Stanley I. Kutler: Lesson of Vietnam Lost in Afghanistan

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings.]

On Aug. 17, President Barack Obama made the obligatory presidential pilgrimage to the conclave of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, this time on Sen. John McCain’s home turf. The Phoenix speech, carried live on cable networks, captured a VFW audience often surly and seemingly uninterested in the president’s remarks. But at one point, he predictably brought even his recalcitrant audience to its feet when he made a pitch for his health care proposals: “One thing that reform won’t change is veterans’ health care. No one is going to take away your benefits. That’s the truth.” No doubt.

Away from the convention, the president and his spokespersons spent much of the day backing and filling on health care. Did he or didn’t he favor a public option? How much would “his” package (did he have one?) cost? And what about those “death panels”?

But for the VFW, Obama concentrated on the expanding war in Afghanistan—the war he now proudly asserts as his own. After in effect declaring victory in Iraq to justify the removal of American troops, Obama promised he now would “refocus” our efforts to “win” in Afghanistan. As Obama made abundantly clear in his presidential campaign, this was his war of choice, the one he consistently has said is necessary to eliminate al-Qaida, which had taken refuge in the desolate Afghan mountains.

During the campaign, he seemed at pains to demonstrate he was not the caricatured soft liberal when it came to American military power. Although Obama consistently has admitted, as he did before the VFW in Arizona, that military power alone will not be sufficient, he nevertheless has insisted that his “new strategy” has the clear mission “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida.” Obama knows that defeat of the Taliban is essential to this strategy. “If left unchecked,” he has remarked, the Taliban insurgency will bring “an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaida would plot to kill more Americans.” It is not, he maintains, a “war of choice,” but “a war of necessity.”

In 1991, following the defeat of Saddam Hussein and Iraqi forces in Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush proudly announced that we had “kicked the Vietnam Syndrome.” His successor son, propelled by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, heady with 2003’s lightning rout of Iraqi forces, believed he had restored the “can do” notions of World War II for the military component of American foreign policy.

The same day President Obama spoke to the VFW, The New York Times carried a dispatch from Afghanistan in which a villager talked about his security and the difference between night and day: “When you [the Americans] leave here, the Taliban will come at night and ask us why we were talking to you,” a villager named Abdul Razzaq said. “If we cooperate [with the U.S.], they would kill us.”

Déjà vu all over again. The U.S. military in Vietnam often announced it had killed a particular number of Viet Cong and had “freed” a village. The Americans left, assuming the enemy had lost control, but at night, of course, the VC returned and reminded villagers of the reality.

Whatever “syndrome” we kicked, Vietnam’s primary lesson remains intact: American power is not without limits, both in terms of defeating an enemy and in terms of its domestic support. The primary lesson of Vietnam seems to be that it is a lesson lost. And now we have some of the same intractable problems in Afghanistan.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke recently called Vietnam War historian Stanley Karnow for advice. After the conversation, Karnow told the AP that the main lesson to be learned from Vietnam was that “we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” We apparently don’t know what was said on the other end in Karnow’s talk with the general and the envoy, but McChrystal has asked for more troops.

As Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson expanded the American commitment in Vietnam, their deputies regularly insisted that the insurgency had Chinese support and backing. “Peiping,” as Secretary of State Dean Rusk said in blatantly demeaning the Chinese, was to blame. If the government had had any historians with the courage to speak truth to power, they would have pointed to a millennium of historical enmity between the Chinese and the Vietnamese. As if to prove the point, the Chinese launched war against the victorious Vietnamese in 1975, only to suffer an embarrassing defeat.

The historical lessons for Afghanistan are clear. The British readily acknowledge their defeat. Surely the Russians know that Afghanistan was their Vietnam—with some not-so-covert intervention by the CIA. Afghanistan has been a graveyard for imperial ambitions, however noble and ostensibly good the ventures may have been. Long after the Guns of Health Care Reform are stilled, Afghanistan apparently promises to be with President Obama—and us—for a very long time.

We thought we defeated the Taliban once before; and now it is back again. President Obama believes we must do more to roll back the Taliban. But what can we do with the ethnic and tribal rivalries, the corruption and inefficiency in Kabul, all of which are related to the place of the Taliban? Will the U.S. be able to destroy, everywhere in the country, the Taliban’s grip on power? Does anyone in Obama’s circle ask “why?”

