The Conclusion Of The Afghan War Is Being Carefully Staged.
No amount of pressure or protest is going to alter the political scenario that has been developed.
Such actions can only serve to insure that no convenient excuse to extending our stay becomes acceptable.
That last statement is based upon the assumption that I see no mass movement ready to rise beyond the level of theater and engage in 60s like actions.
The words will fly, the protests will get minimal press; Congress will no intervene to alter the current plans and the best we can hope for given the general populous and congressional incompetence and cowardice is that that the 2010 and 2012 election cycles will provide sufficient motivation to disengage.
There is no denial that that the Presidential Address at West Point was a skillfully tooled” wordsmith-at-its-best”No amount of pressure or protest is going to alter events and cause a more rapid withdrawal than speech. There were essentially no surprises as so much had been leaked in the days preceding, but there is so much more inherent in the words that require skillful and candid analysis, not “day-after-advocacy-punditry”.
The “advocacy/tabloid-type media” has already begun its assault and insult to the general intelligence of serious Americans. John McCain has already made it clear that he is not on board as no exit strategy time table is acceptable to him, but then we already knew he was prepared to fight on Iraq and Afghanistan for 100 years if necessary to win.
The conservative bullshit media has already had a hissy fit over the fact that President Obama never once used the word…win last night.
That which is immediately clear is that:
(1) 30,000 additional American troops will be sent to the Afghan theater as rapidly as possible and that members of the arm-twisted coalition of “friends “will be panhandled to come up with as much of the additional 10,000 to reach General McChrystal’s demands, if and as soon as possible.
(2) The strategy calls for the cessation of our involvement in the Afghanistan conflict, (in large measure) by the 2012 election cycle…more on that matter later.
(3) Additional funds provided to both Pakistan and Afghanistan will not be thrown at the leaders of those nations to play with but will “Project-like” allocated locally.
(4) Kanadhar will become the showcase theater of operations initially as it been left to go to hell for 8 years after its initial importance. It is more manageable and and will serve as the center of efforts to curry favor, support and cooperation from the predominantly Pashtun populous. Additionally, Kanadhar makes logistical sense as a staging area for “the final chapter” in this fiasco. We currently have no staging area in Afghanistan and we will need a staging base for the huge amount of machinery and weaponry already having departed from Tampa.
(5) There is a great deal sham rhetoric involved in the “Afghan training” concept. We will carry that mission forward as best as possible and accept the final level of expertise and competence as our “job-well-done” upon departure.
(6) The “make nice partner” talk about Afghan and Pakistani leadership is pure Oscar Meyer Bologna. This administration has no faith in then and even less trust.
(7) It is now clear that the theater of action in not simply Afghanistan, but Pakistan and Afghanistan as the extremist element that hates our guts has a greater base of safe haven operation in Pakistan than it does in Afghanistan.
(8) The President was tack on with his focus on the SWAT Valley and Waziristan. The problem here is that even if you clear the valley, doubtful, and somehow, (Opium pipe dream), herd a greater portion of “the enemy” into Waziristan with the intent of their annihilation in that area; you are looking at an impossible task that will require massive destructive failure destined assault with unbelievable Genocidal collateral damage that would accompany a massive deployment of MOAB and MOP weapons.
(9) Uniform support of a continuation of our involvement in Afghanistan will not happen. The nation has become war weary. Flag-draped coffins arriving on our shores, now visible to America on a few TV media outlets will, deliberately so, add to that flagging of support. The right wants VICTORY; whatever the hell that means, and I suspect, (tongue in cheek), that it means the continuation of fierce military action through the 2012 election cycle where the horrors of war will then be depicted by the right as the failure of “Obama’s War”…it is his now.
(10) Candor dictates that I move on; digress for a bit, to put things in perspective.
If there is any saving grace in this moment in history, it is the fact that Barack Obama is an intelligent human being with a keen sense of and awareness of history. Hack media have almost worn the Vietnam War Quagmire analogy thread bare with their veneer dept intellect and near drunken drooling babblings. There is much of substance and lesson in that experience that is at play in the decision at hand. So let us explore that experience and our withdrawal from that debacle.
