I worked in the Obama administration
as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan through September 2009, covering much
of the timeframe of Bob Woodward's new book Obama's Wars. I was one of
several holdovers who helped provide continuity from the previous administration.
This is the first in a series of posts responding to the book and to the administration's
Afghanistan policy. I did not personally witness most of the discussions that
Woodward describes, but I typically received detailed readouts from those who
did. I also left just prior to the fall 2009 strategy review, and I do maintain
relationships with some of the people mentioned herein. With those disclaimers,
I think the book is quite accurate in tone and substance.
The most damning insight of the
book is not the inter-office gossip -- e.g., who is a "waterbug" or who thinks
Holbrooke is "arrogant." That stuff
happens in every administration, every professional workplace, and, frankly,
every gathering of human beings. More damning is the poor quality of discussion
at the principals' level. The president himself said as much himself at one point,
according to Woodward, expressing displeasure with the strategy review. The principals'
discussion wandered back and forth, re-trod the same ground again and again
without fresh insights, failed to resolve basic questions, and ultimately
settled on a policy that reflected compromise, large assumptions, and the
search for a least-common-denominator consensus.
I want to focus on just one example
today. According to Woodward, Vice President Joe Biden and, separately, Deputy
Secretary of State Jim Steinberg were concerned that Afghanistan was becoming "another
Vietnam." Such concerns led them and
others to argue against troop increases and in favor of limiting U.S. goals and
commitments in the region.
Let me take a moment to shoot this
particularly slow-moving, barrel-bound fish. In 2004 a Strategic Studies
on the comparison of Iraq and Vietnam concluded that "There is simply no
comparison between the strategic environment, the scale of military operations,
the scale of losses incurred, the quality of enemy resistance, the role of
enemy allies, and the duration of combat." Much less apt is the comparison between Afghanistan
Different Strategic Environments. Vietnam
was a proxy war between two superpowers overlaid on top of a national
liberation movement. As a consequence, the North Vietnamese had the almost
limitless resources and public support of a superpower behind them, and the
risk of escalation was a very real danger. The U.S. intervention was unilateral
and lacked broad international legitimacy. The conflict in Afghanistan is
an international counterterrorism operation mixed up in a tribal civil war. The
Taliban have comparatively few resources and there is no risk of escalation
with a sponsoring superpower. The Afghan war is a contest between a coalition
of states operating under U.N. authorization and a network of non-state actors. In
this sense the Afghan war and the related global counterterrorism efforts are
more like the successful British-led efforts against piracy and slaving in the
19th century than to Vietnam.
Different Operational and Tactical
Environments. The North Vietnamese fielded a conventional army with tanks,
artillery, and air power. The unconventional Viet Cong
insurgency was a supporting effort that either faded away or was defeated
after 1968. In Afghanistan,
the insurgency is the only effort. In this respect Afghanistan
is more akin to the U.S.-Philippine War of 1898-1913 (which the United States won) than to Vietnam.
Different Ideological Environment. The
North Vietnamese fought with the fervor of a people seeking unity and
independence. The Pashtun do not. They are not united and, perhaps because they
have already lived under the Taliban government, there is no widespread fervor
for their cause.
Different Scale. The United States deployed over a half-million
troops to Vietnam
at the peak of the war. The North and South Vietnamese fielded armies of several hundred
thousand each. Over 58,000 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese were
killed. Afghanistan is a minor sideshow compared to Vietnam. The United States has deployed just over 100,000
troops, one-fifth of the deployment in Vietnam. Just over 1,000 Coalition
troops have been killed, one of the smallest figures of any war in U.S. history. Afghan
casualties probably number in the high thousands or low tens of thousands. The
most pessimistic estimates suggest there are at most 25,000 or so Taliban
fighters. This is not to make light of the loss of life, but to highlight that
there is no comparison to Vietnam.
There are some superficial
similarities between Afghanistan
and Vietnam. These similarities only highlight all the more why the comparison
"Open-Ended Commitment." It is true that the wars in both Afghanistan and Vietnam involved uncertainty about
when they would end. But that is simply a feature of war. Wars are not fought
on timetables. World War II was an "open-ended commitment." Soldiers were deployed "for the duration,"
and the Allies were committed to fighting until achieving victory, whenever that
was to happen.
Counterinsurgency and State-Building. The
wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam both involved what the U.S. military calls "foreign internal defense"
and "security assistance" alongside civilian efforts to foster good governance
to support U.S.
war efforts. In other words, we were fighting an unconventional war, training
foreign forces, and doing development and reconstruction all at the same time. The
blend is rare and difficult, but it is neither unique nor impossible. The U.S.
Army and Marines successfully implemented one or more of those elements in the
American West in the 19th century, during Reconstruction in the
South after the Civil War, in the Philippines after the War of 1898, and in the
Banana Wars across the Caribbean in the early 20th century. These
are unglamorous and unremembered chapters in U.S. military history, but they are
true nonetheless. Afghanistan is not "another Vietnam":
it is the latest in a long line of America's Savage
Wars of Peace.
Afghanistan does not resemble Vietnam in the
international context; in the strategic, operational, tactical, or ideological
dimensions; in the reason the war was fought, or how it was fought; in the type and
number of enemy; in the role of our allies and rivals; or in virtually any other
respect. Vietnam has almost nothing to teach us that is applicable to the
conflict in Afghanistan
aside from which counterinsurgency tactics work and which do not. The fact that
some administration officials allowed the shadow of Vietnam to color its debate
over Afghanistan is a worrying sign that they are paying more attention to the
image of the war than the reality of it, and that they are letting the "last
war" influence the present one. Policymakers often reason by historical
analogy, and they are almost always wrong. The closest analogy to Vietnam is not the American war in Afghanistan,
but the Soviet one. To state the obvious: We are not the Soviets, and our involvement in Afghanistan is
nothing like theirs.
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