VIEWPOINT: Vietnam can teach Afghan commanders

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Back in the day, back when all eyes in Washington were on Iraq and Afghanistan was considered the "good war," State Department officials used to say "it's too bad there isn't a Hamid Karzai for Iraq."...

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Back in the day, back when all eyes in Washington were on Iraq and Afghanistan was considered the "good war," State Department officials used to say "it's too bad there isn't a Hamid Karzai for Iraq."

By that, they meant it was a shame Iraq didn't have its own natural leader, respected by his people who also was friendly to the West and dedicated to democratic ideals.

Oh, how the wheel turns. Democrats in Congress and an ever-larger share of the American people are turning against President Barack Obama's Afghanistan strategy, and Karzai deserves the lion's share of the blame.

The "good war" has turned into a deadly briar patch, and it turns out we are fighting to defend a government that now is among the most corrupt in the world. Today, Karzai is trying to steal an election with tactics so crude and blatant as to hardly be believed -- charges validated, now, by a U.N. commission.

How smart can he be to stuff ballot boxes and disenfranchise voters all across the nation while Afghanistan is teeming with aggressive Western journalists looking for stories?


All of this raises the question: Can this war be won? Former President George W. Bush started the Afghan war, and he was right to do so. The American people wanted the Sept. 11 villains brought to account, and no president could have allowed the perpetrators to escape unpunished. But Bush also lost the war.

In 2003, his administration assumed the war was won, the Taliban defeated -- even though the enemy still remained determined and imbedded in the countryside. Bush transferred all of the senior CIA specialists and elite Special Forces units who had helped win the Afghan war to fight in Iraq.

The best equipment, including all the Predator drones, were sent to Baghdad, and it didn't take long for the Taliban to realize they had been given a gift. While Bush looked away, they reasserted themselves and turned Afghanistan back into a treacherous battlefield.

Early this month Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, produced his long-awaited analysis of the war and concluded: "The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable." Well, what else could he say? Would any general, given command of the most important military operation in the world, come back to Washington and tell his commander in chief. "I'm sorry, but we can't win. This war is already lost." There, that day, a promising career would end.

The truth is, Gen. William Westmoreland said the same thing about the Vietnam War 42 years ago when he told a joint session of Congress: "We will prevail in Vietnam over the Communist aggressor." Nine months later, in January 1968, came the Tet Offensive, a major North Vietnamese attack whose ferocity fundamentally changed American attitudes about the war.

That is hardly the only similarity between the Vietnam War and Afghanistan today. Comparisons like these are inevitably flawed because far more circumstances are dissimilar. The wars took place among wholly different cultures -- even in different centuries. Still, the parallels can act as a warning.

Both wars began as a defense of national security, against communism then Islamic extremism. In both places, the enemy's leadership operated in another country (North Vietnam/Pakistan) and could be attacked only with bombs (B-52s/Predator drones).

In both nations, the U.S. defended a government that was hopelessly corrupt and inept. In fact, Nguyen Van Thieu, the president of South Vietnam, was reputed to be so venal and crooked that when he ran for re-election in 1971, his opponents simply assumed he would steal the vote and declined to run.


In Vietnam and Afghanistan, the U.S. (along with NATO in the current war) spent vast sums of money to train an indigenous military that proved to be just as corrupt as its government and wholly ineffective. Enemy soldiers in both places largely were indistinguishable from the local population because they, too, were Vietnamese and now, in most cases, Afghans.

And in both wars, the United States was fighting highly skilled, ideological zealots -- for communism and now for Islamic extremism.

Finally, in Vietnam and Afghanistan, as the situation worsened and public opinion began turning against the war, the commanding generals -- Westmoreland and McChrystal -- put in requests for thousands of additional troops.

I am not saying here that Afghanistan will become a 21st-century Vietnam. But I am saying we should hope that Obama will learn from President Lyndon Johnson's mistakes as he considers that troop-increase request soon to land on his desk.

Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University.

What To Read Next