It may be too strong an adage to say the definition of insanity is to continue to do the same things with the expectation of different results. One question with U.S. foreign policy is whether its presence in Afghanistan is essentially the same as it was in Vietnam.
There may well have been justifications for going into both Vietnam and Afghanistan. In the case of Vietnam, there was a fear of the spread of communism. In 1950 when North Korea unexpectedly and viciously invaded South Korea, the U.S. convinced the United Nations to take immediate action because the aggression was blatant. This was just a year after the Soviet Union had developed and tested its first atomic bomb. China loomed above North Korea as the world’s largest nation. Also, in 1949, it had changed dramatically, when the communists drove the nationalists off the mainland and onto the island of Formosa.
The U.S. was concerned about losing any territory to the communists and had a fear of the so-called “domino the,ory,” in which, after one country was defeated, its neighbor would fall like a domino. Country after country would fall, like a row of dominos until there was a natural or human barrier to stop the falling.
In the case of Korea, there was a natural barrier with the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean. But when communism was making headway in Vietnam, the row of dominos included Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, and possibly India and Pakistan.
France had held Vietnam as a colony prior to World War II and tried to regain control after the war. It also tried to stop the hemorrhaging of communism in Southeast Asia. However, by 1954, it was clear that their efforts were fruitless, and they withdrew.
We’ve recently heard more about the theory of “American exceptionalism.” It’s the idea is that the United States is capable of doing things that other countries can’t. It’s true in some regards, but not all. When it came to Vietnam, the U.S. may have fought with more commitment, better strategy, and more skill from its armed forces, but the result was essentially the same as the French. American exceptionalism failed.
Now we are in Afghanistan. Our motives were initially sound, trying to track down Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, perpetrators of the horrific nine eleven attack. The U.S. actually was successful at first, nearly caught bin Laden, and inflicted considerable damage on al Qaeda and its partners in the Taliban. But then President George Bush and his neo-con friends did the inexplicable. They essentially gave up on Afghanistan and redirected their focus and forces to Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with nine eleven. One of the costs of the American incursion into Iraq was that valuable time was lost in Afghanistan and the United States was not accomplishing its goals.
President Barack Obama largely fulfilled his promise for U.S. combat troops to leave Iraq, albeit at a slower pace than many wanted. However, for reasons that baffled progressives, he escalated the American presence in Afghanistan long after the war had become unwinnable. Even with remarkable hi-tech equipment and dedicated troops, the best that could be said of progress was that it was at a stalemate.
It was on his watch that Osama bin Laden was tracked down and killed. But in retrospect, that had little to do with Afghanistan. Bin Laden had been hiding out in Pakistan for more than five years. American intelligence found him, though there was some doubt if they had it right. Obama did give the green light for the capture or kill operation, and due to remarkable work by Navy Seal Team Six, bin Laden was found and “neutralized.”
While the number of American combat troops in Afghanistan is being reduced, a new projected end point is 2024. The question remains, what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan? Has the U.S. not learned the lessons of Iraq and of Vietnam as well?
Part of the American experience in Afghanistan has involved horrible atrocities. As Scott Camil reports in a special opinion piece to CNN, similar acts of brutality and inhumanity occurred in Vietnam. Is that the nature of war, particularly one in which “victory” is only a possibility and difficult to define?
There is a multitude of differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan, beginning with the terrain. But both involve corrupt governments, questionable soldiers for the “host countries” and a lack of support from many American civilians.
As journalist Dan Rather said in his recent book, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News:
I wish I could say that Afghanistan is better. Perhaps we might have learned in Vietnam how difficult if not impossible it is to remake a society. Now that we are in our second decade in Afghanistan, however, the familiar echoes of Vietnam are sounding louder and more haunting. We are fighting massive government corruption, trying to revamp the Afghan legal system, trying to teach literacy, trying to improve the status of women, trying to oversee free elections. We are once again hearing about the need to win the hearts and minds of the people. Afghanistan and Vietnam are different. The only thing that is the same is the mistakes we made in both situations. How quickly we forget.
Barack Obama is considered intelligent and cautious. It appears that in the case of Afghanistan, caution is trumping intelligence. He certainly is knowledgeable about what Vietnam did to the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. As always, he may know far more than any observers. But there is still tremendous doubt that staying longer in Afghanistan will render any more success than it did in Vietnam. It will be interesting to see how he handles this issue, both as president, and in his future memoirs.
Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.