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The politics of the Afghanistan/Vietnam “connection”

In the previous thread “Afghanistan/ Vietnam” Ephlbog author Ronit highlighted Political Science profressor James McAllister’s sweeping comparisons of Afghanistan and Vietnam. Articlesopinion pieces in this vain have been popping up quite often recently.

I believe that comparisons of the two wars are pre determined, flawed, emotional, political and counter productive. “Afghanistan is (Obama’s) Vietnam” is a Republican strategy. If you play that game in the public square, you are falling into a political trap, weather you realize it or not. Such broad based parallels and superficial analogies have questionable motivations and can be used to compare just about anything. “Apples are fruit, so are oranges.”  Afghanistan deserves much more thought than that:

This article from the Economist.

This perspective from a US Senator.

Afghanistan and Vietnam are only superficially connected in terms of the historical, strategic and tactical lessons to be learned. We can salvage something from these comparisons by focusing on the large differences inside these broadly based similarities, and also by realizing that Vietnam references are often political tools. Here is my response to Professor McAllister’s analogies.

Where are our readers? … Is it viable to suggest that there are deep policy and strategic lessons to be learned by looking at the similarities of these two wars? Please add links to other articles of relevance and discuss how the war is being viewed on campus.  Do Ephblog readers believe that Vietnam is very relevant to the current war in Afghanistan? Why?

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#1 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On September 1, 2009 @ 9:55 pm


Your previous thread has been much-in-mind. Brief:

What can we learn from Vietnam?

Following McNamara– Vietnam was a great strategic mistake. The US understood neither the events which led to the war– it interpreted them in terms of “past war” and domestic political pressures– nor the situation in terms of who Vietnam and China were, as entities.

There was thus no path to victory. To say it again, the US simply did not understand the situation.

As far as Afghanistan– if the comparison is meant to imply an “unwinnable war” or a “morass,” it seems to me facile. If it is an attempt by pundits to say that their crystal ball shows the outcome of Afghanistan, with no deep engagement, that’s not much of an argument.

If it is a way of questioning whether the United States understands the dynamics of the situation, whether our tactics and strategy are appropriate, or how much the United States’ own political will, resolve, and ability to sacrifice — as well as ability to seriously engage the details and dynamics of the situation– “matter,” then that’s another story.

#2 Comment By frank uible On September 2, 2009 @ 2:45 am

Yesterday George Will had a column in the Washington Post advising that the U.S. disengage immediately from Afghanistan on the basis that it is a quagmire.

#3 Comment By PTC On September 2, 2009 @ 8:09 am

Ken- I think we will win in Afghanistan. Consciously or subconsciously the “Vietnam is Afghanistan” argument seems to be working its way into the psyches of the anti war crowd who want us out, the right wing political crowd who want to do political damage to Obama, and the policy oriented people who believe the war is not winnable.

It is true that if we fail to understand the nature of the conflict, we will lose. But can Afghanistan really be measured in terms of “victory” or “failure”? I see the allies there ten years from now, still working to create a better climate for the people and stabilize the country. That kind of a time table scares western powers, but it is the reality.

I guess the one big parallel could be “in both conflicts, leaving is losing, while there is no clear marker for victory.” We are going to have to accept that if we are going to “win” in Afghanistan. Perhaps that is really what all this Vietnam comparison talk is all about, coming to terms with the fact that we either stay in for a very long haul, or lose. Or perhaps, that we cannot win in terms of a definition that anyone understands.

Did we win in Bosnia/ Kosovo?

#4 Comment By PTC On September 2, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

@frank uible: I saw that Frank. More and more right wing commentators are looking to draw a bridge between a failed Afghanistan policy and Vietnam with a bridge to the Obama administration. To me, it seems clear that that bridge between the two wars is politically charged… and that that needs to be understood.

#5 Comment By frank uible On September 2, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

How much blood and treasure is the U.S. willing to spend in the seemingly interminable process of nation building?

#6 Comment By PTC On September 2, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

Frank- That is a question that depends on perspective… how much can we get from the EU and other contributors? How much will it cost us if we lose?

What did it cost us and our allies when those towers fell?

Those that compare Afghanistan to Vietnam, most likely will have this already determined answer to your pointed question Frank…. “too much.” Hence the post.

#7 Comment By frank uible On September 3, 2009 @ 5:03 am

In 1945 my youthful and naive brain told me that unlike the Great War WWII had been a war to end all wars. Since then I have become now convinced that the U.S. has never found a war it didn’t want to enter – if not necessarily to pay the price of continuing to conclusion. Has there ever been an opportunity to engage in a war, which the U.S. eschewed and of which in the final analysis the U.S. was regretful of bypassing?

#8 Comment By Ronit On September 3, 2009 @ 9:52 am

@frank uible: Napoleonic Wars? There were pro-French (Republican) and pro-English (Federalist) partisans who wanted America to get involved in the 1790s and detested Adams and Washington for steering a middle course. Of course, the Republicans did get their war, eventually, in 1812.

#9 Comment By PTC On September 3, 2009 @ 10:47 am

I can think of a number of examples… Cuba is the biggest in my mind. We would have been spared a lot of problems, including a close call with nuclear holocaust, had we gone hard and heavy into Cuba when the communist revolution started there. Not to mention, the impact and influence on the rest of the region, and how much ground our ideological competitors have captured as a result of Cuba being allowed to go red. We have lost trillions of dollars because Cuba has been allowed to remain a leftist dictatorship. Even today, we spend billions annually because of Cuba’s influence in the region.

Let’s try to keep the focus on Afghanistan Frank and Ronit… do those blogging here think we should be in Afghanistan? Why or why not? Is Vietnam relevant in terms of the strategic and tactical lessons learned? How?