The Vietnamization of Afghanistan

The Vietnamization of Afghanistan

The Nixon administration, elected on a promise to end the Vietnam War via "peace with honor," described its strategy as "Vietnamization": building the capacity of the Vietnamese armed forces so that American troops could leave.

Today, we have different catchphrases but similar ideas. After requests for more troops and resources from on-the-ground commanders, Sen. Carl Levin, the influential chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced his opposition to sending more American soldiers to Afghanistan but has proposed a "surge of Afghanistan security forces." Which is to say, Afghanistan-ization.

We've seen this before. In 2003, the Bush administration flirted with similar strategies in Iraq but strongly resisted comparisons with the Vietnam War. The Republican Party in general has denied the lessons of Vietnam, long associated with two Democratic presidents and ended by a Republican, however disgraced. With a Democratic administration now in power, the specter of Vietnam is hanging over U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan. Democrats, still haunted by the legacy of that conflict, are trying to apply its lessons to today's war.

The return of the Vietnam comparisons is partially a question of personnel. Of President George W. Bush's top advisers, only Secretary of State Colin Powell had served in the conflict and represented the most cautious strain of Republican foreign policy. Among the current president's advisers there is Richard Holbrooke, the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who was a Foreign Service officer in Saigon, and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who served as a platoon and company commander in Vietnam. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was an Air Force intelligence officer during the Vietnam War, though he was not stationed there. And, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could not serve in Vietnam, her opposition to the war caused her break with her Republican roots.

Perhaps the most important personal Vietnam legacy belongs to the man who almost had Clinton's job: Sen. John Kerry, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a decorated Vietnam veteran who spoke out against the war upon his return from combat. Kerry has been holding a series of hearings questioning the underpinnings of American strategy in Afghanistan. At the outset of one, he departed from his prepared remarks to describe his own past:

I recall full well in 1964 and 1965 being one of those troops who responded to the call to augment our presence in Vietnam, and there was this constant refrain from President Johnson and from General Westmoreland, you know, 'Give us more troops. We just need X more and we'll get the job done.' But, in fact, some of the core assumptions were not being examined about the domino theory, about the nature of the civil war and the structure.

Kerry is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the 1960s, and Holbrooke, too, knows well what happens when a war goes awry. A recent profile in The New Yorker reports a 1967 memo Holbrooke wrote as a State Department staffer under Johnson, arguing the war was a lost cause that could only be ended with massive escalation or a policy of de-escalation, Vietnamization, and negotiation. Holbrooke now struggles not to fall into his old bosses' bad habits.

For our current president, who explicitly promised to leave behind the tumultuous political legacy of the 1960s and was only 14 years old when the Vietnam War ended, the Afghanistan/Vietnam comparison means additional headaches. He is already likened to Johnson, who decided that domestic success was worth delaying hard decisions on Vietnam and lost his presidency as a result. Obama, facing an enormous economic crisis and launching a transformative domestic-policy agenda, loathes the idea of a political battle within his party about an inherited war but is determined not to repeat Johnson's mistake.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam, though the Afghan government's crisis of legitimacy mirrors that of America's client government in South Vietnam. U.S. military forces are better prepared for the dynamics of this conflict than they were for Vietnam: Our understanding of the conflict is more realistic, U.S. presence remains relatively popular among the Afghans, and we have international support.

Nonetheless, our national interests are by no means clear. The president has articulated two goals in Afghanistan: We seek to destroy al-Qaeda and to protect Pakistan's government and, more pressing, its nuclear arsenal from Islamist extremists. But al-Qaeda has been driven from Afghanistan already; the attacks it launched on us in 2001 came largely from Western Europe, not Kandahar. And the second goal is nearly a return to domino theory -- if we let one country succumb to Islamist extremists,

 

 

 

 

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John Kerry speaks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War on April 22, 1971. (AP Photo/Henry Griffin)

The Nixon administration, elected on a promise to end the Vietnam War via "peace with honor," described its strategy as "Vietnamization": building the capacity of the Vietnamese armed forces so that American troops could leave.

Today, we have different catchphrases but similar ideas. After requests for more troops and resources from on-the-ground commanders, Sen. Carl Levin, the influential chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced his opposition to sending more American soldiers to Afghanistan but has proposed a "surge of Afghanistan security forces." Which is to say, Afghanistan-ization.

We've seen this before. In 2003, the Bush administration flirted with similar strategies in Iraq but strongly resisted comparisons with the Vietnam War. The Republican Party in general has denied the lessons of Vietnam, long associated with two Democratic presidents and ended by a Republican, however disgraced. With a Democratic administration now in power, the specter of Vietnam is hanging over U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan. Democrats, still haunted by the legacy of that conflict, are trying to apply its lessons to today's war.

The return of the Vietnam comparisons is partially a question of personnel. Of President George W. Bush's top advisers, only Secretary of State Colin Powell had served in the conflict and represented the most cautious strain of Republican foreign policy. Among the current president's advisers there is Richard Holbrooke, the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who was a Foreign Service officer in Saigon, and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who served as a platoon and company commander in Vietnam. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was an Air Force intelligence officer during the Vietnam War, though he was not stationed there. And, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could not serve in Vietnam, her opposition to the war caused her break with her Republican roots.

