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Vietnam and Afghanistan: Lessons in disaster?

U.S. Marines of the 8th regiment
REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih
U.S. Marines leave camp Sharp to conduct a patrol in the Main Poshtay area, in Helmand province, last week.

The anticipation of the recommendations of Gen. Stanley A. Chrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and President Obama’s response has set off a battle in public opinion over the war in Afghanistan. By now, you undoubtedly find all the talking points a bit too finely honed and repetitive.

The commonly recommended reading lists of books on Afghanistan range from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus’ “Histories” to any one of the recent books that have “the great game” in its title. (I have counted four recently published studies of Afghanistan that re-work this term from the 19th-century British-Russian rivalry into their title.) If you have found that reading list to be less than helpful, let me recommend a recent book, about a different war that provides a lens for viewing this moment in the history of our relations with Afghanistan.

This past September, a book ostensibly about the war in Vietnam defined the debate over the past six weeks about our next course in the war in Afghanistan. Gordon M. Goldstein’s “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam” retells the hubris and tragedy of our war in Vietnam through the biography, memories and tortured confessions in late life of “Mac” Bundy, national security adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

It is a story of the hubris of the nation’s elite “experts” on national security, homage to the young political hand, Kennedy, who resisted their arguments for a major escalation of the U.S. troops in Vietnam, and a censure of the old political pro, Johnson, who did not.

White House reading
“Lessons in Disaster” leads you to suspect that Goldstein wrote the book to preempt any success for McChrystal’s request for 40,000 to 60,000 more troops in Afghanistan and also to help White House staffers draft memos for Obama. “Lessons in Disaster” invites you to read the present into the past and almost seems to organize each chapter so that it could be reduced into bullets points for observations on the analogies to Afghanistan.

It’s easy to imagine that last September a staffer in the West Wing read to the end of the book, put it down, and immediately started the memo.  “Mr. President, you have the choice to play the role of Kennedy or Johnson. . . .” Guess what role model wins out.

McGeorge Bundy at a meeting in the Oval Office in 1967.
Courtesy of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum
McGeorge Bundy at a meeting in the Oval Office in 1967.

During the past month, pressure has mounted on Obama to seize his Kennedy moment. In Goldstein’s portrait, Kennedy refused the nearly unanimous calls of his advisers for a major increase in U.S. troop levels in Vietnam, insisted that U.S. troops not exceed 16,000 advisers, and limited their mission to intelligence gathering and training the South Vietnamese forces in counter-insurgency tactics.

From Vice President Joseph Biden to conservative columnist George Will, we have heard variations on lessons from Goldstein’s history applied to today’s young president, his advisers and the turning point in the war in Afghanistan. Don’t overstay our welcome. Scale back on U.S. boots on the ground in Afghanistan to a core of Special Forces to train Afghanistan units. Fight terrorism with better intelligence, predator drones and sea-launched missile strikes.

When Sen. John Kerry travelled to Afghanistan this past week to deliver a message to McChrystal, I suspect he had a copy of “Lessons in Disaster” in his carry-on. Or at least, he had a summary of the book written by his staff. 

Although Kerry put the message far more politely, his underlying point was clear. Obama is not going to play Johnson to McChrystal’s Westmoreland.

Two key steps
A policy crafted from analogies to Goldstein’s history can only go so far before it trips on its own hubris.

It is relatively easy for a new generation of “the best and the brightest” to show that it is smart enough not to follow Johnson’s lead one incremental increase in troop strength at a time. It’s far more difficult to find a political ally in Kabul that is worth our support. The same is true for Islamabad.

And it’s nearly impossible to imagine a diplomatic strategy that has the courage and ability to take two necessary steps toward regional cooperation. The Shiite theocracy of Iran must be persuaded that it shares a common enemy with the United States in the form of the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan. India must be persuaded to negotiate a compromise with Pakistan on Kashmir. Pakistan must shift its priorities from preparing to fight again its past wars with India and to relocate the bulk of its armed forces — 80 percent of which today are stationed on the border with India — to today’s very real civil war with the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic movements in the northwestern tribal areas.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/19/2009 - 04:21 pm.

    This excellent article, plus Senator Kerry’s remarks the last day or two, make me hope for an end to a war we cannot win (and whose purpose is ill-defined).

    We may not be able to reduce the number of civilians being killed by drones, however, if we increase their use. And every time we kill a house-full of family members — and MAYBE get one “terrorist” we create only more resistance.

  2. Submitted by William Pappas on 11/08/2009 - 01:39 am.

    I don’t need Goldstein’s “Lessons In Disaster” to draw parallels of our failure in Afghanistan with our defeat in Vietnam. Six hundred thousand troops and 60 thousand American deaths were not enough to occupy and secure a country smaller and less remote than Afghanistan. Remember Nixon’s “Vietnamization”?
    No amount of training could turn around the Viet Cong insurgency that always had popular support against the occupying country. The failure to train Vietnamese security troops was also accompanied by a massive bombing campaign that helped recruit more insurgents. See any comparisons here? The escalation rhetoric by the generals and people like Minnesota Congressman John Kline who keeps talking about “victory” if we escalate with more and more troops is a powerful deja vu. Recent accounts that are finally making the mainstream media portray more accurately the nature of the insurgency and its non-Taliban roots and speak to the ineffectiveness of American military power as it grappels with a nation of thousands of local power and tribal entities bent on protecting their own turf against all invaders, foreign and domestic. In fact it appears, as in Vietnam, that as more troops are placed in the countryside of Afghanistan more insurgents will join the loose organization that is called the Taliban and fight the occupiers. We will be creating war by our very presence that has almost nothing to do with Al Qaeda and tries to perpetuate a corrupt national government with no local enforcement capabilites. Now that the media is finally allowing accurate descriptions of the war and our impotence to effect the outcome the comparisons to Vietnam will be more clear to those not old enough to have lived through the horrendous and self serving lies of the Nixon and Johnson administrations and their successive generals.

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