Vietnam War Lessons: Never Too Late to Learn

Developments over the last month or so have put the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan under a dark cloud. The McChrystal affair and the WikiLeaks revelations are symptomatic of deeper troubles: the rapid bankruptcy of counterinsurgency, a surge in U.S. casualties, the persistently problematic role of Pakistan, the continued immobility of the Karzai regime, the sluggish progress in training Afghan forces, and declining domestic support. Vietnam lessons would seem never more pertinent.

That earlier war most obviously underlines the long odds against nation building. The U.S. commander, General William Westmoreland, understood from the start that he was waging “a political as well as a military war.” The ultimate goal was securing “the loyalty and cooperation of the people” and winning time for “reestablishing the government apparatus, strengthening [Saigon’s] military forces, rebuilding the administrative machinery, and re-instituting the services of the Government.” (The full Westmoreland document can be found in A Vietnam War Reader.)

But this strategy along with massive U.S. assistance did not secure Saigon against Hanoi and the Hanoi-sponsored insurgency. The U.S.-backed political elite under both the Diem family and the generals who followed was badly fractured. Saigon’s military effectiveness was low whether measured in training, morale, battlefield performance, or desertion rate. The South Vietnamese public was never mobilized behind the government. The attempt to “stand up” the South Vietnamese government managed to accentuate the dependence of an already weak regime.

The U.S. nation-building strategy in Afghanistan seems a sorry recapitulation of the Vietnam experience. Even as President Obama embraced voguish but vague counter-insurgency notions championed by military intellectuals late last year, a wide range of critics expressed sharp skepticism. One of the most trenchant, U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry, warned that Karzai “continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development.” Even more worrisome, there was “no political ruling class that provides an overarching national identity that transcends local affiliations and provides reliable partnership.” So what happens as U.S. leaders begin to realize they are trying to make bricks without straw — to do nation building in a country without a tradition of a strong central government and with significant ethnic divisions?

History, which seems not to have played a part in the decision going into Afghanistan, might yet prove helpful by shedding some light on the pitfalls in finding a way out. The most obvious pitfall is the gap between experts and policymakers on the critical issues of who the enemy is and what sort of strategy might work. In Vietnam by the time of the major troop commitment in 1965, the U.S. government could draw on substantial expertise in think tanks and the CIA. Despite research indicating high enemy morale, intense dedication, long experience, and effective popular mobilization, policymakers could not shake the notion of the insurgents as terrorists, their sponsors in Hanoi as aggressors comparable to Hitler, and their challenge as part of a monolithic, global threat. Even when U.S. leaders grasped expert insights, they still clung to deeply held axioms about maintaining U.S. international prestige. Retreat, Johnson intoned privately in 1965, “would just lose us face in the world, and I shudder to think what all of ’em would say.”

The current Afghan war seems marked by a similar gulf between experts and policymakers. Once more, policymakers speak publicly of a ruthless, terrorist enemy that functions as part of region-wide radical Islamist monolith, and the president himself insists that the only option is victory. It’s time to listen to those who know the neighborhood. They want to remove from the picture foreign (U.S. and other NATO) forces on the ground that may be doing more harm than good. They suggest focusing on a battered Al Qaeda as the enemy while coming to terms with the Taliban. They propose shifting resources and attention from the shadow of a central government in Kabul to more robust political forces in the provinces. They argue for engaging the regional powers who have a major long-term stake in the future of Afghanistan. They worry that the pressure U.S. strategy puts on Pakistan could backfire. If it were to fracture much as the Vietnam conflict helped destroy Cambodia, the consequences could make current problems look minor.

But can Obama get beyond the simple axioms that have guided U.S. policy for over half a century? Vietnam suggests that resolving to liquidate a weak position is hard, and carrying it out even harder. Presidents dodged and twisted to avoid anything that might look like weakness. Kennedy spent three years worrying about his administration’s escalating support for South Vietnam, but he nonetheless escalated. Johnson was by 1965 well aware of how troubled the Vietnam commitment was. Yet the war continued at full fury through the end of his presidency. Nixon came into office keen to get out of the Vietnam quagmire. Yet he kept the war going for four more years despite mounting impatience at home, despite the Saigon military’s failure in the field, despite an unyielding Hanoi, and despite the reluctance of Beijing and Moscow to push their Vietnamese ally. A frustrated, agitated Nixon swore to Kissinger in mid-1971, “[W]e’re not gonna go out whimpering, and we’re not gonna go out losing.” Eventually he would accept terms that left Hanoi’s troops in the field even as American forces left. The war had ended in a U.S. defeat, whatever Nixon might call it.

Afghanistan policy has now reached a familiar point of striking disarray. The foreign policy establishment, Congress, and the media are voicing doubts ever more forcefully, and over half the public surveyed in June expressed doubt about the U.S. commitment. There are good reasons to look for a way out, and easily identified steps to take. But can the president take those steps even though they amount to another confession that the United States lacks the power to shape regional developments to its preferences?

Like Johnson and Nixon, Obama will find those powerful old axioms ringing in his ears and powerful constituencies constantly echoing them. What was difficult in Vietnam will prove no easier in Afghanistan.

Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.