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Afghanistan / Vietnam

James McAllister is quoted in an article about the administration seeking advice from scholars of the Vietnam war:

James McAllister, a professor of political science at Williams College in Massachusetts who has written extensively about Vietnam, said the administration could learn a lot from Vietnam.

“American policy makers clearly see parallels between the two wars,” he said. “They know that the mistakes we made in Vietnam must be avoided in Afghanistan.”

McAllister cited analogies between the two wars:

— In both wars, security forces had an overwhelming advantage in firepower over lightly armed but highly mobile guerrillas.

— Insurgents in both cases were able to use safe havens in neighboring countries to regroup and re-equip.

—He pointed to McChrystal’s order to limit airstrikes and prevent civilian casualties, linking it to the overuse of air power in Vietnam which resulted in massive civilian deaths.

McAllister drew a parallel to another failed political strategy from Vietnam — the presidential election.

“That (’67 ballot) helped ensure that U.S. efforts would continue to be compromised by its support for a corrupt, unpopular regime in Saigon,” McAllister said.

Link to full article.

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#1 Comment By PTC On August 20, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

“American policy makers clearly see parallels between the two wars,” he said. “They know that the mistakes we made in Vietnam must be avoided in Afghanistan.” McAllister cited analogies between the two wars:

— “In both wars, security forces had an overwhelming advantage in firepower over lightly armed but highly mobile guerrillas.”

Uh… kind of. Yeah, we had a technology advantage in Nam, and a firepower advantage, but nothing even close to what we have in this war. We dominate all aspects of the battlefield, day and night. In Vietnam, we were on first generation night vision devices, had no “smart weapons”, and did not have half of the advantage that we have today in terms of a professional military that is well paid, well equipped, and extremely well trained. Not very similar at all.

— Insurgents in both cases were able to use safe havens in neighboring countries to regroup and re-equip.

Uh… Yes, the border is used. But there is not a nation state being aided by a superpower helping to arm and give logistical support to the enemy. Again, this is a really poor parallel.

— He pointed to McChrystal’s order to limit air strikes and prevent civilian casualties, linking it to the overuse of air power in Vietnam which resulted in massive civilian deaths.

Smart weapons limit that much more than a prohibition on air power. We hit things much more precisely now than we did back in Nam. Air strikes are still utilized in Afghanistan, every time there are sustained troops in contact. More than they were in NAM. The heavy bombing is out, but that has a lot to do with political considerations with neighboring nations. Not very similar to Nam, really.

– McAllister drew a parallel to another failed political strategy from Vietnam — the presidential election.
“That (’67 ballot) helped ensure that U.S. efforts would continue to be compromised by its support for a corrupt, unpopular regime in Saigon,” McAllister said.

Well…no. Afghanistan is a nation based on loose alliances mostly dependant on the needs of the moment. Not the same dynamic at all as in Vietnam, which had an entire nation state to the north attempting unification.

Lessons are learned from all wars and conflicts. Vietnam and Afghanistan have very limited parallels.

#2 Comment By sophmom On August 20, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

Way to go, Ronit. Interesting post and hopefully an encouragement to hear more from Professor McAllister.

Wouldn’t another parallel be the disadvantage in dealing with terrain that is so completely alien to american soldiers? I suppose our deserts could provide decent simulation for much of Afghanistan, but those inpenetrable mountains must be a difficulty similar to that presented by those dense jungles, even with all of the new equipment and technology.

Is this the disadvantage that makes for a more “highly mobile” enemy?

#3 Comment By PTC On August 20, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

Sophmom-

I think your example is a pretty good example of how flawed this logic is…

See… see the similarity… the terrain in Vietnam is different, and the terrain in Afghanistan is different. Sounds like a valid point right? Except that the terrain in Vietnam is opposite to the terrain in Afghanistan.

You may as well say… this is parallel to WW2… the Germans spoke a different language, and so do the Afghanis.

