Lesson of Vietnam Lost in Afghanistan

VietnamOn August 17, President Barack Obama made the obligatory presidential pilgrimage to the conclave of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, this time on Sen. John McCain’s home turf. The Phoenix speech, carried live on cable networks, captured a VFW audience often surly and seemingly uninterested in the president’s remarks. But at one point, he predictably brought even his recalcitrant audience to its feet when he made a pitch for his health care proposals: “One thing that reform won’t change is veterans’ health care. No one is going to take away your benefits. That’s the truth.” No doubt.

Away from the convention, the president and his spokespersons spent much of the day backing and filling on health care. Did he or didn’t he favor a public option? How much would “his” package (did he have one?) cost? And what about those “death panels”?

But for the VFW, Obama concentrated on the expanding war in Afghanistan—the war he now proudly asserts as his own. After in effect declaring victory in Iraq to justify the removal of American troops, Obama promised he now would “refocus” our efforts to “win” in Afghanistan. As Obama made abundantly clear in his presidential campaign, this was his war of choice, the one he consistently has said is necessary to eliminate al-Qaida, which had taken refuge in the desolate Afghan mountains.

During the campaign, he seemed at pains to demonstrate he was not the caricatured soft liberal when it came to American military power. Although Obama consistently has admitted, as he did before the VFW in Arizona, that military power alone will not be sufficient, he nevertheless has insisted that his “new strategy” has the clear mission “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida.” Obama knows that defeat of the Taliban is essential to this strategy. “If left unchecked,” he has remarked, the Taliban insurgency will bring “an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaida would plot to kill more Americans.” It is not, he maintains, a “war of choice,” but “a war of necessity.”

In 1991, following the defeat of Saddam Hussein and Iraqi forces in Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush proudly announced that we had “kicked the Vietnam Syndrome.” His successor son, propelled by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, heady with 2003’s lightning rout of Iraqi forces, believed he had restored the “can do” notions of World War II for the military component of American foreign policy.

The same day President Obama spoke to the VFW, The New York Times carried a dispatch from Afghanistan in which a villager talked about his security and the difference between night and day: “When you [the Americans] leave here, the Taliban will come at night and ask us why we were talking to you,” a villager named Abdul Razzaq said. “If we cooperate [with the U.S.], they would kill us.”

Déjà vu all over again. The U.S. military in Vietnam often announced it had killed a particular number of Viet Cong and had “freed” a village. The Americans left, assuming the enemy had lost control, but at night, of course, the VC returned and reminded villagers of the reality.

Whatever “syndrome” we kicked, Vietnam’s primary lesson remains intact: American power is not without limits, both in terms of defeating an enemy and in terms of its domestic support. The primary lesson of Vietnam seems to be that it is a lesson lost. And now we have some of the same intractable problems in Afghanistan.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke recently called Vietnam War historian Stanley Karnow for advice. After the conversation, Karnow told the AP that the main lesson to be learned from Vietnam was that “we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” We apparently don’t know what was said on the other end in Karnow’s talk with the general and the envoy, but McChrystal has asked for more troops.

As Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson expanded the American commitment in Vietnam, their deputies regularly insisted that the insurgency had Chinese support and backing. “Peiping,” as Secretary of State Dean Rusk said in blatantly demeaning the Chinese, was to blame. If the government had had any historians with the courage to speak truth to power, they would have pointed to a millennium of historical enmity between the Chinese and the Vietnamese. As if to prove the point, the Chinese launched war against the victorious Vietnamese in 1975, only to suffer an embarrassing defeat.

The historical lessons for Afghanistan are clear. The British readily acknowledge their defeat. Surely the Russians know that Afghanistan was their Vietnam—with some not-so-covert intervention by the CIA. Afghanistan has been a graveyard for imperial ambitions, however noble and ostensibly good the ventures may have been. Long after the Guns of Health Care Reform are stilled, Afghanistan apparently promises to be with President Obama—and us—for a very long time.

We thought we defeated the Taliban once before; and now it is back again. President Obama believes we must do more to roll back the Taliban. But what can we do with the ethnic and tribal rivalries, the corruption and inefficiency in Kabul, all of which are related to the place of the Taliban? Will the U.S. be able to destroy, everywhere in the country, the Taliban’s grip on power? Does anyone in Obama’s circle ask “why?”

We can ponder the alternative. If successful, the Taliban might offer “an even larger safe haven” for al-Qaida and similar groups. But now, without Taliban control of the Afghanistan government, “safe havens” persist in the mountains of the country and in the northwest provinces of Pakistan. The situation is not much different than it was in 2001, except that the safe area for terrorists may be smaller. But what is different is our intelligence, our use of it, our vigilance and our capacity to strike with sophisticated air weapons.

Americans are questioning the Afghanistan involvement as never before. A Washington Post-ABC Poll, published this week, for the first time showed a majority of Americans opposed to the war. Meanwhile, suicide bombings and other attacks mount in Kabul. U.S. troops can protect the citizenry only sporadically, and with limitations.

kutlerBut inevitably, Americans will ask how long we will remain in Afghanistan, how many troops will be needed, and whether the costs in lives and treasure justify the venture. As with the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army, chances of our destroying the Taliban are slight. Eventually, the Afghans—Taliban or otherwise—will inherit their land and have to assume responsibility for governing. We, like the British and the Russians before us, will fade into Afghanistan’s history.

