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A Parallel Between Vietnam and Afghanistan?

Gabriel Schoenfeld & Brian Katulis

Is there any parallel between the Vietnam War and the situation in Afghanistan, as some experts are suggesting? Gabriel Schoenfeld and Brian Katulis debate.

Brian Katulis writes:

It is important to learn from our history and draw the right conclusions from our past. But at the same time, we should remember what the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” We can’t assume that what we’re facing today is a carbon copy of what we faced in the past.

What are the similarities between the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars? (Since we have men and women risking their lives in harm’s way serving the country in Afghanistan, I think we need to call it what it is, a war, not a situation).

The similarities—the United States is engaged in a war that has lasted several years. We have now been in Afghanistan for almost eight years (roughly half the time we were in Vietnam), though we lost several years when the Bush administration pulled resources away for an unnecessary war of choice in Iraq. Today in Afghanistan, we’re partnered with a government that lacks legitimacy with wide swathes of the population in that country, which was true of our partners in Vietnam. And support for the war among the American public is divided about Afghanistan, though opposition doesn’t seem to have approached what we saw in Vietnam.

Which leads me to the main differences—first, we’re waging the war in Afghanistan with an all-volunteer military, whereas in Vietnam we had a draft. Having an all-volunteer military in a sense insulates many Americans from having a personal connection to the war, and contributes to a less vigorous debate because the costs of war aren’t felt as widely and fully at home. Second, though the war in Afghanistan has been deadly, it seems quite unlikely that we’d ever see the levels of casualties and human costs we saw in Vietnam—millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians killed, and more than 58,000 Americans who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Third, the nature of the threat is fundamentally different in Afghanistan versus what was present in Vietnam. In Afghanistan, we’re not facing anything similar to the North Vietnamese Army—best estimates place the Taliban insurgency somewhere in the 20,000 range.

That’s just a brief sketch in the short space we have here, but the main point is that as we think about today’s challenges in Afghanistan, we should do so with a sense of history and proportion, while keeping our eye on the very real threat posed by terror networks like Al Qaeda, which remains the central challenge there. We should have a vigorous debate about the means—but we should understand that there is little disagreement about the end goal. And empty cheerleading about will and nerve should be recognized for what it is—a distraction from dealing with the real issue of keeping Americans safe, and a sideshow from debating the most effective means to achieve our goals.

And I know, Gabe, that any mention of Vietnam is usually a temptation for many conservatives to yet again politicize national security and bring up old canards about the past. But we’re living in the 21st century now, and a torch has passed to a new generation. Grand conclusions made from historical analogies can help inform our debates, but ultimately we have to think for ourselves and deal with the here and

Gabriel Schoenfeld responds:

Brian, yesterday you descended, unaccountably, from debating to mud-wrestling. I’m glad you’ve returned to civility today.

You have limned some of the obvious similarities and differences between the war in Vietnam and the “situation“—the word you yourself employed on Wednesday before criticizing its use today—in Afghanistan. But you have strangely omitted a couple of the most important facets of the Vietnam war. I hope you do not consider it an “old canard” if I point out that the United States suffered a bitter defeat in Vietnam, and that the consequences of that defeat for those we had supported in the South and in the graveyard that became neighboring Cambodia remain a matter of national shame. The broader strategic consequences of that disaster were felt by the United States for a generation.

President Nixon must bear primary responsibility for our collapse there. His illegal actions in Watergate led to the destruction of executive power and with it an ability to lead the U.S. in wartime. But let us not forget the cheerleading—to use one of your favorite words—for American defeat engaged in by so many here on the Left. You write that now “a torch has passed to a new generation.” In fact, it has passed to an old generation. A significant portion of the Democratic party today seems to be carrying the same defeatist torch they carried back then and they carried again during the second Gulf war.

I can’t resist pointing out, in this connection, Brian, that you, too, have been one of the defeatists. “Stop the Surge: Escalating the War in Iraq is Wrong” is the headline of an article—one of several like it—you wrote in early 2007 just as Gen. David Petraeus began to implement a strategy that has succeeded in a bringing a remarkable degree of tranquility to Iraq and set the stage for an honorable American withdrawal. I tremble when I think of what Iraq would look like, and what the American position in the world would be today, if you and those who think like you had been in the corridors of power at that critical juncture.

Forgive me, then, if I am more than a little skeptical about your analyses of Afghanistan today. It’s a minor point, but some of what you write is strikingly redolent of the technocratic thinking that led us down the wrong course in Vietnam. Your call for an “analytical framework” and “clear metrics” so that we can “objectively measure progress” could be taken almost verbatim from memoranda  written by Robert McNamara, who so badly mismanaged the war under Lyndon Johnson.

What we need more than clear metrics is the national will to achieve the destruction of the Taliban—a mere 20,000 insurgents, as you point out—and the remnants of al Qaeda. President Obama came into office promising a course of action that seemed to be our last best hope of accomplishing these goals. I am hoping he will follow through. If he does,  I will certainly be his cheerleader. But you can keep the pom-poms, Brian, as they fit you very nicely.

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