Vietnam to Afghanistan

There is a perennial danger in imagining that one war will replicate the history of another. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney sent troops to Iraq and foresaw that they would be greeted as liberators, in a happy reenactment of American soldiers entering Paris beneath fluttering rose petals; six years and more than 4,300 American fatalities later, their promises have been bitterly repudiated and America still struggles to extricate itself from that reckless act of adventurism.

If conservatives like to fight World War II over and over, liberals see the repetitions of Vietnam -- they worry that wars fought far from American shores will confront nationalist sentiment, turn Americans into hated invaders and end in morass and humiliation.

That view was readily apparent last week as President Obama announced his plans to escalate America’s commitment to Afghanistan, and the left wing of his party flinched at the thought of Vietnam’s history repeating itself in that notoriously ungovernable country. Commentators warned of quagmire, dredging up the Vietnam-era pejorative. They noted that, as in Vietnam, the United States is supporting a shaky regime in Afghanistan -- in this case the corruption-riddled administration of President Hamid Karzai, whose reelection was marred by evidence of fraud. After Obama’s speech on Wednesday, at least one analyst, Boston University international relations professor Andrew Bacevich, compared Obama’s escalation of the war to Richard Nixon’s handling of Vietnam after his 1968 election.

Those are valid concerns, and indeed, there is more than a whiff of “Vietnamization” in Obama’s plan to put Afghan security forces on their feet so that American troops can come home. Nor can any thoughtful observer deny the possibility that the United States may become bogged down in hard fighting without a clear end, or that it may turn out to be far harder to get out of Afghanistan than supporters had hoped or anticipated.

But if it does, it won’t just be because Afghanistan is a replay of Vietnam; it will also be because Afghanistan has its own set of perils. The Vietnam analogy works only up to a point. There are similarities between the wars, of course, but there are as many differences as there are areas of overlap, and learning from history -- as distinct from exploiting it -- requires drawing careful conclusions, not merely those that reinforce an argument.

Consider, for instance, that U.S. forces have been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, though the fighting there was long overshadowed by President Bush’s other war, in Iraq. In that time, more than 900 Americans have died in Afghanistan, along with 600 of our allies. Those are tragic figures, given the lack of discernible progress, but they do not compare to America’s losses in Vietnam over a similar period. From 1961, when President Kennedy committed the first significant military assistance to Vietnam, to 1969, when the war was in full swing, more than 40,000 American soldiers died in combat. At least partly as a result of the Afghan war’s vastly reduced casualties -- and the absence of a draft -- opposition to the war in Afghanistan has been muted; public opinion is split on Obama’s plan, but antiwar sentiment is neither as widespread nor as deeply felt as it was in 1968. As of today, Obama does not command a united republic or party in this war, but nor does he preside over a country violently divided on the question.

Afghanistan differs in other ways as well. By the eighth year of the Vietnam War, which the U.S. entered only after the French defeat, America’s enemies commanded a broad-based nationalist movement and enjoyed the military and logistical support of two of the world’s great powers, the Soviet Union and China. Unlike Al Qaeda or the Taliban, the Soviets had a vast nuclear arsenal and the Chinese could field an almost limitless army, one they already had unleashed against American forces in Korea.

Finally, there is this: Afghanistan served as the base for terrorists who attacked American citizens on American soil, and it harbored their associates afterward. In Vietnam, vaguer premonitions of superpower balance and a “domino effect” caused Kennedy to dedicate troops (after President Eisenhower had refused). Those same fears, as well as the threat to American prestige and domestic political pressures, caused presidents Johnson and Nixon to order escalations of the Vietnam War. The provocation in 2001 does not justify a blind or endless war in Afghanistan, but this conflict, at least at its outset, was a war of necessity; Vietnam was not.

Just because Afghanistan is not Vietnam does not mean victory there will be simple or even achievable. Afghanistan’s own history supplies different warnings, most notably the Soviet experience of the 1980s. Then, determined rebels fighting on their own terrain and armed by the United States ground down a vastly superior military. The Soviet Union fought for a decade in Afghanistan and ended up in, well, morass and humiliation. The Soviet lesson in Afghanistan is far more germane to America today than our own experience in Vietnam.

In the years since Vietnam -- and even those since the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 -- the American military has worked to improve its counterinsurgency tactics. In Iraq, the “surge” helped stabilize the country, at least for the moment, and paved the way for Obama’s reduction of forces. Whether such tactics can be effective in Afghanistan is yet to be seen.

It is foolhardy to imagine that any level of American involvement -- and certainly not force alone -- can bring about a stable, democratic, efficient and unified Afghanistan. That nation’s long history, after all, has never produced such a place. But as America deepens its financial and military commitment to that woebegone country, our leaders should be guided, not distracted, by the lessons of history.

We remain skeptical about this war -- about its cost and about our chances of achieving our long-term goals in such a faraway and difficult-to-govern country. But at least we should view it for what it is. Win or lose, Obama’s war in Afghanistan is his war.