Bob Franken

Viet Nam-Afghanistan: Have we Learned?

While we used to debate how similar the Iraq War has been to Viet Nam, the Iraq misadventure is nowhere near the parallel universe that Afghanistan is. And we are being sucked in again.

With his insistence he needs more troops to emphasize protecting
Afghan civilians, General Stanley McChrystal sounds eerily like the commanders who assured us that a bigger military commitment would be necessary to “win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese”.

And what about the US supported leaders? As the man said, “Here we go again”. This time around it is Hamid Karzai who presides over a hopelessly corrupt system. Back then America’s crook was Ngo Dinh Diem.

But what is most striking is each country’s repeated rejection of foreign occupiers. The people of what was then called Indochina had just gotten through disgracing the French by driving them out when the United States became the next fool to rush in.

The motive then was a fear of communism spreading through the entire region…what was called the “Domino Effect”, where Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, all the other countries, would fall to the “Red Menace”, one after the other.

We ended up just like the French…fleeing in defeat and suffering a national humiliation that scars us to this day.

In Afghanistan we are following the well worn path left by the bloody bootprints of the Russian communist forces. Their retreat came just the year before the collapse of their Soviet Union and their other Marxist satellites. Afghanistan was the Soviet’s Viet Nam. Today, the United States is marching down the same treacherous path.

The details are not the same, to be sure, a different enemy than we had in Viet Nam… a more valid one, in the aftermath of 9/11.

It is hard to imagine a more vicious, corrupt, repressive group than the Taliban, and one more hospitable to our sworn enemy, al Qaeda. It’s hard to believe this is the same bunch we surreptitiously supported as we undermined the forces of Moscow in Afghanistan in the 80’s.

We had every opportunity to learn doing battle with them in a country that really isn’t a country means we are fighting them on their turf , one that is not organized, at least not in the ways that military manuals say they’re supposed to be.

One big difference this time is the military commander on the ground. General McChrystal, at least is “Special Ops” guy, oriented toward the kind of “Asymmetrical Warfare” needed to take on the insurgencies that define today’s enemies, whose tactics don’t follow the book.

In Viet Nam, it was William Westmoreland, an Artillery guy. He learned the hard way, we all did, that before you can pound the enemy with heavy firepower and superior force, you have to see the enemy.

We’ll find out how different this President is from Lyndon Johnson, who seemed to forget that when it came to military matters he was supposed to be Commander-in-Chief as opposed to his simply saluting smartly and doing whatever the generals wanted…or lied about.

It is not at all clear whether the US and its dwindling number of allies should commit huge new forces in large numbers to Afghanistan, whether we/they should cut our losses and leave, whether there is ground in between or a more effective strategy.

What is clear is that we should learn from the mistakes of a generation ago, so this time we can avoid another debacle that rips at a national fabric that is pretty tattered already, partly by the experience in Viet Nam.

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