We should never have been involved in that war. But like all Macho, Patriotic American Wars we entered it with the bravado of Barry Sadler’s “Ballad Of The Green Beret” and finished that war with Cher/Dylan’s “Masters Of War”, killings at Kent State, a nation so divided that it despised its own soldiers and as close to a second Revolutionary War as this nation has ever been. Continuation would have ushered in that event.
But even before the fabric of our society was torn by events the decision to withdraw had been made but intervening events prevented our timely exit.
Time has a way of every so often revealing the truth, unfortunately after the fact. The 1990s saw the gaps in the declassified record on Vietnam filled in—with spring 1963 plans for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces. An initial 1000 man pullout (of the approximately 17,000 stationed in Vietnam at that time) was initiated in October 1963, though it was diluted and rendered meaningless in the aftermath of Kennedy's death. The longer-range plans called for complete withdrawal of U. S. forces and a "Vietnamization" of the war, scheduled to happen largely after the 1964 elections.
The debate over whether withdrawal plans were underway in 1963 is now settled. What remains contentious is the "what if" scenario. What would Kennedy have done if he lived, given the worsening situation in Vietnam after the coup which resulted in the assassination of Vietnamese President Diem?
At the core of the debate is this question: Did President Kennedy really believe the rosy picture of the war effort being conveyed by his military advisors. Or was he onto the game, and instead couching his withdrawal plans in the language of optimism being fed to the White House?
We might ask, appropriately: does President Obama really believe the crap shoveled by General McChrystal and the corporate hawks of this nation, or has he faced the reality of the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan and authored his own scenario for closure, willing to accept the criticism of friends and allies for the moment and prepared to slap down the advance of hawks in the end?
As regards Kennedy at a similar crossroads; the landmark book JFK and Vietnam asserted the latter, that Kennedy knew he was being deceived and played a deception game of his own, using the military's own rosy analysis as a justification for withdrawal. Newman's analysis, with its dark implications regarding JFK's murder, has been attacked from both mainstream sources and even those on the left. No less than Noam Chomsky devoted an entire book to disputing the thesis.
But declassifications since Newman's 1992 book have only served to buttress the thesis that the Vietnam withdrawal, kept under wraps to avoid a pre-election attack from the right, was Kennedy's plan regardless of the war's success. New releases have also brought into focus the chilling visions of the militarists of that era—four Presidents were advised to use nuclear weapons in Indochina. A book by David Kaiser, American Tragedy, shows a military hell bent on war in Asia.
The Vietnam War, instead of ending before it began in earnest, bloomed in the mid-1960s into a nightmare conflict that consumed 58,000 American lives and an unknown number of Vietnamese in the millions. Within America, the divide over the war existed not only in the streets but also within the halls of power, where many decided that the cost was too high.
The divide over foreign policy which smoldered during Kennedy's Presidency was not limited to Vietnam. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, military leaders were adamant that the missiles be taken out and Cuba invaded. They were joined in their advocacy by other prominent men of the day, including former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and future Warren Commissioner Richard Russell. It was not learned until a few years ago that tactical nuclear missiles were also present on the island, and Soviet commanders had standing orders allowing their use in defending an invasion of Cuba. The less drastic blockade option which was chosen, vigorously opposed by the hawks, probably averted World War III.
One of the questions posed here is whether the assassination of President Kennedy was rooted in this deep foreign policy divide. Such questions are by their nature speculative and circumstantial. Nonetheless, a close reading of the history of the period, particularly in the light of long-delayed declassifications, makes that chilling possibility seem all too likely.
You've heard this same assertion from liberals over the years, right? But as pointed out in a February 2007 op-ed in the Providence Journal, some of us older than Kennedy (born in July 1967) remember Nixon's actions a bit differently --
Some would count this among the few welcome changes of the Obama presidency -- liberals getting honest about Nixon; the truth is, however, that Kennedy knew the fight was over, Johnson had a poor grasp of foreign policy and failed on the Vietnam issue and Nixon could not move fast enough to avert major social upheaval. Everyone knew the gig was up!
