Afghanistan: Obama's Vietnam?

President Obama is embarking on a very dangerous path in Afghanistan that could become his Vietnam.

It’s risky to draw parallels between wars, since each in unique. The Left was, and some still are, determined to liken the Iraq War to Vietnam. But much of that talk has subsided.  

Now we’re dialing up our efforts in Afghanistan where some aspects of the war against the Taliban along the Pakistan-Afghan border do compare to Vietnam. Here’s how:

Sanctuary for the Enemy:  Cambodia and Laos offered a safe haven for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Not until Nixon ordered an invasion of Cambodia in May 1970, did we attempt to deny the NVA/VC that sanctuary in Cambodia. It worked for a while. I
then lived about four kilometers from the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Things went quiet in May after we invaded.

Small groups of brave U.S. gun-fighters slinked through the brush in Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam to startle and disrupt those sanctuaries, as well as gain intelligence. Many never returned and the sanctuaries remained.

Training for Self-Defense: Preparing the Afghan military to defend itself is Vietnamization redux, except hopefully done smarter.  Vietnamization didn’t work so well. We tried to build the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) in the image of the U.S. military.  Their tactics were ours. Their equipment was our equipment. In some cases, it was newer. I drove a Korean-era jeep. In the towns, the ARVNs drove brand new jeeps, sometimes tricked out with accessories like tire rims painted white. Although we gave them every tool to fight, many lacked one essential thing: Motivation.

Vietnamization was never going to work because many (certainly not all) South Vietnamese soldiers didn’t know what they were fighting for, or fighting against. Neither did their leaders.   

Albeit from a distance, forming up the Afghan military looks like an even more difficult challenge. Again, from a distance, motivation looks to be on the side of the Taliban.

Questionable Allies:  Some of our NATO allies have engaged in Afghanistan, particularly the Brits and Canadians. But it gets thin quick after that.  Those two mirror the support the S. Koreans (ROK) and Australians gave us in Vietnam. The ROK (“rock”) troops were especially feared by the Vietnamese. They were not simpatico with political correctness.

The weak engagement of NATO in Afghanistan has been a major disappointment that makes some question the role of the alliance going forward.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is an on-again off-again ally. Mostly off-again. Expecting their sustained, positive engagement against the Taliban who take sanctuary in Pakistan’s version of the Wild West-squared has been a multi-year exercise in diplomatic wishful thinking. There was a lot of that in Vietnam, too.

More Boots-on-the-Ground Doesn’t Guarantee Success: Obama is sending more troops to Afghanistan. More boots will mean more U.S.-driven offensive operations. And, more Taliban casualties. That’ll likely drive more Taliban into Pakistan where, while waiting for the heat to be turned down back home, they’ll aggravate the Pakistanis. Just like the VC/NVA did in Cambodia in 1970, the Taliban can out-last us.

Of course, more aggravation for the Pakistanis may be the objective of more U.S. troops on the ground.  The thought being that that aggravation may motivate the Pakistanis to finally deal with the insurgency inside their country. If you accept the premise that the best gauge of future behavior is past behavior, that expectation is, at best, a “Maybe.”

More boots-on-the-ground will almost surely mean more U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, because more boots equals more targets. At the peak of the Vietnam War, we had a half-million U.S. military personnel there. Would adding a half-million more have brought victory? Or just more casualties? We still debate this question.

Political Correctness in War Gets More People Killed:  This last week our President and Secretary of State apologized for something we appear not to have done – killed Afghan civilians in an air attack. Our leaders were quick to apologize – too quick. The President who said recently that he doesn’t like to talk about something until he knows what he’s talking about, broke his own rule.

Our political leaders may not be smart enough to out-maneuver the Taliban.  Lyndon Johnson was not as smart of Ho Chi Minh. Lyndon was awarded the Silver Star for being the observer on one combat flight in the Pacific. A political medal.  Ho, on the other hand, survived wars against the Japanese, the French, and the Americans.  In Ho v. Johnson, Lyndon never had a chance.

Now it’s Obama v Mullah Omar, or if Omar’s with 72 virgins, someone like him. It’s a scary match-up.

Does that mean we’re headed in the wrong direction by pumping-up our military headcount in Afghanistan? I don’t suggest that. I do suggest that President Obama is embarking on a very dangerous path in Afghanistan that could become his Vietnam.