Analogies for War: Vietnam and Afghanistan

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John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. He is author of the book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (University Press of Kansas, which tells Lyndon Johnson’s, and other stories, in much greater depth).

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.

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Arnold Shcherban - 10/12/2009

One of the many and really tragic among quite foreseeable consequences of the Afghanistan war will be a surge in terrorist acts committed against Westerners in their own countries by a terror groups of a new national origin - Afghan.
Somehow the US major information and govermental sources rarely (if ever) mention the fact that until very recently, perhaps just this year, no
Afghani has ever been indicted for the terrorist acts committed or planned to be committed on the territory of any Western/NATO country.
The situation in this respect, however, is quickly changing to the worse as we speak.
I would not be surprised if as the
result of Afghan invasion, in general,
and US surge-to-be there, in particular, Afghans (along with Iraqis) will replace Saudis and Egyptians, as the leading terrorist national group.
No surprise there, though. It will be traditional backlash always caused by the US imperial policies.
Those backlashes, tragical to this country, but mostly to the world outside, happen with such invariability, that it really looks like they have been planned by Washington policy makers.

Arnold Shcherban - 10/12/2009

The Iraq surge was a great success... or was it?
As we know now (not, of course, from the official Washington propaganda machine) from independent international sources and some American investigative journalists, unaffiliated with corporate mass-media, what really accounted for the significant decrease of acts of violence in Iraq was not the quantitative surge in US troops or relocation of the latter from one operational area to another, but the
MONETARY surge used to bribe
Iraqi militant groups and community leaders on both sides of the conflict
to refrain from violence.
While bribery in such circumstances is much more preferable mean of conflict resolution than violence and from the times immemorial constituted one of the major tools
of the US foreign policy, not only the BIG LIE of the SURGE SUCCESS becomes apparent here, but it makes
AFGHANISTAN TROOP SURGE (as it previously made IRAQI SURGE) not only redundant and useless, but criminal -
both towards Americans and Afghanis.
Not already mentioning the obvious to any unbiased observer fact that US governments are fighting not against so-called Taliban and Al-Qeada religious fanatics (who used to fight, with full US support, against Russians through exactly same means, i.e. terrorism and insurgency), but
against anti-occupational "freedom fighters", who oppose not just US-led invasion and occupation, but also totally corrupt and brutal Karzai's clique.
It looks like "chicken did come to roost", really...

Arnold Shcherban - 10/9/2009

The entire gamut of the basic principles of the US foreign policies (read - wars of aggression) - superpower's chauvinism, its imperialistic arrogance, brutality,
and contempt of the international laws and the facts on the ground - is all there in the comment of Mr. Gaston.

President had to expand Vietnam's war even further, which was a war of aggression (and not only North Vietnam but against the majority of South Vietnam's rural population (so-called Vietkong) to begin with, the war that by that time already resulted in millions of Vietnamese and Laotian deaths, infrastructural and environmental disaster in South Eastern Asia, etc, not mentioning thousands of the US casualties (that allegedly gastons care deeply about.), plus become hugely unpopular among American youth and, in general, among all humane and conscientious US citizens.
Whether any war is winnable or not matters only when the war is legal, i.e. either unambigiously defensive or chosen as the last resort by the UN Security Council - the decision that is not to be usurped by any one country, however democratic or non-democratic it is. Therefore, it is not to be decided by American legislature or President, but by the respective international laws, UN charter and other multilateral and bilateral agreements (signed by the overwhelming majority of the world countries, including the US.)
All other wars are declared the wars of aggression by the UN and other international bodies, such as NATO, e.g. (by the latter when applied to the similar actions of non-friendly to Western "democracies" countries).
From these worldwide-accepted legal
and moral standpoints (and from the standpoint of all politically and socially just folks) the US wars in
Vietnam, Cambodia, in Grenada and Panama, in Iraq and Afghanistan are irrefutably the wars of imperialistic aggression.
But that is not their single legal, moral, and social characteristic.
If the US governments would cut
those wars short and immediately withdraw all the troops after quickly securing corresponding military victory over incomparably weaker adversary, the war might have considered "a mistake" (as American so-called liberals characterize those wars) even by some not-so-friendly to the US nations. However, since all US governments/Presidents, Republican or Democrat and installed by them local puppets insist on continuing the military and other repressive actions
against natural resistance of the occupied nation, thereby making US-NATO occupation virtually permanent, murderous, and destructive, thus inflaming old religious, social, and tribal struggle that creates perfect conditions for a civil war, internal and international terrorism, such policies fall out of the categorical niche of "a mistake" (not already mentioning, the obvious to even any half-brained, the hypocrisy of spreading freedom and democracy claim.) Instead they perfectly fit the categories of aggression, brutal occupation with political, economic, social, and ideological control.
All the puppet governments installed by the US in the indicated above countries have always been as corrupt and anti-democratic as it gets, with the war, occupation, and its consequences resulting in much more human victims, misery, and destruction than it was ever perpetrated by the regimes they replaced through murder and plunder, including the Taliban's and Hussein's ones.
This country is not in the state of any war - the perpetual chauvinistic travesty trumped-up by the American conservative and "liberal" elite alike - but in the state of imperialistic bipartisan corporate-driven (hot or cold) aggression against any country that doesn't more or less obediently follow the US continental privately-owned cruiser.

John D. Beatty - 10/9/2009

A stable democracy, a theocratic dictatorship, a communist dream state? Afghanistan hasn't got a very impressive history of being much more than a geographic idea dominated by tribal rivalries.

Has anyone asked this yet? What exactly does the US want to come of its involvement, other than keep it from collapsing into chaos again? If that's all, no surge is needed.

Just exactly what is the expected outcome?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/8/2009

History now offers some other, different guidance for Afghanistan. It's called the Iraq War, which turned into a hugely important victory after the right generals and the right strategy (the surge) were found and implemented. Obama today is fortunate to still have Petraeus, Odierno, and McChrystal--the architects of victory in Iraq--right on the scene in Afghanistan... All those books entitled "Iraq: The Unwinnable War," have now been trashed, and their authors are madly trying to forget their previous bad advice.

Robert Lee Gaston - 10/7/2009

LBJ ran away from Vietnam in 1964, while secretly planning on expanding the war after the election.

President Obama ran toward Afghanistan last year. Now I suppose he secretly planned on getting out as soon as possible.

There are other similarities:

Professors are declaring the war “unwinnable”.

The Democratic Party establishment, and the establishment press (to the extent there is any difference) have declared the supported government as being corrupt. This translates to, “You’re going under the bus buddy”.