Monday, December 14, 2009

Why Afghanistan is Not Vietnam

George McGovern had a piece in the Sunday Washington Post recalling how, during his run for the presidency in 1972, he told audiences across the country “that the only upside of the tragedy in Vietnam was that its enormous cost in lives and dollars would keep any future administration from going down that road again.”

He was wrong, he declares: Obama is going down the same path that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon did.

McGovern should know better.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam. Here are the reasons why:

1. Vietnam was in the midst of an entirely legitimate nationalist, anti-colonial struggle that had the massive support of the Vietnamese people.

The fighting in Afghanistan is against the Taliban, a terrorist group that sustains itself by trafficking drugs. Based on their experience of Taliban rule, Afghans are massively opposed to the group.

2. The United States slipped into the Vietnam war by slow degrees, first supporting the French, then the corrupt regimes in South Vietnam, and finally subjecting the country to massive military intervention. Its motivation was fear that if the Viet Cong won, then the balance of power in Southeast Asia would tip towards the Chinese communists. That fear, as it turned out, was entirely misplaced; the Vietnamese have a historical hatred of Chinese domination.

The United States is in Afghanistan because it was attacked on 9/11 by terrorists who were based there and enjoyed the support of the Taliban regime. The need to fight them is not abstract or ideological; democracies around the world have suffered gratuitous attack because terrorists based in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been driven by a medieval Islamic vision of world conquest.

3. The Viet Cong fighters American troops faced in Vietnam were financed and supplied by North Vietnam, a State recognized by the overwhelming majority of the international community.

In Afghanistan American troops confront combatants who are financed with drug money and are universally considered to be criminal and illegitimate.

4. The withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam led to the end of the war there, and eventually, the emergence of a stable and unified Vietnam. The country is now a member of the strongly free-market Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

If American troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan the result will be the renewed spread of terrorism throughout the region and the world. Afghanistan itself will sink into civil war, and that will destabilize Central and South Asia. This is not a new “Domino Theory;” the forecast is actually a look back at what happened when the Taliban were in power.

Quite obviously, McGovern’s attempt to draw an analogy between American interventions in Vietnam and Afghanistan is not credible. He seems to acknowledge that in a final argument for withdrawal: ”Even if we had a good case for a war in Afghanistan, we simply cannot afford to wage it. With a $12 trillion debt and a serious economic recession, this is not a time for unnecessary wars abroad.”

That too is not a credible argument. The post-Cold War spread of democracy is not a settled and irreversible fact. To withdraw from Afghanistan prematurely would endanger vulnerable democracies not only in its immediate region but throughout the Islamic world. Authoritarian States like China and Iran would feel much less pressure to democratize. India, already seriously affected by terrorism exported from Pakistan, would be in much greater danger. Not to confront the sworn enemies of democracy in Afghanistan is to ensure that the fight, when it becomes unavoidable later, will be much more difficult.


andrew herold said...

This argumentation would be acceptable, if there were indications of willingness to negotiate and communicate with the dissidents, resistance and Taliban in Afghanistan. Before, during,and after the 1. Afghanistan Conference in Bonn and before and during the 2. Afghanistan Conference in London, there are no provisions for such communications...making for an exponential growth in resistance and contempt for the present government in Kabul. There is too much "window dressing" and duplicity in these NATO-strategies, which are all doomed if the adversaries are not allowed to communicate as stakeholders. andrew herold,email:

Bhaskar Menon said...

The point of the post was that the Taliban are primarily drug runners. They are not interested in "communications" or negotiations.