Shadow Government

Afghanistan is not Vietnam

I worked in the Obama administration as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan through September 2009, covering much of the timeframe of Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars. I was one of several holdovers who helped provide continuity from the previous administration. This is the first in a series of posts responding to the book and ...

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I worked in the Obama administration as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan through September 2009, covering much of the timeframe of Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars. I was one of several holdovers who helped provide continuity from the previous administration. This is the first in a series of posts responding to the book and to the administration’s Afghanistan policy. I did not personally witness most of the discussions that Woodward describes, but I typically received detailed readouts from those who did. I also left just prior to the fall 2009 strategy review, and I do maintain relationships with some of the people mentioned herein. With those disclaimers, I think the book is quite accurate in tone and substance.

The most damning insight of the book is not the inter-office gossip — e.g., who is a "waterbug" or who thinks Holbrooke is "arrogant." That stuff happens in every administration, every professional workplace, and, frankly, every gathering of human beings. More damning is the poor quality of discussion at the principals’ level. The president himself said as much himself at one point, according to Woodward, expressing displeasure with the strategy review. The principals’ discussion wandered back and forth, re-trod the same ground again and again without fresh insights, failed to resolve basic questions, and ultimately settled on a policy that reflected compromise, large assumptions, and the search for a least-common-denominator consensus.

I want to focus on just one example today. According to Woodward, Vice President Joe Biden and, separately, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg were concerned that Afghanistan was becoming "another Vietnam." Such concerns led them and others to argue against troop increases and in favor of limiting U.S. goals and commitments in the region.

Let me take a moment to shoot this particularly slow-moving, barrel-bound fish. In 2004 a Strategic Studies Institute report on the comparison of Iraq and Vietnam concluded that "There is simply no comparison between the strategic environment, the scale of military operations, the scale of losses incurred, the quality of enemy resistance, the role of enemy allies, and the duration of combat." Much less apt is the comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam.

Different Strategic Environments. Vietnam was a proxy war between two superpowers overlaid on top of a national liberation movement. As a consequence, the North Vietnamese had the almost limitless resources and public support of a superpower behind them, and the risk of escalation was a very real danger. The U.S. intervention was unilateral and lacked broad international legitimacy. The conflict in Afghanistan is an international counterterrorism operation mixed up in a tribal civil war. The Taliban have comparatively few resources and there is no risk of escalation with a sponsoring superpower. The Afghan war is a contest between a coalition of states operating under U.N. authorization and a network of non-state actors. In this sense the Afghan war and the related global counterterrorism efforts are more like the successful British-led efforts against piracy and slaving in the 19th century than to Vietnam.

Different Operational and Tactical Environments. The North Vietnamese fielded a conventional army with tanks, artillery, and air power. The unconventional Viet Cong insurgency was a supporting effort that either faded away or was defeated after 1968. In Afghanistan, the insurgency is the only effort. In this respect Afghanistan is more akin to the U.S.-Philippine War of 1898-1913 (which the United States won) than to Vietnam.

Different Ideological Environment. The North Vietnamese fought with the fervor of a people seeking unity and independence. The Pashtun do not. They are not united and, perhaps because they have already lived under the Taliban government, there is no widespread fervor for their cause.

Different Scale. The United States deployed over a half-million troops to Vietnam at the peak of the war. The North and South Vietnamese fielded armies of several hundred thousand each. Over 58,000 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese were killed. Afghanistan is a minor sideshow compared to Vietnam. The United States has deployed just over 100,000 troops, one-fifth of the deployment in Vietnam. Just over 1,000 Coalition troops have been killed, one of the smallest figures of any war in U.S. history. Afghan casualties probably number in the high thousands or low tens of thousands. The most pessimistic estimates suggest there are at most 25,000 or so Taliban fighters. This is not to make light of the loss of life, but to highlight that there is no comparison to Vietnam.

There are some superficial similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam. These similarities only highlight all the more why the comparison is unhelpful.

"Open-Ended Commitment." It is true that the wars in both Afghanistan and Vietnam involved uncertainty about when they would end. But that is simply a feature of war. Wars are not fought on timetables. World War II was an "open-ended commitment." Soldiers were deployed "for the duration," and the Allies were committed to fighting until achieving victory, whenever that was to happen.

Counterinsurgency and State-Building. The wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam both involved what the U.S. military calls "foreign internal defense" and "security assistance" alongside civilian efforts to foster good governance to support U.S. war efforts. In other words, we were fighting an unconventional war, training foreign forces, and doing development and reconstruction all at the same time. The blend is rare and difficult, but it is neither unique nor impossible. The U.S. Army and Marines successfully implemented one or more of those elements in the American West in the 19th century, during Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War, in the Philippines after the War of 1898, and in the Banana Wars across the Caribbean in the early 20th century. These are unglamorous and unremembered chapters in U.S. military history, but they are true nonetheless. Afghanistan is not "another Vietnam": it is the latest in a long line of America’s Savage Wars of Peace.

Afghanistan does not resemble Vietnam in the international context; in the strategic, operational, tactical, or ideological dimensions; in the reason the war was fought, or how it was fought; in the type and number of enemy; in the role of our allies and rivals; or in virtually any other respect. Vietnam has almost nothing to teach us that is applicable to the conflict in Afghanistan aside from which counterinsurgency tactics work and which do not. The fact that some administration officials allowed the shadow of Vietnam to color its debate over Afghanistan is a worrying sign that they are paying more attention to the image of the war than the reality of it, and that they are letting the "last war" influence the present one. Policymakers often reason by historical analogy, and they are almost always wrong. The closest analogy to Vietnam is not the American war in Afghanistan, but the Soviet one. To state the obvious: We are not the Soviets, and our involvement in Afghanistan is nothing like theirs.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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