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Analogies for War: Vietnam and Afghanistan

Reluctant as he may be, President Barack Obama faces a defining moment in the Afghan war. General Stanley McChrystal’s call for more troops, as much as it is a bid to change the course of the conflict, hits Obama at a moment the nation is at full stretch, with another war in Iraq that Washington cannot seem to take its hands off, military forces insufficient to meet the twin burdens, and a domestic front in turmoil. The wrong decision here would be disastrous. Anything Americans can do to sharpen the optics of this choice needs to be done.

History offers some guidance. Rewind to Lyndon Johnson’s nightmare—Vietnam. There has been some talk of the Vietnam war lately, and the most-read book at the White House is said to be Gordon M. Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, actually the late former national security adviser’s reflection on that quagmire. McGeorge Bundy served John Kennedy and Johnson and his time coincided with the big United States escalations in Vietnam. Pundits’ take-away lesson from Bundy is his warning that advisers tried too hard, and that President Johnson was not strong enough to strike out on his own amid the morass. But that is too simple by far: advisers propose, the president disposes. I think we knew that already. We can do much better with the Vietnam analogy.

Mac Bundy experienced a process of commitment. As described in full detail in my book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, presidents faced a series of moments, at any one of which they could have chosen against war, but they decided differently, for whatever reason. Once ensnared, presidents were confined to a range of policy choices, an envelope that progressively narrowed as the military situation, the status of U.S. forces, the politics of the war, the actions of our Vietnamese ally, and the capabilities of our Vietnamese enemy all worked to affect the status of the conflict. In Afghanistan today we are past the commitment stage. We can argue over how we got here but the question is where to go next. A much closer Vietnam comparison is between Obama’s dilemma and that faced by President Johnson in the spring of 1967. Bundy had left the White House by then. Lyndon Johnson’s own experience furnishes a superior frame of reference.

There were many appeals for reinforcements in Vietnam, enough so the Pentagon began giving them numbers. Each of those decisions progressively narrowed President Johnson’s freedom of choice. By early 1967 our Vietnam commander, General William C. Westmoreland, was hawking what was called “Program 5,” providing for a massive increase—over 200,000 troops. Then as now, the number of soldiers considered necessary could not be provided without either failing to meet other commitments or resorting to national mobilization. Public opinion, as measured by the polls, had turned against combat in Vietnam. Like Obama, President Johnson demanded a careful review of strategy, including bringing Westmoreland home to argue the case personally. Johnson decided against the big troop increase, sending only minimal fresh forces, and changing to a fresh strategic approach.

As is the case today, the Johnson people expected to conduct classic counterinsurgency as part of their strategy. A new organization was set up to spearhead the civil operations entailed with that. Meanwhile measures were taken to isolate the battlefield by closing the border to enemy infiltration, and GIs in the field fought hard to counter the Vietnamese enemy in the areas they were the most entrenched. And the South Vietnamese army fighting alongside us was to be upgraded and expanded—and again like Obama, under successive plans the increases were to be more dramatic and more central to strategy. Vietnam and Afghanistan were and are both subject to the same set of operational constraints. Counterinsurgency depended on the vitality of our local ally—in Saigon rather limited, in Kabul virtually nonexistent—the ability to furnish a security screen to villages throughout the conflict area—impossible in both cases—and the vibrancy of social programs—heavily limited in both cases by corruption. The only relative advantage in Afghanistan today is that the adversary this time, the Taliban, is yet to develop a countrywide parallel hierarchy. In both cases it was impossible to seal the border against infiltration by the insurgent enemy. American soldiers fight as hard as ever, but the other pillars necessary to ensure their success are not in place—and will not follow from any conceivable increase in levels of military commitment. As for expanding the Afghan army, success there is highly unlikely given the lack of a popular and unified national government, and is further impeded by the tribal nature of the society. The Soviet Union once played this very card (in Afghanistan in the 1980s) and proved able to mobilize no more than a quarter of the forces they set out to add.

In Vietnam in 1967, to return to the Johnson analogy, for some months things seemed to go well enough, except for the lack of visible military or counterinsurgency progress. But the political side of the equation did not improve. Desperate for success, President Johnson launched a PR campaign designed to showcase the supposed gains in the war. Light could be seen at the end of the tunnel intoned the American ambassador to South Vietnam. Then came the Tet Offensive and America was visibly shaken. We need not engage the argument about the true outcome at Tet to make the point that the Vietnamese adversary could carry out their country-wide initiative because the measures possible for Johnson were not ones that actually affected the adversary’s capability. And such real progress as there was could not alter the final outcome of the war, except for adding to the toll in blood and treasure.

This too is characteristic of the Afghan war today. Reconstruction and civil affairs efforts will be unable to win the hearts and minds of Afghans disgusted at the dishonesty and profligacy of the Karzai government. A plan to mobilize massive friendly forces will founder in the crevasses of Afghan politics and the reluctance of the people to take up arms. An American or NATO buildup at any level will be incapable of actually winning the battle. The Taliban enemy, safely ensconced in bases across the border in Pakistan, chooses when it wants to fight. Widely touted plans to separate factions of Taliban by paying them off, depend on the entirely unsubstantiated thesis that there are enemy groups just waiting to be bought. In short the military strategy does not affect the fulcrum that might change the balance. The best U.S. force may be able to accomplish—like Vietnam—is likely to be prolonging stalemate. And the longer that persists—worse if deterioration becomes evident—the more restricted become the options for President Obama. This is the real Afghan problem.

The other piece of the Vietnam 1967 example is to look at what happened after the bankruptcy of American strategy stood revealed. Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was destroyed. LBJ felt it necessary to renounce any intention to seek re-election to the White House. Johnson felt Vietnam had been his downfall. Barack Obama could well be brought low the same way. An escalation decision, followed by a public perception of little success, in a climate of opinion now opposed to the war, will greatly diminish Obama’s range of choice. A PR campaign will have even worse consequences as evidence accumulates that the real world situation is otherwise. As Lyndon Johnson saw in 1967, escalation had few prospects. He did not see, as President Obama needs to realize, that an escalatory course now actually accelerates America’s new march into quagmire. In Vietnam the greatest mistake was to avoid looking at the full range of options—withdrawal was repeatedly kept off the table. Mac Bundy certainly rued that in retrospect, as he once reflected to me as I researched a history of the National Security Council. But Obama seems not to be reading enough books, or perhaps not the right ones. His latest pronouncement, after meeting with congressional leaders on Afghanistan, seems to indicate that only escalatory options are on the table. Let us avoid repeating history.