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Despite parallels, Afghanistan isn't Vietnam

"Could Afghanistan be Obama's Vietnam?" Newsweek

"It sounds an awful lot like Vietnam already.'' — Rep Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H.

"Don't let Afghanistan become Obama's Vietnam.'' — Huffington Post

As the war with Afghanistan grinds into its eighth year, comparisons to Vietnam are inevitable. And not totally unjustified.

Like South Vietnam in the '60s and '70s, Afghanistan has an increasingly unpopular head of state, President Hamid Karzai, whose corrupt, inefficient government holds little sway outside the capital and is being propped up by massive amounts of U.S. money and manpower.

And as in South Vietnam, American soldiers are battling insurgents who know the terrain, blend in seamlessly with the local populace and have little fear of death in their zeal to drive out foreign infidels.

But that may be as far as the parallels go, even as President Barack Obama sends in another 20,000 troops to join the 40,000 already there.

"One needs to be very careful about drawing too many analogies between conflicts anywhere because the context and backgrounds are very different,'' warns Christopher Langton, an expert on Afghanistan at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

During the Cold War, the United States viewed communism as the biggest threat to global security. The reason for the huge troop buildup in Vietnam was not because Vietnam posed a direct threat to the United States, but because of fears that its collapse into communist hands would cause a dominolike ripple throughout Southeast Asia.

As the death toll soared — the war ultimately claimed 58,000 Americans and 1.2 million Vietnamese — support for U.S. involvement plunged both in the United States and abroad. Contrast that to the mood after the Sept. 11 attacks, when much of the world expressed outrage that a plot hatched in Afghanistan had killed nearly 3,000 Americans on their own soil.

The Afghan war "is very much an international effort,'' Langton notes. "There is criticism that the United States is doing the heavy lifting but nonetheless it's a conflict involving probably up to 40 countries.''

Moreover, the Americans fighting in Afghanistan are volunteers, not conscripts. (Can anyone who came of age in the late '60s ever forget those ghastly draft lotteries used to determine which young American males would be shipped off to Vietnam?)

"This is not a conscript army that the United States has in Afghanistan, and that's a very big difference in terms of national perception,'' Langton says. "The body bags syndrome is not so potent at home as it was with Vietnam.''

Politically speaking, there are also vast differences between the two countries. In South Vietnam, the United States supported a series of undemocratic military regimes. The turmoil caused by near-constant coups fed support for the communists, who seized Saigon in 1975 and reunited the county under communist rule.

Afghanistan, by comparison, has had a democratic government since Karzai was elected president in 2004. He is expected to retain his job when voters go to the polls again in August. But the robust field of candidates includes two women — something that would have seemed inconceivable a decade ago when the country was still under misogynistic Taliban rule.

Though Afghanistan is often called the "graveyard of empires'' — first the British, later the Soviets — that doesn't mean it will destroy the United States as a superpower or morph into Obama's version of Vietnam. But to succeed, outsiders have to come to grips with this realty: Afghans have a tribal culture in which both friend (pro-Western Afghans) and foe (the Taliban) often hail from the same tribe and put tribal loyalties above all else.

"One thing the Soviets admitted was that they did not understand the (tribal) factor,'' Langton says. "We talk about it so we're slightly ahead of them, but I'm not exactly sure we understand how to deal with it either.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at

Despite parallels, Afghanistan isn't Vietnam 05/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 6:55pm]
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