Refighting the Last War – Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template



It is an oft-cited maxim that in all the conflicts of the past century, the United States has re-fought its last war. A number of analysts and journalists have mentioned the war in Vietnam recently in connection with Afghanistan.
John Barry and Evan Thomas, “Afghanistan: Obama’s Vietnam,” Newsweek, 9 February 2009.

I had a young Air Force officer, who ironically had been enlisted in the Army and served two tours in Iraq, recently debate me about how the American people are not committed to the war(s) in Afghanistan or Iraq, and though we disagreed on many issues one thing he knew was clear but was in no position to say publicly was that he did believe history repeats itself with Afghanistan and Vietnam.     This young officer was among a growing number on active duty reading Military Review. If you served in Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, or Iraq this comparison below of Vietnam and Afghanistan is something that you can relate to if you agree with these Defense Department researchers or not. At least unlike the Bush administration, those who do not blindly agree with government policy can express their concerns.

Dr. Thomas H. Johnson, current director of the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, and M. Chris Mason a senior fellow at the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies and at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, DC note in their recent article appearing in Military Review that perhaps fearful of taking this analogy between Vietnam and Afghanistan too far, most analysts have backed away from it.

They believe the comparisons between the two wars should continue-“the Vietnam War is less a metaphor for the conflict in Afghanistan than it is a template. For eight years, the United States has engaged in an almost exact political and military reenactment of the Vietnam War, and the lack of self-awareness of the repetition of events 50 years ago is deeply disturbing.”

Major, U.S. Air Force-Retired
Editorial Board Member
VT News Network &
Our Troops News Ladder

untitled      The Obama Administration deliberately took ownership of the Afghani­stan war in its first days in office by sending more troops and ordering multiple strategic reviews.

In October, as this article was being written, the Obama Administration was engaged in a very public strategic review fol­lowing both a grim assessment from the President’s hand picked theater commander, General Stanley McChrystal, and an embarrassing election fiasco in Afghanistan. President Obama certainly knows, as Presidents Johnson and Nixon did in similar circumstances, that the choice of alter­natives now is between bad and worse.

There is general agreement today, as indeed there was before the Diem Coup in 1963, that the war is going badly. Attacks of all types in Afghanistan have increased each year since 2003 and are up dramatically in 2009, the deadliest year yet for American forces. The Kabul government is so corrupt, dysfunctional, and incompetent that even its election rigging is buffoonish. The U.S. troop commitment has escalated steadily, a pattern familiar from the Vietnam War, and now the President must contemplate a request for another 40,000 U.S. troops or, in the words of General McChrystal’s classified assessment leaked to the Washington Post, face “mission failure.” What­ever the outcomes of the President’s decision and the current Afghan election in the next few weeks, however, they will not affect the extraordinary similarity of the two conflicts.

Dr.Thomas H. Johnson at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA., where officers of all services are taught courses in international relations, and M. Chris Mason a retired Foreign Service officer who served in 2005 as political officer for the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Paktika, Afghanistan, and presently is a senior fellow at the Program for Culture and Conflict Stud­ies and at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, DC. Have reached these conclusions:

The Vietnam and Afghan wars are remarkably similar at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. Most historians today agree the conflict in Vietnam was inexorably lost because of failure on two deadly, intersecting axes:
1. The inability to establish legitimacy of gover­nance which the rural population would prefer as an alternative to the National Liberation Front (NLF) enough to risk their lives for.
2. The failure of American troops to protect the people and isolate them from the insurgents by pursuing instead a war of attrition.

