Afghanistan: From Strategy to Comparison

Among the most heavily debated issues in Washington, none is more prevalent than what the next steps and actions will be in Afghanistan. From an addition of 40.000 troops, to a slow and deliberate pullout of troops in favor of strategic air strikes, President Obama definitely has to make a difficult decision. A decision that many hope will not take too much longer, and one that will receive more attention than what it has in the last few weeks.

Whatever the decision shall be, Obama has another thing weighing down his shoulders with Afghanistan. That would be the parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam. In commentary at RAND Corporation that originally appeared at The Huffington Post, James Dobbins shares the same concern.

Here are a few things from his commentary that shed some light on this issue:

Beyond that, polls are showing that Americans are increasingly skeptical about this conflict, and citizens of other nations contributing troops, such as Britain, Germany, Canada, and the Netherlands, are even more negative.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Now that U.S. involvement in Iraq has finally begun to require fewer resources, Afghanistan is the new focus of American and European anti-war sentiment, and increasingly Obama’s critics are drawing on the analogy of Vietnam. They assert that the United States and its allies are bogged down in a long, inconclusive conflict in support of a corrupt and incompetent government against an elusive, popularly based enemy operating out of an untouchable cross-border sanctuary.

In fact, the two societies, Vietnamese and Afghan, and the two insurgencies, Viet Cong and Taliban, could hardly be more different. Yet the conflicts may, in the end, have a similar impact on American public opinion. And that could have a similar impact on their outcomes. The most decisive battles over Vietnam were fought for the heart and minds of the American people and the most decisive defeat was in the U.S. Congress. The contest for Afghanistan is now being conducted over this same terrain.

For years, the war in Iraq diverted resources from Afghanistan. Obama has characterized Afghanistan as a war of necessity, in contrast to Iraq, a war of choice—and a bad one at that. Yet as controversy over Iraq fades, this comparison, perhaps accurate and certainly powerful in its time, has dwindling impact. In its place is a new controversy, Afghanistan as the new Vietnam.

There’s no debate about how that war turned out, but little agreement on why. The insurgency in South Vietnam had been reduced to manageable proportions by the time American troops departed in 1973. Counterinsurgency thus largely succeeded, yet the war was still lost when North Vietnam launched a conventional invasion in 1975. Vietnam thus offers material for both sides in current debate over troop levels in Afghanistan. Those who argue for a better resourced counterinsurgency campaign can point to the tactical and operations successes in Vietnam. Opponents recall the strategic failure.

To read Mr. Dobbins commentary in its entirety, please visit RAND Corporation.

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