BELITTLING THE PAST....There are probably bigger things to worry about, but this particular passage from Howard Fineman's comparison of Vietnam and Iraq bugged me: http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/summary.cfm?q=377
In Vietnam, the threat posed by our departure was always difficult for Americans to grasp, even though they had been schooled in Red Scare thinking for a generation. According to the "domino theory," a Vietnam in Communist hands would inevitably lead to Communist domination of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim—all the way, presumably, to the Embarcadero.
If you knew the history and the local politics you knew this was a fiction: the Vietnamese hated and feared the Chinese, and the Russians weren't going to be able to control the region. Americans never really bought the "domino theory. LBJ's (and later Richard Nixon's) political enemies had no trouble eventually offering a rather simple alternative strategy: get out, or, as Sen. George McGovern put it, "Come Home America."
But what is the alternative now, in Iraq? Few Democrats, let alone Republicans, are willing to agree at this point with Sen. Russ Feingold, who has called for a short, specific timetable for American withdrawal. Few experts think that leaving tomorrow would make the country less of a breeding ground for Islamic extremist terror.
This kind of rose-colored view of past problems is a common rhetorical gambit among pundits who want to make a case that our generation's problems are somehow uniquely complex and intractable. Hell, folks over at NRO, of all places, wax almost nostalgic for the Cold War because it was allegedly a simpler time when it was just us and the Russians, and really, we knew how to handle them all along.
In this case, either Fineman's wrong or I am, and I'm happy to open this up to commenters for adjudication. My memory is that (1) far from realizing the domino theory was a fiction, lots of people in the 60s took it deadly seriously, (2) even as late as 1972 McGovern's supposedly simple alternative was never supported by either the "experts" or a majority of Americans, and (3) we largely stayed in Vietnam out of a fear of looking weak in the face of a deadly and expansionist enemy.
In other words, Vietnam looked exactly as hard back then as Iraq does now. In Iraq we have an insurgency we don't know how to beat (check); we're afraid that if the insurgency wins it will spread to other countries (check); and we're afraid that if we leave we'll look spineless (check).
Those fears turned out to be exaggerated 30 years ago, and they'll probably turn out to be exaggerated again. We just need to be clear-eyed enough to admit to ourselves that today's problems aren't really all that different from yesterday's. They only seem that way.
UPDATE: Mickey Kaus falls into the same trap. Writing about Hillary Clinton's dilemma (should she turn against the war or stay the course?), he says:
Hillary's dilemma is worse, because Iraq isn't Vietnam and the current Beltway consensus she's being asked to denounce is a lot righter than LBJ was. Even mainstream Bush-bashing libs, in my experience, readily recognize that just withdrawing from Iraq now would be a global strategic disaster in a way withdrawing from Vietnam wasn't.
Sure, in hindsight, withdrawing from Vietnam turned out not to be a disaster for the United States. But at the time the beltway consensus among Democrats and Republicans was exactly the same as it is now on Iraq: losing would be a catastrophe that would embolden the communists and demonstrate U.S. weakness in the face of an implacable foe. The beltway crowd in the mid-60s felt every bit as strongly about this then as it does today about Iraq.
Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam. These are words we here with some regularity in today's media. The metaphorical lens through which all contemporary military conflicts must be viewed is Vietnam. For anyone championing a notion of American defeat, this metaphor is indispensable. Vietnam is taken to be a case study in American military failure. It is interesting to carefully examine this metaphor's relationship to current conflicts.
Next door in Cambodia, a man by the name of Pol Pot capitalized on the vacuum of America's abrupt military withdrawal and precipitous rejection of funding for democratic governance. Pol Pot instituted one of the most vicious and swift genocides of the modern era. Killing as many as 3 million people, Cambodia instituted one of the most bizarre spectacles of human hatred, wherein even children were forced to perform the execution of their own parents under the supervision of the Khmer Rouge state. Though American and international media provided front row seats to the carnage, the outcry for international action was easily subdued by political movements for "peace" in Southeast Asia and an end to "American imperialism." The American left helped seal the deal on yet another dark chapter of brother abandoning brother into the outrageous public celebrations of human hatred immortalized by the Khmer Rouge.
And so today, many of us are still wondering what academics and intellectuals are speaking of when they say the magical word of 'Vietnam.' Is this the world that you speak of? When you speak of "peace" and the end of "imperialism," do you mean to confirm the world of abandonment and unmitigated ethnic hatred ? Is the world that looks less like Bagdad, a world that looks more like Rwanda or Darfur? What do your words mean? I would really like to know.
"A military victory in the sense of total control over the whole territory, imposed on the entire population, is not possible," Dr Kissinger said in Tokyo, where he received an honorary degree from Waseda University.
The faceless, ubiquitous nature of Iraq's insurgency, as well as the religious divide between Shiite and Sunni rivals, makes negotiating peace extremely difficult, he said.
But Dr Kissinger, who has also advised Mr Bush on Iraq, warned that a sudden pullout of troops or loss of influence could unleash chaos.
Dr Kissinger said the best way forward was to reconcile the differences between Iraq's warring sects with help from other countries.
He applauded efforts to host a conference bringing together the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Iraq's neighbours, including Washington's longtime rival in the region, Iran.
Thread bare anologies
This coming Tuesday, President Obama will address the nation to justify his strategy in Afghanistan for a war that can’t be won, and that the US, NATO and Canada can’t even afford to wage. General De Gaulle was known for his toughness, his sharp mind and quite often his sarcasms. De Gaulle once said:“You may be sure that the Americans will commit all the stupidities they can think of, plus some that are beyond imagination.”
Even so President Obama is a very intelligent man, his imminent decision to escalate the conflict in Afghanistan by sending what is likely to be an additional 35,000 US troops falls into the predicament described by General De Gaulle decades ago. President Obama describes the war in Afghanistan as a “war of necessity”, just like Lyndon Johnson perceived Vietnam, in the 1960’s, as a “war of necessity” to prevent the spread of communism in what was called, at the time, “the domino effect”.
In Vietnam, just like in Afghanistan, the United States supported corrupt and illegitimate puppet governments. In Afghanistan, both the British empire and the Soviet Union failed to subdue the country despite all their efforts. The Reagan administration appreciated the strength of Afghan nationalist and religious forces when, with American aid, they defeated the Soviet Union, and in the process drained Russia’s resources accelerating the collapse of the USSR.
In a statement issued on November 8, 2009 former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said that President Obama should not increase the US troops level in Afghanistan, but should instead start uniting Afghanistan’s clans, referring to the Afghan government and members of the Taliban. In other words, President Obama shouldn’t send additional troops but instead work to make the Taliban part of the Afghan political process.
“I think that what is needed is not additional forces. This is something that we discussed too, years ago, but we decided not to do it. And I think our experience deserve some attention. Instead of more troops we decided to focus on domestic development, and promoting national reconciliation between the various tribes and clans in the country,” said Gorbachev.
The French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner still hopes to “win hearts and mind with a bullet-proof vest”, and US commander General McChrystal has assured the world that “The American goal in Afghanistan must not be primarily to hunt down and kill Taliban but to protect the population”. A part from their cynicism and lack of logic, these statements are based on the common assumption that social development can be combined with military operation in a country where it is impossible to distinguish between insurgents and civilians. The new strategy that President Obama is about to announce is full of contradictions. To do credible nation building in Afghanistan would require a lot more than 35,000 new troops. But again, how can you do nation building to prop up an illegitimate government, which is by all accounts more corrupt and some time even more violent than the Taliban?
Russia, China, India and Pakistan have no interest in perpetuating this serious regional tension and should be involved to arrange a negotiated settlement between the tribes in Afghanistan. To sacrifice a life for “democracy” on foreign soil is problematic enough, but to die for Hamid Karzai? And to do so when even General McChrystal admits that the “Mayor of Kabul”, hanging on to office by electoral fraud, has actually managed to make may Afghans feel “nostalgic for the security and justice Taliban rule provided”.
In Vietnam, the American journalist Andrew Kopkind summed the kind of counter-insurgency strategy that General McChrystal will try to implement as “candy in the morning, and napalm in the afternoon”. President Obama should have resisted the neoconservatives, still populating the Pentagon, call for military escalation. He should have explained to the US public that it is impossible to secure happiness by bombing people; that there are only a handful of Osama Bin Laden’s followers in Afghanistan; and that US security would not be threaten if a deal could be reached with the less extremist wing of the Taliban.
Unfolding events in Afghanistan have prompted many observers/ self-anointed “pundit experts” to fashion analogies to the American experience in the Vietnam War. The United States has, they argue, stumbled into another overseas quagmire from which there is no easy or cheap exit. On those two points; I am in agreement!
We have stumbled and fumbled, screwed around with that war effort permitting every manner of analysis to poison the decision making process with all of America’s wrapped knee-jerk predispositions without taking a near violent position of opposition to our continued occupation of that land and without admitting our faults, failures and the inevitable stain that will be imprinted on the fabric of this nation’s history because we the people do not have the moral and personal courage to take a 60s like stand.
On the right we have the now insane Teddy Roosevelt/John Wayne super patriot mentality with its assertion that we must win… at whatever body count and whatever necessary atrocity of warfare. It is a pride that defies, flies in the face of all principle and history. Their view is psychotic.
In the center, the heartland of war weariness; we find those who simply find 8 years of bloodshed and the mounting pile of American carnage, the dead bodies of our young now being exposed in limited media coverage, as unacceptable, but not to the extent that can find within themselves the resolve to do anything but bitch and moan. Their anger and aguish does not translate into meaningful action. They vote, again, for those who have once again given the finger to the electorate.
On the left we find the articulate advocates willing to scream, parade, write and petition, harass the congress, participate in token political theater every weekend, but who cannot summon the courage to face tear gas and police batons, serious arrest and protracted legal actions and who counsel against affiliation with those on the left prepared and willing to engage in more than sham resistance. The time for words and educational efforts to persuade American’s of the immorality of our government’s actions and policies is done!
Reasoning by historical analogy is an inherently risky business because no two historical events are completely alike and because policy makers knowledge and use of history are often distorted by ignorance and political bias.
In the case of Afghanistan and Vietnam, extreme caution should be exercised in comparing two wars so far apart in time, locus, and historical circumstances. In fact, a careful examination of the evidence reveals that the differences between the two conflicts greatly outnumber the similarities.
This is especially true in the strategic and military dimensions of the two wars. 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.
Such an emphatic judgment, however, may not apply to at least two aspects of the political dimensions of the Afghanistan and Vietnam wars: attempts at state-building in an alien culture, and sustaining domestic political support in a protracted war against an irregular enemy. We are on the brink of rejecting state-building and domestic support is waning; however, our “leaders” do not feel threatened by our disaffection as they believe we are incapable of anything but complaint. They can do as they will, manipulate and plan a strategy that will find sound bit favor by the 2012 election. Nothing else really matters. We are impotent and simple minded in their perceptions.
It is; of course, far too early predict whether the United States will accomplish its policy objectives in Afghanistan and whether public support will stay the course on Afghanistan. Staying course is defined as not fomenting an uprising against the decisions announced to such an extent that nation is alarmed by the growing tulmult.
Silence is surrender, theater is tolerable, bitching is ignored, and complaint is dismissed; only forcible action cannot be denied response and change!
Policymakers should be mindful of the reasons for U.S. failure to create a politically legitimate and militarily viable state in South Vietnam, as well as for the Johnson and Nixon administration’s failure to sustain sufficient domestic political support for the accomplishment of U.S. political objectives in Indochina. Repetition of those failures in Afghanistan will have disastrous consequences for U.S. foreign policy. Such failures will have genocidal consequences upon our withdrawal in Afghanistan. We have not only released the Genie Of Violence from the bottle, given vindication and validation to extremist Muslim elements; we have smashed the bottle. The world will time and again pay a price for our folly.
We are not going to kill every extremist bent on revenge and self perpetuation, not even in a nuclear devastation in the area. We cannot win this war in the near term and the long range correction and settlement will be costly. We have asked for it and we will have to bear the price of years of diplomacy and negotiation, years of restoring our image and creations of new understandings, tolerations and acceptances of cultural/historical differences and divides.