High altitude and jungle combat are very different. We enjoy a huge tactical advantage in the mountains, because of our ability to employ air for support and maneuver.

Actually, urban areas are the hardest places to engage this enemy. That kind of terrain is in every war we have fought… so, I suppose, this conflict is parallel to the American civil war? See?

A high altitude envirnonment that is similar to that found in Afghanistan can (and is) trained to in Nevada, parts of cali… guys get well trained in it before they deploy… almost right down to the last man sent into the theater.

So, let’s break it down. How is Afghanistan different from Vietnam?

Different terrain.
Different culture.
Very little support for our enemy in comparison.
No popular/ consolidated politcal opposition inside Afghanistan.
A huge coalition fighting with us.
The support of the American public for the war.
A highly trained force (unlike vietnam.)
An extremely well funded force that is able to employ massive technological advantages. (much more so than in Vietnam)

This war is nothing like Vietnam.

#4 Comment By kthomas On August 20, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

PTC: If — if I wanted to be “postmodern,” I’d point out that the greatest commonalities between the two conflicts look to be in their public perception and administrative conduct…

#5 Comment By PTC On August 21, 2009 @ 3:47 am

Ken- I thought about that for a second… but again, not really. The public perception problem we have in OEF right now is almost completely due to fatigue over Iraq, and perhaps some memories of Vietnam. That is very different than having a conflict with a lot of parallels. Sure, people will use the “this is Vietnam all over again” argument, but that argument can be made more about OIF than OEF in my opinion. I think a lot of people still remember the attacks on 9/11, and understand that OEF is about that, while OIF has no direct connection. The Vietnam War was lost because no one understood what it was about. There was no “plain reason” for us being there, unlike Afghanistan. Everyone knows why we are in OEF, and remembers why we are there.

While it is true that public support for OEF has been slipping to about 50% in some recent polls, I do not believe the American public would support a withdrawal from the conflict. Not to mention, the 50 or so countries that are currently a part of our coalition there. Not just ghost countries either. There are several of nations with a heavy commitment of combat arms, dozens of nations that have been putting their soldiers in harms way in order to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban since 2001. NATO is “all in.” The United States is now “all in.”

The differences between Vietnam and Operation Enduring Freedom are so great, that it would be more useful studying the two conflicts in terms of how they differ, rather than the similarities.

But of course, you will always find those who will say, “this is Vietnam all over again”, or “what can we learn from Vietnam”, no matter how bogus the comparisons might be.

#6 Comment By PTC On August 21, 2009 @ 4:03 am

It is also important to remember that there is still a huge political prize in OEF. If the Obama administration can capture or kill OBL, there will be a huge national security boost for Democrats. The Democrats have been fighting a soft image since the 70s, and you better believe that the party understands the implications of both getting him, or quitting and leaving him alive.

We are going to do everything we can in our power to find Bin Laden. There was no such motiviation in Vietnam.

#7 Comment By PTC On August 23, 2009 @ 3:27 am

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/weekinreview/23baker.html?_r=1

More “this is Vietnam all over again”. NYT version.

#8 Comment By PTC On August 30, 2009 @ 9:00 am

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574376872733294910.html#

Ronit-

Here is a good opinion piece for the debate on the war. It is more thought provoking than the emotional attempts to compare to completely different conflicts.

#9 Comment By PTC On September 1, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

http://www.rawa.org/sue2.htm

Why do we fight this war? 9/11 of course. The Taliban, of course.

Why will we remain?

One reason is because if we leave, we leave a nation to the will of some of the most horrific male chauvinistic pigs/ideologues of the modern era. An enemy who would have our mothers, sisters and daughters subjected to rape, horrific oppression, mutilation, degradation and murder. That is something that is too often lost in these discussions.

#10 Comment By ephling On November 6, 2009 @ 10:10 am

It is interesting to hear as a part of the coverage of the tragedy at Ft Hood, very open discussions by medical authorities that the military is experiencing unprecedented levels of mental problems, suicide, depression, and the like as a result of the seemingly endless struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan. The public support for the troops is positive as opposed to Nam, but many of the troops seem to be having issues coping with a very confusing mission with no end in sight. To be clear I am in no way excusing or condoning the inhuman behavior of the shooter. I think McAllister is spot on.

