Sunday, February 01, 2009

Obama’s Vietnam

by John Barry and Evan Thomas
Newsweek
January 31, 2009

About a year ago, Charlie Rose, the nighttime talk-show host, was interviewing Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the military adviser at the White House coordinating efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. "We have never been beaten tactically in a fire fight in Afghanistan," Lute said. To even casual students of the Vietnam War, his statement has an eerie echo. One of the iconic exchanges of Vietnam came, some years after the war, between Col. Harry Summers, a military historian, and a counterpart in the North Vietnamese Army. As Summers recalled it, he said, "You never defeated us in the field." To which the NVA officer replied: "That may be true. It is also irrelevant."

Vietnam analogies can be tiresome. To critics, especially those on the left, all American interventions after Vietnam have been potential "quagmires." But sometimes clichés come true, and, especially lately, it seems that the war in Afghanistan is shaping up in all-too-familiar ways. The parallels are disturbing: the president, eager to show his toughness, vows to do what it takes to "win." The nation that we are supposedly rescuing is no nation at all but rather a deeply divided, semi-failed state with an incompetent, corrupt government held to be illegitimate by a large portion of its population. The enemy is well accustomed to resisting foreign invaders and can escape into convenient refuges across the border. There are constraints on America striking those sanctuaries. Meanwhile, neighboring countries may see a chance to bog America down in a costly war. Last, there is no easy way out.

True, there are important differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam. The Taliban is not as powerful or unified a foe as the Viet Cong. On the other hand, Vietnam did not pose a direct national-security threat; even believers in the "domino theory" did not expect to see the Viet Cong fighting in San Francisco. By contrast, while not Taliban themselves, terrorists who trained in Afghanistan did attack New York and Washington in 2001. Afghanistan has always been seen as the right and necessary war to fight—unlike, for many, Iraq. Conceivably, Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the successful surge in Iraq and now, as the head of Central Command in charge of the fight in Afghanistan, could pull off another miraculous transformation.

Privately, Petraeus is said to reject comparisons with Vietnam; he distrusts "history by analogy" as an excuse not to come to grips with the intricacies of Afghanistan itself. But there is this stark similarity: in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, we may now be facing a situation where we can win every battle and still not win the war—at least not within a time frame and at a cost that is acceptable to the American people.

A wave of reports, official and unofficial, from American and foreign (including Afghan) diplomats and soldiers, present and former, all seem to agree: the situation in Afghanistan is bad and getting worse. Some four decades ago, American presidents became accustomed to hearing gloomy reports like that from Vietnam, although the public pronouncements were usually rosier. John F. Kennedy worried to his dying day about getting stuck in a land war in Asia; LBJ was haunted by nightmares about "Uncle Ho." In the military, now as then, there are a growing number of doubters. But the default switch for senior officers in the U.S. military is "can do, sir!" and that seems to be the light blinking now. In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, when in doubt, escalate. There are now about 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration appear to agree that the number should be twice that a year or so from now.

To be sure, even 60,000 troops is a long way from the half million American soldiers sent to Vietnam at the war's peak; the 642 U.S. deaths sustained so far pale in comparison to the 58,000 lost in Vietnam. Still, consider this: that's a higher death toll than after the first nine years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. And what is troubling is that no one in the outgoing or incoming administration has been able to say what the additional troops are for, except as a kind of tourniquet to staunch the bleeding while someone comes up with a strategy that has a chance of working. The most uncomfortable question is whether any strategy will work at this point.

Read more here.

© 2009 Newsweek, Inc.

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