Perhaps the most important personal Vietnam legacy belongs to the man who almost had Clinton's job: Sen. John Kerry, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a decorated Vietnam veteran who spoke out against the war upon his return from combat. Kerry has been holding a series of hearings questioning the underpinnings of American strategy in Afghanistan. At the outset of one, he departed from his prepared remarks to describe his own past:

I recall full well in 1964 and 1965 being one of those troops who responded to the call to augment our presence in Vietnam, and there was this constant refrain from President Johnson and from General Westmoreland, you know, 'Give us more troops. We just need X more and we'll get the job done.' But, in fact, some of the core assumptions were not being examined about the domino theory, about the nature of the civil war and the structure.

Kerry is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the 1960s, and Holbrooke, too, knows well what happens when a war goes awry. A recent profile in The New Yorker reports a 1967 memo Holbrooke wrote as a State Department staffer under Johnson, arguing the war was a lost cause that could only be ended with massive escalation or a policy of de-escalation, Vietnamization, and negotiation. Holbrooke now struggles not to fall into his old bosses' bad habits.

For our current president, who explicitly promised to leave behind the tumultuous political legacy of the 1960s and was only 14 years old when the Vietnam War ended, the Afghanistan/Vietnam comparison means additional headaches. He is already likened to Johnson, who decided that domestic success was worth delaying hard decisions on Vietnam and lost his presidency as a result. Obama, facing an enormous economic crisis and launching a transformative domestic-policy agenda, loathes the idea of a political battle within his party about an inherited war but is determined not to repeat Johnson's mistake.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam, though the Afghan government's crisis of legitimacy mirrors that of America's client government in South Vietnam. U.S. military forces are better prepared for the dynamics of this conflict than they were for Vietnam: Our understanding of the conflict is more realistic, U.S. presence remains relatively popular among the Afghans, and we have international support.

Nonetheless, our national interests are by no means clear. The president has articulated two goals in Afghanistan: We seek to destroy al-Qaeda and to protect Pakistan's government and, more pressing, its nuclear arsenal from Islamist extremists. But al-Qaeda has been driven from Afghanistan already; the attacks it launched on us in 2001 came largely from Western Europe, not Kandahar. And the second goal is nearly a return to domino theory -- if we let one country succumb to Islamist extremists, its neighbors are sure to go.

Afghanistan, though, is also not Iraq, where a confluence of sound policy changes and incredible luck created the opportunity for escalation and withdrawal. The Obama administration has argued that its goals require a massive counterinsurgency campaign to replace the limited counterterrorism mission that has been U.S. policy for the last eight years. Escalation opponents who argue that a smaller footprint will suffice need to acknowledge that the Taliban and other insurgents were succeeding against that strategy. While middle ground could be found, opting out of this war will lead to chaos in Afghanistan, terrible human-rights abuses, and a potential safe haven for terrorists.

"If I were president in this circumstance, if we're setting the stakes the way we are, I want a guarantee," Kerry said at his hearing last week. "Roosevelt took his guarantee, in a sense. Truman did. We were committed to that, and as a former troop, let me tell you something: That's one of the things that I miss the most back then. And I would want to make sure we have that for the troops today."

Unfortunately for Kerry, and the rest of the United States, there are no guarantees today in Afghanistan, only increasingly dismal options. Choosing the right ones will either break the Democrats' association with Vietnam or confirm it.

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Also by Tim Fernholz: Is Obama Too Calm Before the Storm? Present at the Re-Creation Who's Leading the Fight Against Consumer Financial Regulation? What Max Baucus Can Learn From the Labor Movement Will the Deficit Save Health Reform? More...

Related Articles: Opposite Day Mark Schmitt Evasive Maneuvers Tara McKelvey Hawks and a Hack Job Matthew Yglesias Is Obama Too Calm Before the Storm? Tim Fernholz The Return of the Repressed Michelle Goldberg

Tags: Iraq/The War on Terror, Obama Administration

Most Recent Articles: How Will World Leaders Fix the Financial Mess? By Linda Y. Li September 23, 2009 | web only The Vietnamization of Afghanistan By Tim Fernholz September 23, 2009 | web only Kristol and the Tea Baggers By Kevin Mattson September 23, 2009 | web only The Wrong Side of the Mommy Track By Dana Goldstein September 22, 2009 | web only Glenn Beck's Party By Paul Waldman September 22, 2009 | web only More...

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John Kerry speaks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War on April 22, 1971. (AP Photo/Henry Griffin)

Today, we have different catchphrases but similar ideas. After requests for more troops and resources from on-the-ground commanders, Sen. Carl Levin, the influential chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced his opposition to sending more American soldiers to Afghanistan but has proposed a "surge of Afghanistan security forces." Which is to say, Afghanistan-ization.

