Gordon M. Goldstein: Vietnam, Afghanistan and learning from history





[Gordon M. Goldstein is the author of "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam".]

As President Kennedy pondered the risks of accidental war in the nuclear age -- a nightmare he would confront head on in the Cuban missile crisis -- he asked his senior advisors to read Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August," a narrative tracing the chain of events that led to World War I.

Today, President Obama is also reflecting on history's lessons, asking his advisors to study the past as they help him chart America's future course in Afghanistan. Among the "required reading" for the Obama team, it has been reported, is my book, "Lessons in Disaster," which examines how one of the architects of the Vietnam War, McGeorge Bundy, came to renounce America's entanglement in that tragic conflict and struggled to draw insight from it "to help us do better in the world ahead."

As Obama weighs the risks of escalating the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, what can a new commander in chief learn from the disaster of Vietnam?

The president is said to believe the threats posed by the two wars are starkly different. The Vietnamese communists were passionately determined to unify their country; Al Qaeda, in contrast, is dedicated to America's destruction. Our former adversary, North Vietnam, represented little of strategic importance. Our quest in Afghanistan, on the other hand, is entwined with the interests of our ally, Pakistan, a nuclear nation and a crucial security interest of the United States.

The two conflicts nonetheless share some compelling parallels. Vietnam has never been successfully dominated by foreign powers, defeating China, France, Japan and the United States. Afghanistan, similarly, has earned its reputation as the "graveyard of empires" for subverting the imperial ambitions of Alexander the Great, the British and the Soviet Union.

During Kennedy's presidency, South Vietnam was ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem, a corrupt autocrat who came to power by rigging a plebiscite and claiming 99% of the vote. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai -- widely perceived as corrupt and illegitimate -- has managed to retain power after an August election in which about 1 million ballots were found to be fraudulent.

In Vietnam, the insurgency in the south received continuous support and sanctuary from its sponsors just across the border in North Vietnam, fortified through the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Today, many Al Qaeda operatives who used to operate from Afghanistan are believed to have taken refuge across the porous border in Pakistan.

The most pronounced similarity between the two wars is in the realm of military strategy. In Afghanistan, the top commander, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has proposed a counterinsurgency mission similar to the one employed in Vietnam -- an approach many believe is certain to fail.

As Obama prepares to make one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency, he would be well-served to answer several core questions suggested by our troubled history in Vietnam.

Is failure really imminent?..


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