We can ponder the alternative. If successful, the Taliban might offer “an even larger safe haven” for al-Qaida and similar groups. But now, without Taliban control of the Afghanistan government, “safe havens” persist in the mountains of the country and in the northwest provinces of Pakistan. The situation is not much different than it was in 2001, except that the safe area for terrorists may be smaller. But what is different is our intelligence, our use of it, our vigilance and our capacity to strike with sophisticated air weapons.

Americans are questioning the Afghanistan involvement as never before. A Washington Post-ABC Poll, published this week, for the first time showed a majority of Americans opposed to the war. Meanwhile, suicide bombings and other attacks mount in Kabul. U.S. troops can protect the citizenry only sporadically, and with limitations. But inevitably, Americans will ask how long we will remain in Afghanistan, how many troops will be needed, and whether the costs in lives and treasure justify the venture. As with the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army, chances of our destroying the Taliban are slight. Eventually, the Afghans—Taliban or otherwise—will inherit their land and have to assume responsibility for governing. We, like the British and the Russians before us, will fade into Afghanistan’s history.

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james joseph butler - 9/2/2009

Stanley Kutler is 100% correct when he deems Afganistan a 21st century lost cause for the American empire. So what else is knew, we enter a country with high flown ideals, little or no knowledge of the place, we drop a lot of bombs and wonder why they don't love democracy.

Vietnam and Afganistan are identical in the aspect we're not there because of there we're there because of here. Pres. Obama is explicit in that regard which I appreciate. He's completely wrong also.

We're in Afganistan because of 9/11 and Afganistan had about as much to do 9/11 as Hamburg did. What is no hard about actually taking Osama bin Laden at his word...America deserves the wraith of Allah because of our support of Israel, the occupation of his holy land, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis. OBL stated that in 1996.

What has America done since then? Killed hundreds of thousands of more Muslims. Turned Iraq inside out and continued the chaos that is Afganistan. Thanks Uncle Sam.

james joseph butler - 9/2/2009

"JFK installed the Baath party..Carter promoted Saddam all the way to the top in 79'." Nasser had more to do with the rise of the Baath party than JFK and the end of the British installed Hashemites was outwardly about power to the Arabs, believe or not.

Carter and Saddam; Saddam didn't need anyone's help to rise to the top. Jimmy Carter "promoting" him is ludicrous.

R.R. Hamilton - 8/26/2009

No one listens to S. Kutler anyway.

R.R. Hamilton - 8/26/2009

Yes, the U.S. "installed Saddam", but few ever mention that it was all done by Democrats: JFK installed the Baath Party in power in '63; LBJ installed Saddam as head of Iraqi internal security in '68, and of course, Carter promoted Saddam all the way to the top in '79.

Btw, for Mr. Dresner: The Sino-Vietnamese war was in 1979, not 1975.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/25/2009

I was told there were some U.S. Army 2.5 ton trucks used against the French at Dienbienfu, which had been hauled all the way from North Korea where we left them...

I doubt if Dean Rusk intended to "demean" the Chinese by using the word "Peiping." Everybody said "Peking" or "Peiping" in those days, without intending to insult the Chinese. Your slant on this doesn't fit, and is clearly a retroactive use of modern PC babble.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/24/2009

Yeah, that "millenium of historic enmity" is pretty bad history on the China-Vietnam issue. The war in 1975 was about borders and ingratitude. Chinese help to Vietnam was never very substantial, though: China wasn't in a condition to be much help during Mao's reign; Soviet aid was more substantial.

Joel Rosenblum - 8/24/2009

Could I see some sources for this? It goes against commonly available information. Just because China made war against the victorious North Vietnamese doesn't mean they didn't help them during the U.S.-Vietnam war. Remember how the U.S. installed Sadam and created bin Laden and then went to war against them? Kinda like that.

Maybe "most" (51% + or - 3%) Americans are "against the war", but the same poll says that "Broad majorities across party lines say they are confident that the United States will defeat the Taliban"... and I would venture that Americans rate Afghanistan as a very low priority issue no matter what their feelings regarding it, compared to the economic crisis. We're selfish that way. Most people are.

I think the most important polls to take into consideration, if we are to take any seriously, are the ones which say that 25% of Afghans approve of killing U.S. troops, and that number jumps to 44% in areas that have had casualties due to U.S. bombs. Is it possible to "build" a nation that hostile to you? I'm just surprised the U.S. soldier casualties are still so low.