#11 Comment By ephling On November 8, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

The idea is catching on.

http://www.newsweek.com/id/221632

#12 Comment By PTC On November 8, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

ephling- This whole “Afghanistan is Vietnam” angle has been playing out for some time now… both conservatives and liberals use it to discredit the war effort and the Obama administration… as well as profs who use it because they think they disagree with current battlefield commanders and state department leaders…

Nothing new in any of this nonsense. The two wars are so different in terms of historical reference, enemy order of battle, enemy ideology, necessity, world support and strategic importance that one would be served better by using the wars as contrast… rather than comparison.

http://www.ephblog.com/2009/09/01/the-politics-of-the-afghanistanvietnam-“connection”/

#13 Comment By PTC On December 2, 2009 @ 4:33 am

It was great for me to see Obama address all the faulty Vietnam comparisons made by folks like Eph Martha Coakley and Williams political science professor James McAllister. Obama made some of the same points I made in the posts below as to why these wars draw false parallels.

http://www.ephblog.com/2009/09/01/the-politics-of-the-afghanistanvietnam-“connection”/

http://www.ephblog.com/2009/08/20/afghanistan-vietna/

From the Obama Speech at West Point last night:

First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. Yet this argument depends upon a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now — and to rely only on efforts against al-Qaida from a distance — would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al-Qaida and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies

One more time, let’s break down some of the major differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam:

Justification for invasion is valid (9/11) and legal (UN).

Different terrain.

Different culture.

Very little support for our enemy in comparison. (No NVA or Russia).

No popular/ consolidated politcal opposition inside Afghanistan.

A huge coalition fighting with us. (ISAF, established by the UN).

The support of the American public for the war.

We have a a highly trained force (No Draft, unlike vietnam).

An extremely well funded force that is able to employ massive technological advantages (much more so than in Vietnam).

This war is nothing like Vietnam. I feel somewhat vindicated by Obama’s rejection of the loose and misleading analogies of the Afghanistan and Vietnam wars.

#14 Comment By PTC On December 2, 2009 @ 5:00 am

Ephling @10-

The public support is great in some ways… but it is lonely fighting these wars. The soldiers are forgotten. We are into our 9th year of these wars now, and while the pressure on the military has been great in terms of family sacrifices and human/ emotional risk- what many soldiers see is a self serving American greed that has hurt our economy (and thus our war efforts) while these sacrifices are being made.

It is hard to defend a culture of greed. Americans needs to get back on track and start really supporting the troops through their actions. It seems very few people at home are sacrificing for these wars… and that the people in charge of the money are indeed cheating the system at the expense of national security- That is hard to watch. The wars are also being waged on debt, which is also wrong. We should be paying more for what we are doing…

I believe that a lot of these bogus Vietnam comparisons come from a sense of guilt that people have because of their lack of involvement. If they can make Afghanistan not worth fighting or unjust in their minds- they no longer need to feel guilty about not participating in the effort. Well, more people do need to start holding themselves more accountable in my opinion, and join this effort.

#15 Comment By ephling On December 2, 2009 @ 9:16 am

PTC

I think it very simple. Post Vietnam and the domestic unrest that went with it, anti-war rallies and the like, the US went to a fully paid volunteer military, a very expensive option. The purpose was simple, if you went in willingly, you really could not complain about being sent to war. If you went in willingly, your parents and families would support your decision, instead of screaming bloody murder as they may have if you had been drafted. A bit of a stretch for reserves but nevertheless. Many countries insist on service as an obligation, a form of volunteerism if you will, that we support in other areas of endeavor, but no longer in military service. We are detached, but that is what they wanted. It is a strange and somewhat recent phenomenon to disapprove of the war, but support the soldiers. If they are killing people that you are not really sure need to die, then the paradox is troubling.