We've seen this before. In 2003, the Bush administration flirted with similar strategies in Iraq but strongly resisted comparisons with the Vietnam War. The Republican Party in general has denied the lessons of Vietnam, long associated with two Democratic presidents and ended by a Republican, however disgraced. With a Democratic administration now in power, the specter of Vietnam is hanging over U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan. Democrats, still haunted by the legacy of that conflict, are trying to apply its lessons to today's war.

The return of the Vietnam comparisons is partially a question of personnel. Of President George W. Bush's top advisers, only Secretary of State Colin Powell had served in the conflict and represented the most cautious strain of Republican foreign policy. Among the current president's advisers there is Richard Holbrooke, the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who was a Foreign Service officer in Saigon, and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who served as a platoon and company commander in Vietnam. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was an Air Force intelligence officer during the Vietnam War, though he was not stationed there. And, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could not serve in Vietnam, her opposition to the war caused her break with her Republican roots.

Perhaps the most important personal Vietnam legacy belongs to the man who almost had Clinton's job: Sen. John Kerry, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a decorated Vietnam veteran who spoke out against the war upon his return from combat. Kerry has been holding a series of hearings questioning the underpinnings of American strategy in Afghanistan. At the outset of one, he departed from his prepared remarks to describe his own past:

Kerry is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the 1960s, and Holbrooke, too, knows well what happens when a war goes awry. A recent profile in The New Yorker reports a 1967 memo Holbrooke wrote as a State Department staffer under Johnson, arguing the war was a lost cause that could only be ended with massive escalation or a policy of de-escalation, Vietnamization, and negotiation. Holbrooke now struggles not to fall into his old bosses' bad habits.

For our current president, who explicitly promised to leave behind the tumultuous political legacy of the 1960s and was only 14 years old when the Vietnam War ended, the Afghanistan/Vietnam comparison means additional headaches. He is already likened to Johnson, who decided that domestic success was worth delaying hard decisions on Vietnam and lost his presidency as a result. Obama, facing an enormous economic crisis and launching a transformative domestic-policy agenda, loathes the idea of a political battle within his party about an inherited war but is determined not to repeat Johnson's mistake.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam, though the Afghan government's crisis of legitimacy mirrors that of America's client government in South Vietnam. U.S. military forces are better prepared for the dynamics of this conflict than they were for Vietnam: Our understanding of the conflict is more realistic, U.S. presence remains relatively popular among the Afghans, and we have international support.

Nonetheless, our national interests are by no means clear. The president has articulated two goals in Afghanistan: We seek to destroy al-Qaeda and to protect Pakistan's government and, more pressing, its nuclear arsenal from Islamist extremists. But al-Qaeda has been driven from Afghanistan already; the attacks it launched on us in 2001 came largely from Western Europe, not Kandahar. And the second goal is nearly a return to domino theory -- if we let one country succumb to Islamist extremists, its neighbors are sure to go.

Afghanistan, though, is also not Iraq, where a confluence of sound policy changes and incredible luck created the opportunity for escalation and withdrawal. The Obama administration has argued that its goals require a massive counterinsurgency campaign to replace the limited counterterrorism mission that has been U.S. policy for the last eight years. Escalation opponents who argue that a smaller footprint will suffice need to acknowledge that the Taliban and other insurgents were succeeding against that strategy. While middle ground could be found, opting out of this war will lead to chaos in Afghanistan, terrible human-rights abuses, and a potential safe haven for terrorists.

"If I were president in this circumstance, if we're setting the stakes the way we are, I want a guarantee," Kerry said at his hearing last week. "Roosevelt took his guarantee, in a sense. Truman did. We were committed to that, and as a former troop, let me tell you something: That's one of the things that I miss the most back then. And I would want to make sure we have that for the troops today."

Unfortunately for Kerry, and the rest of the United States, there are no guarantees today in Afghanistan, only increasingly dismal options. Choosing the right ones will either break the Democrats' association with Vietnam or confirm it.

 

Also by Tim Fernholz: Is Obama Too Calm Before the Storm? Present at the Re-Creation Who's Leading the Fight Against Consumer Financial Regulation? What Max Baucus Can Learn From the Labor Movement Will the Deficit Save Health Reform? More...

Related Articles: Opposite Day Mark Schmitt Evasive Maneuvers Tara McKelvey Hawks and a Hack Job Matthew Yglesias Is Obama Too Calm Before the Storm? Tim Fernholz The Return of the Repressed Michelle Goldberg

Tags: Iraq/The War on Terror, Obama Administration

Most Recent Articles: How Will World Leaders Fix the Financial Mess? By Linda Y. Li September 23, 2009 | web only The Vietnamization of Afghanistan By Tim Fernholz September 23, 2009 | web only Kristol and the Tea Baggers By Kevin Mattson September 23, 2009 | web only The Wrong Side of the Mommy Track By Dana Goldstein September 22, 2009 | web only Glenn Beck's Party By Paul Waldman September 22, 2009 | web only More...

© 2009 by The American Prospect, Inc.  |  Privacy Policy  |  Permissions and Reprints

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