Politics, Policy, and Global Relations

Vietnam's Ghosts Haunt the War in Afghanistan

American soldiers in Afghanistan
U.S. Army soldiers from 10th Mountain Division search out Al-Qaeda members on "Whale Back" Mountain, March 13, 2002 (Photo: Jim Hollander, Reuters).
The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is no Vietnam, yet there are real parallels: a terrain that favors the foes, a porous border impossible to police, and dependence on local forces whose reliability is far from certain.

“What is more important to the history of the world? Some stirred-up Muslims, or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

Thus did Zbigniew Brzezinski, former President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, once dismiss charges that by its support for the Afghan mujahideen in 1979, the United States had created a terrorist monster.

Right now, he must be revising his judgment. Those “stirred-up Muslims,” who just a few weeks ago looked dead and buried in Afghanistan by the mightiest military machine known to history, have hit back with a vengeance. For all the Pentagon’s efforts to present the loss of the lives of eight U.S. servicemen in the space of barely a weekend as a small hiccup on the road to certain victory, the episode has come as a rude awakening to America.

In the popular imagination, phase one in Afghanistan was done and dusted. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not surprisingly, therefore, the downing of the MH-47 Chinook helicopter late on Sunday evening Washington time, in which at least six soldiers were killed, has been more than merely the single largest loss of American troops to enemy fire since the Afghan campaign began exactly five months ago. Old ghosts have also been awakened, of military disasters past, in Somalia and—mention it at one’s peril—Vietnam.

The parallels must not be pushed too far. At the height of the decade-long Vietnam War, in which 58,000 Americans died, more than half a million U.S. troops were in the field; in the entire Afghan theater today there appear to be a few thousand at most (though such is the secrecy maintained by the Pentagon that nobody can be sure).

While Vietnam helped to destroy the Johnson and Nixon presidencies, this war still commands wide public support—indeed, President George Bush’s approval ratings have been higher, and longer-lasting, than those of any post-war president. Above all, the Vietnam generation is now at the top of the Pentagon and the State Department. It agrees on one thing, if nothing else: Come hell or high water, there will never be another Vietnam.

Nor does the disastrous 1993 involvement in Somalia (re-created in the current film Black Hawk Down) offer much of a parallel. Then, too, the United States fell foul of warlords as it tried to impose order on a lawless failed state, but the stakes were nowhere near as high as in Afghanistan today. That misadventure sprang from a well-meaning exercise in state building, initiated by this president’s father. This time, America will not be put off by a handful of casualties as it seeks to crush the terrorist movement that brought it Sept. 11.

But disconcerting similarities abound. As in Vietnam, the Americans are fighting on a terrain that favors their foes. There is a porous border (then Cambodia and Laos; now Pakistan) almost impossible to police. As in Vietnam, the United States has been relying on local troops of uncertain reliability.

As in Somalia, its commanders have fallen foul of local rivalries beyond their control. And now as then, critics at home are beginning to put their heads above the parapet.

Last week Tom Daschle, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, gently raised the matter, warning of an “expansion without clear direction” of the Afghan campaign against terror, and his senior colleagues are telling the Pentagon that it can expect no blank checks for the massive budget buildup, which the military justifies by the war against terror.

Nothing too blunt, of course: A President with 77-percent approval ratings is not to be challenged head-on by his opponents. But American military power, seemingly so irresistible a few weeks ago, looks slightly less all-conquering right now. “Substantial pockets of resistance remain,” Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, declared at yesterday’s Pentagon briefing in words that might have been taken from the infamous “Five O’Clock Follies” of the Vietnam War.

The fierceness of the battle in the frigid mountain ranges around Gardez, and the quantity of weaponry at the disposal of the enemy, reflect either faulty intelligence, complacency,  unpreparedness, or a combination of all three.

Even if this particular pocket is wiped out, there is more important unfinished business. This was a war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, yet their respective leaders, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, at the very least are unaccounted for. Probably, they are still at large. The public will not consider the campaign to have been successful until they are brought in, dead or alive.

So what is the “exit strategy,” as the brass likes to say? Or, as Democrats are starting to ask: Having got in, how do we get out?

Once it seemed so simple: The Americans would quickly wrap up the military campaign, leaving their allies to keep the peace while the Pentagon swiveled its guns on to fatter targets, such as Iraq. That neat blueprint is now in shreds. But the Bush administration is silent on its plans with good reason. It doesn’t know what to do.

The Vietnam experience argues for the quick pullout. Yet an inescapable moral obligation rests upon Washington not to repeat the deadly error of 1989, when it left Afghanistan to its fate once the immediate problem—in that case the Soviet invader —had been dealt with. Even before Gardez, the Karzai government in Kabul was finding it increasingly hard to impose its writ.

Washington will at the very least have to extend its protection to an intervention force of at least 20,000 men, which will have to deploy to population centers across Afghanistan if there is to be any chance of creating a solid, permanent government by the appointed time of June. The plan is to train an Afghan army of up to 50,000 to one day do the job. That may be an exit strategy. If so, Bosnia, where a large peacekeeping force is still needed six years after the Dayton accords, suggests exit is a long way off.

In a 1998 interview, Brzezinski boasted of how he had provoked Moscow to step in. He told President Carter proudly that the United States “had the opportunity of giving the Soviet Union its Vietnam War.” But he must be having second thoughts now. In Gardez and far beyond, those “stirred-up Muslims” continue to stir up trouble he never dreamt of.