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U.S. Policymakers Let the Vietnam Comparison Out of the Bag

U.S. officials and those in their orbit are now using the words "Vietnam" and "Afghanistan" in the same sentence.

Top U.S. officials have reached out to a leading Vietnam war scholar to discuss the similarities of that conflict 40 years ago with American involvement in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is seeking ways to isolate an elusive guerrilla force and win over a skeptical local population.

The overture to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Stanley Karnow, who opposes the Afghan war, comes as the U.S. is evaluating its strategy there.

When asked what could be drawn from the Vietnam experience, Karnow replied: "What did we learn from Vietnam? We learned that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Obama and everybody else seem to want to be in Afghanistan, but not I."

Karnow’s quote reminds me of a recent quote from regional expert Rory Stewart in the Financial Times:

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …’”

For the record, here’s some of Rory’s actual thoughts on Afghanistan and Pakistan:

Rory’s analogy in turn reminds me of a comment I made in an exchange with one of my frequent debate partners:

There’s not a magic wand nonviolent answer to this that has the result of some people not getting hurt, but that’s in large part because we’ve been put in this situation by people who refused to listen to the nonviolent in the first place. It’s kind of like asking people who tell you not to drink and drive what they’re solution is now that you’ve killed someone while driving drunk.

Speaking to the AP reporter, Richard Holbrooke displayed a talent for unintentional irony:

Holbrooke briefly commented on contrasts between the two conflicts, noting that the military regime in Saigon was corrupt and unpopular, while the international community seeks to build a democracy in Afghanistan.

Wait, what?

Kept afloat by billions of dollars in American and other foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan is shot through with corruption and graft. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it.

From Rethink Afghanistan:

This is no small point. The counterinsurgency manual refers to a legitimate host nation government as the counterinsurgent’s "north star," meaning it’s essential for victory. "Legitimate host government" joins "a 20-civilian : 1-troop ratio" among several non-existent, basic building blocks of a counterinsurgency strategy. Here’s Bernard Finel [h/t Steve Hynd]:

The COIN theorists would like the Afghan government to field a force of somewhere in the neighborhood of 400,000-600,000 disciplined troops, capable of using discriminant force and avoiding civilian casualties. They’d like the Aghan government to eliminate corruption. They’d like the central government to find a way to build loyalty from provincial governors and other local elites, to ensure an Afghan “whole of government” response.

Actually, it isn’t that the COIN theorists would “like” this. They require it as a precondition for the viability of their strategy.

In other words, the Very Serious Consensus that counterinsurgency will save the day in Afghanistan is built on fairies, leprechauns and unicorns.

Elections are coming up. The political outcomes could be dire. For example, if Karzai wins, his main rival is a Tajik named Abdullah Abdullah whose supporters already promised "Iranian-style protests, but ‘with Kalashnikovs’, should the President win a second term." And, not insignificantly, the U.S. will still be saddled with a weak leader of a corrupt government that Obama advisors have started comparing to South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Here’s a tip for policymakers: if you’re in a situation that’s requiring you to look to the American experience in VIetnam for guidance, you should start looking for the door.

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Derrick Crowe

Derrick Crowe