The non Vietnamism about this war is that few people care whats going on. Mission accomplished.

#16 Comment By PTC On December 2, 2009 @ 9:58 am

ephling- Great point.

People seeing very, very little of husbands wives, sons and daughters for years on end. I think I get your point about the reserves being more visible. I still think people like to belittle the effort or put it in “the Vietnam box” so they are not really forced to look at it though.

It is interesting to hear people talk about Special Operations during this conflict. Almost as if it is not really a part of the armed forces. “We should withdraw completely from Iraq and Afghanistan”- comes almost automatically with the caveat that this does not include Special Forces… because hey, those guys ask for and volunteer even more than everyone else for this kind of thing… and we pay them more to do it. There is a detachment there I agree, which is a part of my sentiments in my front cover post at this time.

#17 Comment By Derek On December 2, 2009 @ 10:16 am

I wrote this in response to PTC’s more recent Afghanistan versus Vietnam post but it belongs here as well:

PTC –
You’ve been working this angle for a while now. But you’re fighting a bit of a straw man as you do so. I have not heard many people say that Afghanistan is Vietnam. But I have heard some smart scholars of the Vietnam era, for example, point out that in way x the two conflicts are similar and here is what we can learn from the parallels. And of course there is also the historical parallel of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.
I think you are arguing against historical analogies doing too much. With that I agree. But I think you commit the commensurate sin of believing that historical comparisons can do too little.

dcat

#18 Comment By PTC On December 2, 2009 @ 10:41 am

Derek- Actually, I think that historical comparisons can do a lot, if they are fully analyzed. As I have stated several times, a series of false or superficial anologies based on extremely loose facts have been used to create a bridge to compare rather than contrast Afghanistan and Vietnam. That is Red Herring.

For example…

1. Apples are fruit, organges are fruit, therefore these two fruits taste the same.

2. The terrain in Afghanistan is different, the terrain in Vietnam is different, therefore we can bridge to use this as a comparison of the two wars, rather than discourse about the differences in fighting a jungle war in the 1960s/70s and a high altitude war in the year 2009.

Eph Historians, journalists and Eph politicians which I have linked in several posts are drawing comparisons and making statements like “Afghanistan is Obama’s Vietnam” or the statement in the form of a question, “is Afghanastan Obama’s Vietnam?”. They are doing it often. All these analogies are bogus… as Obama stated in his speech last night.

From the Obama Speech:

First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. Yet this argument depends upon a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now — and to rely only on efforts against al-Qaida from a distance — would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al-Qaida and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.

Needless to say, I disagree with your assertion that myself and the President are fighting straw men in this instance. The question is not if Afghanistan is like Vietnam… because it is not, the question is, why are people hard linking these two very different conflicts?

#19 Comment By Henry Bass On December 2, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

Afganistan is unlikely to be the major disaster that Vietnam was. However, LBJ might have been a great president except for Nam. Because of Nam he was instead a tragic president. Perhaps our most tragic president. Obama has the oportunity to be a great president. Afganistan and Iraq could turn him into a tragic president like LBJ. In this sense Aganistan could turn out to be Obama’s Nam.

#20 Comment By PTC On December 2, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

Henry- That might be true if it goes badly. It could also turn out to be another nam because we lose the will to fight and accept a loss like we did in nam… which is not really a valid point either in my opinion, even though I have made it a couple of times.

What has been argued by historians using the comparison are the similarities of the conflicts themselves, rather than the outcome or political fallout of the outcome. The use of borders by our enemy, our inability to fight asymmetrical warfare, an unfamiliar disjointed guerilla force as an enemy, nation building, harsh terrain that hampers technology …etc.

You are arguing that there might be a similarity in terms of the political fallout from a loss, rather than using similarities to predict a loss. You might be right that in that way, this will become “Obama’s Vietnam”.

Was Iraq Bush’s Vietnam? One could argue that it was I suppose.