It is of minimal importance whether we identify individuals and organizations as Taliban or Al Queida, mark them as enemies, brand them as terrorists and scream to the high heavens that they must killed as a matter of our nation’s safety and survival; it is more important that we recognize and accept that though there are religious, philosophical, cultural, attitudinal components of some Muslim groups that we despise, that we cannot change those things by force of arms and that if and when changes to those disagreeable components are accomplished, they will be caused by the demands of those who live, as would see it, under the yoke of extremist oppression. We rose up against England for many reasons, not all altruistic, but we did it. They will have to fend for themselves and evolve within their own culture. We cannot impose our model of right and righteous upon a foreign culture thought we are given to similar attempts and attitudes within our own.
We are to the world a people given to occupation, conquest and imposition at home and abroad despite all altruistic lip service to the contrary. Let us right our own house; let us permit others to decide what their houses, homes and nations should be. We can hardly be serious in our tirades against government corruption and the need to correct such matters given our own daily experience.
Many of those who questioned the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and now doubt the chances of creating a stable and prosperous democracy in that country…duh…
Conversely, proponents of the Afghan War and optimists over Afghanistan’s future have dismissed the Vietnam analogy as misleading, even irrelevant.
For them, the differences between the two wars vastly outnumber the similarities; the appropriate analogy is not Vietnam, but rather the total destruction of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and their transformation into democratic allies. That is simply an irrational position. For such to be true, even remotely possible, would mean that this nation by an overwhelming force of arms and assault of such devastatingly destructive proportions would be willing and able to reduce Afghanistan to the rubble to World War Capitals and nations.
Still others believe some elements of Vietnam are present in Afghanistan--e.g., both wars involved counterinsurgency operations, but not others--e.g., there is no counterpart in the Afghan War to North Vietnam, and that the non-analogous elements dominate.
The Vietnam War’s entry into the debate over the Afghan War and its aftermath probably was inevitable. The Vietnam War continues to influence American attitudes toward the use of force overseas, and the analogy of Vietnam has been a staple of critics of U.S. intervention in foreign internal wars since the fall of Saigon in 1975. The Vietnam War was moreover a defining foreign policy event for the generation of political and military leaders now in power. It was also the last major counterinsurgency experience of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, which re-encountered the counterinsurgency mission in Iraq.
Are there instructive comparisons between the U.S. military and political experiences in Vietnam in the 1960s and the challenges it faces in Iraq today? If so, can those comparisons usefully inform current U.S. policy in Iraq? Are there lessons from America?s defeat in Vietnam that can be applied to promote U.S. success in Iraq? Indeed, what were the lessons of the Vietnam War?
At first glance the contrasts between the Vietnam and Iraq wars would seem to overwhelm the similarities. To begin with, Vietnam in the 1960s was a country with a long national history and powerful national identity forged by centuries of fierce resistance to foreign rule and domination. The Communists had successfully mobilized that nationalism against the French (as they were subsequently to do against the United States) and had developed a doctrine of protracted irregular warfare that pitted Vietnamese strengths against Western weaknesses. In contrast, Iraq is a relatively young state plagued by ethnic and religious divisions that threaten national unity.
In Vietnam the United States went to war with a pre-Goldwater Nichols conscript military against a highly experienced, skilled, disciplined, and operationally flexible enemy that enjoyed enormous external material support and considerable international legitimacy. In Iraq, highly-professional U.S. joint forces quickly overwhelmed a politically isolated and militarily incompetent foe. Additionally, whereas in Vietnam the nature of war evolved from an insurgency into a predominantly conventional conflict, in Iraq it moved exactly--and quickly--in the opposite direction, from major conventional combat into an insurgent war.
The nature of insurgent warfare in Vietnam and Iraq also differed. In Vietnam, the Communists waged a classic, peasant-based, centrally directed, three-stage, Maoist model insurgency, culminating in a conventional military victory. The Communists also had a clear and well-publicized political, economic, and social agenda. In Iraq, small, scattered, and disparate groups wage a much smaller-scale war of ambushes, assassinations, car bombings, and sabotage against U.S. and other coalition forces and reconstruction targets, including Iraqis collaborating with coalition forces. Nor do the insurgents have an explicit set of war aims.
