ago,”Will Afghanistan Be “Obama’s Vietnam”?” I quoted articles suggesting differences and also some similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam:

    For example:

    “The first article, by John Barry and Evan Thomas, “Obama’s Vietnam,” delves with laser-like sharpness into both the similarities and differences between the Vietnam War and our struggle in Afghanistan:

    Vietnam analogies can be tiresome. To critics, especially those on the left, all American interventions after Vietnam have been potential “quagmires.” But sometimes clichés come true, and, especially lately, it seems that the war in Afghanistan is shaping up in all-too-familiar ways. The parallels are disturbing: the president, eager to show his toughness, vows to do what it takes to “win.” The nation that we are supposedly rescuing is no nation at all but rather a deeply divided, semi-failed state with an incompetent, corrupt government… The enemy is well accustomed to resisting foreign invaders and can escape into convenient refuges across the border. There are constraints on America striking those sanctuaries…

    But also:

    True, there are important differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam. The Taliban is not as powerful or unified a foe as the Viet Cong. On the other hand, Vietnam did not pose a direct national-security threat; even believers in the “domino theory” did not expect to see the Viet Cong fighting in San Francisco. By contrast, while not Taliban themselves, terrorists who trained in Afghanistan did attack New York and Washington in 2001….”

    However, while there may be some similarities, especially as to the tough decisions ahead for Obama and the tough fight ahead for our troops, I stand firm behind what I believe is the one huge difference: the reasons for the Vietnam War and the reasons for our going into Afghanistan: The war of choice vs. the war of necessity

  4. The Vietnam analogy is wrong, and it's no surprise that it was misused by the likes of Code Pink and Move On as one of their handy outlets for Bush-psychosis. That constitutes a lesson that should already be learned before the GOP and other critics of Obama consider similar, if more lightweight and certainly more meaningful, attacks on Obama now or later. (There is no derangement as there was about Bush, in scope or intensity, but the susceptibility to misuse of the Vietnam metaphor always will be there.)

    The better consideration to make, as I've said before, is to look at all post-World-War II conflicts in their general context; we have faced numerous wars where the foe wasn't always identified or defined, or where the goals that we were fighting to achieve were vague (contributing to the length and tiring of the public).

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