Afghanistan: The new Vietnam?

The new Obama administration has been forthright in redirecting primary attention in the war on terrorist groups to Afghanistan, where the Taliban — a vital al Qaeda ally — is becoming stronger.

Following initial policy review, a decision has been made to increase United States forces in the mountainous sparsely populated country by 17,000, to a total of 55,000. Pressures on our already thinly stretched military will be eased by reductions in forces in occupied Iraq.

Former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group, discussed the worrisome situation in Afghanistan on Thursday’s PBS "News Hour.”. They underscored that Afghanistan had to be invaded given that the 9/11 terrorist attacks originated there. Discussion emphasized the very difficult Afghan terrain, human as well as geographic. Hamilton noted the country has not changed for ‘a thousand years’ and expecting any transformation is utopian.

Understandably, parallels are drawn with our experience in Vietnam. American troops in Afghanistan occupy isolated fortified outposts reminiscent of deployments in the earlier war. In each case, intense ideology reinforced by outrage at foreign invaders defines our opponents.

On the other hand, our forces in Afghanistan are under UN and NATO authority, in stark contrast to the Vietnam War.

The Afghanistan insurrection has not achieved broad support comparable to the revolutionary National Liberation Front (NLF) in Vietnam. The Viet Cong, the NLF military arm, demonstrated highly disciplined unity and there is no counterpart to the conventional forces of North Vietnam. Iran in fact has provided aid to the government in Kabul.

Nonetheless, NLF tactics and strategy are germane to analysis of the Afghan insurgency. A U.S. Army Green Beret major, who spent a year in Vietnam during the early 1960s, went on to serve as an instructor in the UCLA ROTC unit. He described to attentive students and others the very eerie experience of hearing a letter from his wife read over Radio Hanoi. When he received the missive in the mail, the envelope was sealed and apparently pristine, with no evidence at all of tampering.

Henry Kissinger was involved in Vietnam policy as a consultant to the Pentagon during the Johnson administration. Before joining the Nixon White House, he told a Harvard audience he was convinced Hanoi was not anxious for the Americans to leave. The black market had become so pervasive that a large percentage of the material shipped for South Vietnamese and U.S. forces was diverted instead to revolutionary hands.

American society emphasizes practical goals and tangible measures of success. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara made body counts and weapons captured the measure of Vietnam progress. In hindsight, however, steadily expanding total counts meant the enemy was becoming more numerous, not weaker.

Likewise, tremendous emphasis was placed on locating and destroying COSVN (Central Office South Vietnam), the headquarters of the NLF. When massive B-52 bombing raids resulted in major secondary explosions, analysts were immediately pressured by the high command to confirm that COSVN at last had been hit.

COSVN was a vital enemy organ, but never a fixed location. Rather, they were a group of able, fanatically dedicated people constantly on the move, replaced by others when killed or captured.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates shares with Baker and Hamilton depth of experience and caution concerning military force. He has stated explicitly that simply introducing more troops is no solution. In fact, there are no simple solutions in Afghanistan.

(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage in Wisconsin. He can be reached at