Many have speculated that Afghanistan could become this generation’s Vietnam, but it appears the outcome of the war in Afghanistan will be much different than the Vietnam War. There are many similarities with Afghanistan and Vietnam, but there are many differences too.
Our war with Afghanistan started soon after Sept. 11, 2001, when it was determined that the hijackers who flew into the twin towers of New York, the Pentagon and into the ground in southwestern Pennsylvania were all members of Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is a fundamentalist, Islamic, multinational, stateless group bent on destroying America and Americans. The headquarters of Al Qaeda was located in Afghanistan. The Taliban were creating a safe haven for Al Qaeda. The Taliban is a group of Islamic fundamentalists, from Afghanistan, who were protecting Al Qaeda.
The word Taliban means student. It is a religious and political group that governed Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001 when its leaders were removed from power by NATO forces. In 2004, a new Taliban insurgency group rose up in guerilla style to attempt to defeat the current elected administration.
The guerillas of the Taliban are similar to the guerillas of the Viet Cong in Vietnam. They were also an insurgent group of local Vietnamese and warlords.
Vietnam had a history of foreign occupation from the French and then from the United States. Afghanistan has a history of foreign occupation from the British in the middle 1800’s, the Russians in the 1980’s and now the United States from 2001 until the present.
Both governments of Vietnam and Afghanistan are rumored to be corrupt and they don’t have the full support of their people.
In both cases, it is said to be asymmetric warfare when a weaker side can successfully exert leverage on a stronger military power. Power is not everything. When a military power goes into a foreign nation, they don’t know all the nooks and crannies of the area. They may have air power, but they don’t have land power. It is very difficult to fight a ground war in someone else’s house. The locals know all the hiding places that the foreign military doesn’t.
The terrain is an important aspect. The terrain in Vietnam was tropical, with rainy seasons and incredible heat and humidity. Afghanistan is rugged with mountains and unpaved roads and extreme climate changes.
It is hard to win the hearts and the minds of the local people if you look like a previous occupier. In Vietnam, the United States looked just like the French, and to the Vietnamese, they were the same. In Afghanistan, the United States looks just like the British and the Russians, there is little difference to the local people.
So much for the similarities, the differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam are that the United States was attacked by Al Qaeda and the war is against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. These are our sworn enemies. Al Qaeda attacked over 3,000 innocent Americans on our soil. Vietnam never attacked us, we were just there to keep the Communists out of Southeast Asia. We had no vested interest in Vietnam, except perhaps the oil of Sumatra and the rest of Southeast Asia.
As presidential adviser, James Rubin recently stated on MSNBC, “The whole world is on our side in Afghanistan; the whole world was clearly not on our side in Vietnam.”
On Sunday, Sept. 27, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S commander in Afghanistan stated on “60 Minutes” that he is fed up with the way the United States has been fighting the war for the past eight years. McChrystal assumed his current assignment on June 15, 2009. Since that time, he has said that the situation in Afghanistan is a little worse than he thought it was. He said the violence in the north and the west is greater than he expected.
He sent a new directive to his troops in writing that stated, “We must change the way we think, act and operate.
“If the people are against us, we cannot be successful. If the people view us as occupiers and the enemy, we can’t be successful and our casualties will go up dramatically.”
“The only way to win is to earn the support of the people,” McChrystal explained. “Conventional military operations designed to kill the enemy can never win this war. Destroying homes and accidentally killing civilians in the process only creates more insurgents and alienates the population.”
McChrystal then stated that “civilian casualties … are literally how we lose the war or in many ways how we win it.”
Although Afghanistan is bigger than Iraq, it only has half as many forces as Iraq. McChrystal told “60 Minutes,” that he plans to double the forces to 400,000.
With McChrystal’s understanding of the people of Afghanistan, I think it is possible to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and in turn win the war in Afghanistan.