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.
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
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.