U.S. war aims and freedom of military action were also much more limited in Vietnam than they are in Iraq. The United States sought only to defend South Vietnam, not overthrow North Vietnam. American military power in Indochina moreover was checked by the threat of Chinese intervention, and more broadly by the Soviet threat worldwide. Today, the United States enjoys uncontested global military primacy and seeks nothing less than revolutionary regime change in Iraq.
In Vietnam, the United States committed a peak-strength force of over 500,000 troops and withdrew after 8 years of major combat operations that incurred 58,000 American dead and 305,000 wounded.2 In Iraq, U.S. forces overwhelmed Iraqi military resistance in 3 weeks and continue to conduct operations against a small and manageable insurgency, all at a cost of?as of mid-April 2004?685 dead.
From neither a strategic nor an operational standpoint does there appear to be any significant and meaningful comparison between Iraq and Vietnam. The wars and the backdrop of the global distribution of power against which they were waged were as different as night and day.
It is from the political standpoint that Vietnam may harbor some pertinent lessons, or at least warnings, for U.S. policymakers on Iraq. This seems especially the case in the areas of legitimacy and sustainability. The United States is now seeking to do in Iraq what it failed to do in South Vietnam: create and sustain an indigenous government and political order that the Iraqi people will accept as legitimate and successfully fight to defend. The Republic of Vietnam was a Cold War creation of the United States and for its brief and corrupt 20-year history remained utterly dependent for its survival on America military power and economic and technical assistance. As such, it was a politically attractive target to the Communists, who claimed that the regime in Saigon was illegitimate. In the end, there were simply not enough South Vietnamese who were prepared to fight, and if necessary die, to preserve the non-Communist political order as it was then configured.
It did not help, of course, that the United States eventually abandoned South Vietnam to its fate, which brings us to the issue of sustainability. The Communist strategy of protracted war succeeded in part because it correctly identified the American center of gravity as public opinion. The limited and abstract nature of U.S. objectives in Indochina meant that there were limits to the domestic political sustainability of the American war effort. Over time, the combination of continuing losses of blood and treasure with no apparent definitive policy progress turned public and congressional opinion against the war, at least as it was being conducted. This situation prompted a steady withdrawal of U.S. forces and accession to a negotiated settlement that effectively abandoned South Vietnam to its Communist foe. (The Paris Peace Accord of January 1973 mandated the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from South Vietnam, while leaving in place there over 200,000 North Vietnamese Army troops. Under the circumstances, it was unrealistic to expect South Vietnamese forces alone to accomplish what U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had failed to accomplish after 8 years of major combat operations.)
State-building in Iraq is still a work in progress, and it is impossible at this juncture to make conclusive judgments on the domestic political sustainability of U.S. policy in Iraq. Though the United States incurred unexpected casualties and occupation costs in post-Saddam Iraq, they bear no comparison with those of the Vietnam War. On the other hand, by virtue of the Vietnam War (and subsequent failed interventions in Lebanon and Somalia), U.S. public and congressional tolerance levels for protracted, indecisive conflict are not what they were in 1965.
This monograph seeks to identify and examine key comparisons between the challenges the United States faces in Iraq today and those it confronted in Vietnam for the purpose of offering historical insights to U.S. policymakers responsible for policy and operations in Iraq. We believe that differences between Iraq and Vietnam can be just as important as similarities in providing policy insights.
The monograph assesses differences and similarities in the following areas: relative U.S. military power; war aims; nature, duration, and scale of the war; U.S. manpower loss rates; the enemy; military operations; pacification; role of indigenous and international allies; challenges of state-building; and challenges of sustaining domestic political support. It ends with conclusions and recommendations.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
1. Though policymakers instinctively turn to what they think history teaches about what to do, or not do, in a given foreign policy situation, reasoning by historical analogy is an inherently risky business. No two historical situations are identical, and policymakers? knowledge of history is often poor. Policymakers are, in any event, predisposed to embrace analogies, however faulty, that support preferred policy.
Thus proponents of the Iraq War embraced the Munich analogy (and the success of U.S. state-building in Japan and Germany), whereas opponents of war warned of another Vietnam. Operation IRAQI FREEDOM achieved the ?Munich? objective of eliminating a regime that proponents believed posed a gathering threat to the United States. Yet satisfaction of that objective simply confronted the United States with the unexpectedly costly and difficult challenges of state-building in circumstances of ongoing insurgent violence that some were prepared to label a Vietnam-like quagmire.
