I’ve spent a good part of the last week re-reading Neil Sheehan’s book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Partly, this is just happenstance; I found a nicely annotated hardback copy in a local used book store. But it’s also because I wanted to look again at the 1962-64 period of the Vietnam War to see how much it resembles our current situation in Afghanistan. I don’t have good news to report.
Starting in earnest in 1962, the U.S. began arming the Viet Cong inadvertently through the strategic hamlet and strategic outpost programs. The communist side in the South was not relying on Chinese or Soviet supplies, except for heavy weapons that could not easily be captured. They got all the guns and ammo they needed simply by taking them from the people the U.S. handed them out to. The strategic hamlet program turned the peasants against the Saigon regime for good. Indiscriminate bombing of villages turned the rural populace into mortal foes of the United States. The cities were lost because the Catholic regime was brutal, corrupt, and attempted to crush the power of the Buddhist leadership.
The parallels to Afghanistan are not perfect, but the situations have enough commonality to give serious pause. The most worrisome feature is the corruption and illegitimacy of the Karzai Regime. If this was 1963, our ambassador would be plotting a coup to make sure Karzai and his opium-selling brother were assassinated and replaced by a (hopefully) more competent and popular successor. But, with hindsight, we know that that gambit didn’t save South Vietnam and it probably wouldn’t save Afghanistan either.
Another commonality is the weakness of the Afghan National Army. Like the ARVN before it, the Afghan Army is losing the countryside to a more determined and dedicated foe. It’s undermanned, most of its troops are AWOL, and it serves a corrupt and incompetent government. We tried to turn the ARVN into a lethal fighting force for two decades, and we failed. If the Afghan Army is going to turn out better, we need to know why.
Like Lyndon Johnson, President Obama has to take over the war planning from a previous president. He still has some of the same advisers that Bush relied upon. He’s being urged to make a major investment in troops to salvage a deteriorating situation. It’s no wonder he’s just rejected all of the options presented to him by his national security team. Obama is demanding the kinds of answers that were never answered in 1964-65 when the decision was made to escalate in Vietnam. Namely, how are these investments going to change the basic reality that the central government is weak, corrupt, and illegitimate?
Now, the one big difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam is that the Taliban are not considered to be heroes like Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh armies were by the Vietnamese. The Taliban don’t have nationwide legitimacy, and they are openly feared and loathed by most of the Afghan population. In that sense, we can be sure that we aren’t fighting on the wrong side of this war. But we can’t be sure that we will be any more successful, because there is little evidence that we can be at any realistic price.
I hope Obama holds out until he has a plan that makes sense and has a definite end point.