Will Afghanistan Be Worse Than Vietnam? 7 Tough Questions to Ask Obama Before He Sinks Us Into a New Quagmire
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It didn't take long. Only 11 days after Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, a Newsweek cover story proclaimed the Afghan War "Obama's Vietnam." And there wasn't even a question mark. As John Barry and Evan Thomas wrote grimly in that January piece, "[T]here 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." In the two and a half months since that piece appeared, the President and his advisors have, in fact, doubled-down on what is increasingly the Af-Pak War -- with the expanding fighting in Pakistan's tribal borderlands helping to destabilize that regional nuclear power. As a result, it would hardly be surprising if "Obama's Vietnam" became an ever more common refrain in the year ahead.
In a number of ways, however, the Af-Pak War couldn't bear less of a relationship to the Vietnam one. After all, this time around there is no superpower enemy like the Soviet Union or regional power like China supporting and arming the Taliban (or, for that matter, like the United States, which supported and armed the mujahideen to give the Soviets their own "Vietnam" in Afghanistan in the 1980s). In Vietnam, the U.S. faced a North Vietnamese professional army, well-trained, superbly disciplined, and supplied with the best the Soviets and Chinese could produce, including heavy weapons; while the guerrilla organization we fought in South Vietnam, which Americans knew as "the Vietcong," had widespread popular support, was unified, dedicated, well structured, and highly regimented.
The "Taliban," on the other hand, is a rag-tag, under-armed set of largely localized militias adding up to only perhaps 10,000-15,000 armed fighters, loyal to a range of leaders, including the pre-2001 Taliban leadership headed by Mullah Omar, various former mujahideen commanders of the anti-Soviet War, or sometimes just local warlords. Even where firmly lodged itself, the Taliban's support in rural Afghanistan, as far as can be told from what opinion polls exist, is at best unenthusiastic, and based largely on its ability to bring some safety to rural areas the corrupt central government has no control over, and above all, on its ability to present itself as the only real opposition to a foreign military occupation of the country.
Unlike the Vietnamese, the Taliban are largely incapable of bringing down American and NATO planes or helicopters, attacking big American bases, or massing for major offensives of any sort. While growing in strength by every measure available, what they are largely capable of doing, in military terms, is blowing things up via roadside bombs or suicide attacks (which is, of course, no small thing). As a result, American casualties, while serious and possibly due to rise this year (along with Afghan civilian casualties), are exceedingly modest if measured by a Vietnam-era yardstick.
In other words, in scale, the Af-Pak War is unlikely ever to become a real "Vietnam" (Obama's or otherwise). Looked at another way, however, this war may have the capacity to inflict upon the U.S. the kind of defeat that the Vietnamese, for all their strength and nationalist fervor, were incapable of. In a sense, Af-Pak threatens to be, in the personalized terms the American media often favors, not "Obama's Vietnam," but "Obama's Afghanistan" -- that is, our version of the defeat we once helped inflict on the Russians which played a role in breaking the back of the Soviet empire. The U.S. suffered a genuine defeat in Vietnam and its army nearly collapsed in the process, but the American empire and the American economic system stood in no mortal danger from it.