2. The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime cannot be repealed. As in Vietnam in 1965, U.S. power and prestige have been massively committed in Iraq, and it is incumbent upon the United States try its best to leave behind in Iraq a ?better peace? than it found there, even if that means reconsidering some ambitious U.S. objectives in Iraq. What if, for example, the United States is forced to choose between stability and democracy in that volatile country? Many experts believe that genuine democracy lies beyond the power and patience of the United States to create in Iraq. If so, both Americans and Iraqis might have to settle for some form of benign quasi-authoritarian rule along the lines of Kemal Ataturk?s Turkey, Anwar Sadat?s Egypt, and King Hussein?s Jordan, perhaps as a prolonged transition to more representative governance.
However, under no circumstances--other than the descent of Iraq into uncontrollable civil war--should the United States abandon Iraq as it did South Vietnam in 1975. Indeed, abandonment would seem a near-guarantee of civil war, which could be a worse state of affairs for the average Iraqi than even the Stalinist tyranny of Saddam Hussein.
3. Policymakers must recognize that the differences between Iraq and Vietnam greatly outweigh the similarities, especially in the military dimensions of the two conflicts. That said, it would be a mistake to underestimate Iraqi insurgents as the United States did the Vietnamese Communists in Indochina. After all, the very appearance of an insurgency after the termination of major U.S. combat operations surprised many. Moreover, though the nature, size, and appeal of the Iraqi insurgency bears no comparison to its Vietnamese Communist counterpart (except in so far as both insurgencies are expressions of irregular warfare), the Iraqi insurgency has so far and with increasing skill attacked targets that are key to Iraq?s successful reconstruction.
Dismissing the insurgents as ?terrorists? and ?dead-enders? overlooks the potentially dangerous downstream political consequences of establishing a large American force presence in an Arab heartland and attempting to transform Iraq into a pro-Western democracy. It was not expected that the minority Sunni Arab community would welcome a post-Saddam Iraq in which it no longer enjoyed a monopoly of power; but neither was it expected that U.S. postwar policies in Iraq would alienate many Shi?ites-- some of them to the point of armed resistance, raising the prospect of a two-front insurgency.
4. Policymakers must also recognize and understand the two most instructive dimensions of the Vietnam analogy for the current situation in Iraq: the challenges of state-building, and the need to maintain sufficient domestic political support. On these two matters, the lessons of Vietnam need to be studied. State-building in Iraq could fail for the same principal reason it failed in South Vietnam: inability to create a political order commanding popular legitimacy. Nor should open-ended domestic political support be taken for granted.
The late President Richard Nixon once remarked: ?When a president sends American troops off to war, a hidden timer starts to run. He has a finite period of time to win the war before the people grow weary of it.?
If one were to follow the Vietnam War analogy, U.S. forces are in the spring of 1966--still 2 years away from the Tet Offensive, and almost 7 years away from the final U.S. military withdrawal from the conflict. However, the decision makers of 1965 could take for granted more sustainable levels of public support precisely because they did not, in contrast to the decision makers of 2003, have the cautionary experience of the Vietnam War behind them.
5. Policymakers also should not take for granted the absence of hostile external state intervention in Afghanistan. The absence of a North Vietnam analog in could change, depending on the course of events. For example, Iran, which has strong state and theocratic interests in Iraq and Afghanistan that have so far been well-served by the U.S. destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime and the subsequent disorder in Iraq that has tied down U.S. ground forces that might otherwise have been available to threaten regime change in Teheran, is well-positioned to sponsor accelerated chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran has no interest in the resurrection of a powerful Iraq, and certainly not a democratic, pro-Western Iraq, and it has enough Revolutionary Guards and intelligence operatives to get tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites on the streets to protest the U.S. occupation. It also has assumed the same position as regards Afghanistan. Turmoil within Iran and the ever present Israeli cross hairs positioned on that nation serve only to bolster Iran's witches brew kettle stirring. That is not healthy.