Stanley I. Kutler

Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings.

Republished with permission from the History News Network.

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Comments

  1. cynthia Cannadyc says

    Thank you for this critical analysis of the Afghanistan war. I would have liked it be more critical. Progressives need to ask why we are supporting a government that is implicated in opium trade and has little if any popular support. The Taliban eradicated opium trade during their watch. If the reason we fight to unseat the Taliban is because they harbor Al Qaeda, then we have several nations to invade including a number of allies. Also, our presence only strengthens Al Qaeda because the bombing and occupation alienate people who otherwise have no reason to hate us. Before we sacrifice more American lives and kill more Afghans, we need an urgent national debate on why we are fighting there and whether these terrible costs justify the supposed benefits.
    Oh, and by the way, why is it that we can spend billions in Afghanistan but investment in public education and research in our country is declining. Our budget is kaput. What are we doing spending money we don’t have killing people for ill-defined goals?

  2. jacksmith says

    NO CO-OP’S! A Little History Lesson

    Young People. America needs your help.

    More than two thirds of the American people want a single payer health care system. And if they cant have a single payer system 77% of all Americans want a strong government-run public option on day one (86% of democrats, 75% of independents, and 72% of republicans). Basically everyone.

    According to a new AARP POLL: 86 percent of seniors want universal healthcare security for All, including 93% of Democrats, 87% of Independents, and 78% of Republicans. And 79% of seniors support creating a new strong Government-run public option plan, available immediately. Including 89% of Democrats, 80% of Independents, and 61% of Republicans, STUNNING!! Senator Max Baucus, You better come out of committee with a strong government-run public option available on day one.

    The History:

    Our last great economic catastrophe was called the Great Depression. Then as now it was caused by a reckless, and corrupt Republican administration and republican congress. FDR a Democrat, was then elected to save the nation and the American people from the unbridled GREED and profiteering, of the unregulated predatory self-interest of the banking industry and Wallstreet. Just like now.

    FDR proposed a Government-run health insurance plan to go with Social Security. To assure all Americans high quality, easily accessible, affordable, National Healthcare security. Regardless of where you lived, worked, or your ability to pay. But the AMA riled against it. Using all manor of scare tactics, like Calling it SOCIALIZED MEDICINE!! :-0

    So FDR established thousands of co-op’s around the country in rural America. And all of them failed. The biggest of these co-op organizations would become the grandfather of the predatory monster that all of you know today as the DISGRACEFUL GREED DRIVEN PRIVATE FOR PROFIT health insurance industry. And the DISGRACEFUL GREED DRIVEN PRIVATE FOR PROFIT healthcare industry.

    This former co-op would grow so powerful that it would corrupt every aspect of healthcare delivery in America. Even corrupting the Government of the United States.

    This former co-op’s name is BLUE CROSS/BLUE SHIELD.

    Do you see now why even the suggestion of co-op’s is ridiculous. It makes me so ANGRY! Co-op’s are not a substitute for a government-run public option.

    They are trying to pull the wool over our eye’s again. Senators, if you don’t have the votes now, GET THEM! Or turn them over to us. WE WILL! DEAL WITH THEM. Why do you think we gave your party Control of the House, Control of the Senate, Control of the Whitehouse. The only option on the table that has any chance of fixing our healthcare crisis is a STRONG GOVERNMENT-RUN PUBLIC OPTION.

    An insurance mandate and subsidies without a strong government-run public option choice available on day one, would be worse than the healthcare catastrophe we have now. The insurance, and healthcare industry have been very successful at exploiting the good hearts of the American people. But Congress and the president must not let that happen this time. House Progressives and members of the Tri-caucus must continue to hold firm on their demand for a strong Government-run public option.

    A healthcare reform bill with mandates and subsidies but without a STRONG government-run public option choice on day one, would be much worse than NO healthcare reform at all. So you must be strong and KILL IT! if you have too. And let the chips fall where they may. You can do insurance reform without mandates, subsidies, or taxpayer expense.

    Actually, no tax payer funds should be use to subsidize any private for profit insurance plans. So, NO TAX PAYER SUBSIDIES TO PRIVATE FOR PROFIT PLANS. Tax payer funds should only be used to subsidize the public plans. Healthcare reform should be 100% for the American people. Not another taxpayer bailout of the private for profit insurance industry, disguised as healthcare reform for the people.

    God Bless You

    Jacksmith — Working Class

    Twitter search #welovetheNHS #NHS Check it out

    (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/25/why-markets-cant-cure-healthcare/)

    Senator Bernie Sanders on healthcare (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSM8t_cLZgk&feature=player_embedded)

    American HEROES!! :-) Click replay to play http://bit.ly/j31oU

    (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbWw23XwO5o) CYBER WARRIORS!! – TAKE THIS VIRAL

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