Obama's Vietnam

2009-01-30 00:00

You aren’t really the United States president until you’ve ordered an air strike on somebody, so Barack Obama is certainly president now: he has ordered two in his first week in office. But now that he has been blooded, can we talk a little about this expanded war that he’s planning to fight in Afghanistan?

Obama may be planning to shut Guantanamo, but the broader concept of a war on terror is still alive and well in Washington. Most of the people whom he has appointed to run his defence and foreign policies believe in it and there is no sign that he himself questions it. Yet even 15 years ago the notion would have been treated with contempt in every military staff college in the country.

That generation of American officers learnt two things from their miserable experience in Vietnam. One was that going halfway around the world to fight a conventional military campaign against an ideology (communism then, Islamism now) was a truly stupid idea. The other was that no matter how strenuously the other side insists that it is motivated by a world-spanning ideology, its real motives are mostly political and quite local (Vietnamese nationalism then, Iraqi and Afghan nationalism now).

The parallel with Vietnam is not all that far-fetched. Modest numbers of American troops have now been in Afghanistan for seven years, mostly in training roles quite similar to those of the U.S. military “advisers” whom presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy sent to South Vietnam from 1956 to 1963. The political job of creating a pro-Western, anti-communist state was entrusted to the U.S.’s man in Saigon, Ngo Dinh Diem, and the South Vietnamese army had the job of fighting the communist rebels, the Viet Cong.

Unfortunately, neither Diem nor the South Vietnamese army had much success, and by the early sixties the Viet Cong were clearly on the road to victory. So Kennedy authorised a group of South Vietnamese generals to overthrow Diem (although he seemed shocked when they killed him). And Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy soon afterwards, authorised a rapid expansion of the American troop commitment in Vietnam, first to 200 000 by the end of 1965 thenultimately to half a million by 1968. The U.S. took over the war. And then it lost it.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it’s because we are now at a similar juncture in the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan. Washington’s man in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai, and the Afghan army he theoretically commands have failed to quell the insurrection and are visibly losing ground.

So the talk in Washington now is all of replacing Karzai (although it will probably be done via elections, which are easily manipulated in Afghanistan), and the American troop commitment in the country is going up to 60 000. Various American allies also have troops in Afghanistan, just as they did in Vietnam, but it is the U.S. that is taking over the war.

We already know how this story ends. There is not a lot in common between Kennedy and former president George W. Bush, but they were both ideological crusaders who got the U.S. mired in foreign wars it could not win and did not need to win. They then bequeathed those wars to presidents who had ambitious reform agendas in domestic politics and little interest or experience in foreign affairs.

That bequest destroyed Johnson, who took the rotten advice of the military and civilian advisers he inherited from Kennedy because there wasn’t much else on offer in Washington at the time. Obama is drifting into the same dangerous waters and the rotten advice that he is getting from strategists who believe in the war on terror could do for him, too.

He has figured out that Iraq is a foolish and unnecessary war, but he has not yet applied the same analysis to Afghanistan. The two questions he needs to ask himself are first, did Osama bin Laden want the U.S. to invade Afghanistan in response to 9/11? The answer to that one is, yes, of course he did.

And second is, of all the tens of thousands of people whom the U.S. has killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, would a single one have turned up in the U.S. to do harm if left unkilled? The answer is, probably not.

Other people might have turned up in the U.S. with evil intent, but not those people.

So turning Afghanistan into a second Vietnam is probably the wrong strategy, isn’t it?

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