The same fatal axes of failure loom before the United States now in Afghanistan, and time is running out.
The United States has perhaps the duration of this [Obama] presidential administration remaining before NATO peels away [leaves as allies left U.S. forces to go it alone in Iraq], the Afghan and American populations grow tired of the U.S. engagement (a process which has already begun [given Obama’s plummeting popularity polls.VT.Ed]), and the Taliban jihad into a critical mass as it did in 1996.
It is not possible to create a legitimate national government in that time [2011]. A ceremonial monarchy would have provided the necessary traditional legitimacy for an elected government in Kabul, but since the Afghan monarchy was eliminated by the U.S. and the U.N. against the express wishes of more than three-quarters of the delegates at the Emergency Loya Jirga in 2002 (the single most foolish act of the war and the Afghan equivalent of the Diem coup in Vietnam circa 1963), the United States must now embrace the only remaining secular alternative to the religious legitimacy of the Taliban-the traditional legitimacy of local tribal leadership.
As Andrew Krepinevich noted in The Army in Vietnam, counterinsurgency success begins with protecting the people, not conducting search and destroy missions. But it is the rural people you have to protect.
Andrew Krepinevich, The Army in Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 6.
The bureaucratic inertia of stay­ing the political course will result in failure in Afghanistan as it did in Vietnam. The United States can succeed most quickly and most efficiently by solving the second axis of failure that of isolating the insurgents from the rural populace by creating approximately 200 district reconstruction teams on the proven PRT chassis, one in each district in the south and east where the war is raging.
The district level is the only level of personal identity which matters in southern and eastern Afghanistan. By providing steady, reliable, 24/7 security in every district, led by an Afghan National Army component, and protecting the people from the ravages of both the Taliban and the Afghan Police with on-site American mentors and trainers, the traditional social preeminence of tribal elders will gradually reemerge and reestablish itself in most areas. The tribal structure is wounded, but not yet fatally. The rural villages are still full of 50- to 60-year-old men who sat in the jirgas and salah-mashwarahs thirty years ago as 20- to 30-year-old men, and they know how it’s supposed to work. Indeed, they want it to work, but they need security to make it happen.
As the system gradually comes back into bal­ance, the radical mullahs will return to their right­ful places as the religious advisers and spiritual guides for their communities, rather than remain the radical leaders they are now. This is how jihads on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier end. We have to understand the enemy before we can defeat him.

In 1983, Arnold Isaacs summarized the reasons for failure in Vietnam in his history of the final years of the war as follows:
From start to finish, American leaders remained catastrophically ignorant of Viet­namese history, culture, values, motives, and abilities. Misunderstanding both its enemy and its ally, and imprisoned in the myopic conviction that sheer military force could somehow overcome adverse political cir­cumstances, Washington stumbled from one failure to the next in the continuing delusion that success was always just ahead.
This ignorance and false hope were mated, in successive administrations, with bureaucratic circumstances that inhibited admission of error and made it always seem safer to keep repeating the same mistakes, rather than risk the unknown perils of a different policy.
Arnold Isaacs, Without Honor, Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 489.

One could again substitute the word “Afghan” for “Vietnamese” in Isaac’s assessment and apply it with equal precision to the U.S. effort in Afghani­stan from 2001 to 2009. The current dual-pronged strategy of nation building from the nonexistent top down and a default war of attrition is leading us down the same tragic path.

This article reflects only the views of its authors, not the views of the Naval Postgraduate School, the DOD, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, or Military Review Press, 1983), 489.

November-December 2009 l MILITARY REVIEW


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Readers are more than welcome to use the articles I've posted on Veterans Today, I've had to take a break from VT as Veterans Issues and Peace Activism Editor and staff writer due to personal medical reasons in our military family that take away too much time needed to properly express future stories or respond to readers in a timely manner. My association with VT since its founding in 2004 has been a very rewarding experience for me. Retired from both the Air Force and Civil Service. Went in the regular Army at 17 during Vietnam (1968), stayed in the Army Reserve to complete my eight year commitment in 1976. Served in Air Defense Artillery, and a Mechanized Infantry Division (4MID) at Fort Carson, Co. Used the GI Bill to go to college, worked full time at the VA, and non-scholarship Air Force 2-Year ROTC program for prior service military. Commissioned in the Air Force in 1977. Served as a Military Intelligence Officer from 1977 to 1994. Upon retirement I entered retail drugstore management training with Safeway Drugs Stores in California. Retail Sales Management was not my cup of tea, so I applied my former U.S. Civil Service status with the VA to get my foot in the door at the Justice Department, and later Department of the Navy retiring with disability from the Civil Service in 2000. I've been with Veterans Today since the site originated. I'm now on the Editorial Board. I was also on the Editorial Board of Our Troops News Ladder another progressive leaning Veterans and Military Family news clearing house. I remain married for over 45 years. I am both a Vietnam Era and Gulf War Veteran. I served on Okinawa and Fort Carson, Colorado during Vietnam and in the Office of the Air Force Inspector General at Norton AFB, CA during Desert Storm. I retired from the Air Force in 1994 having worked on the Air Staff and Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon.