Vietnam in the Hindu Kush? A Reading Assignment

On November 4, 2009 I was a participant in the latest of Boston University's semiannual "Great Debates." The debate question was, "Is the War in Afghanistan Worth Fighting?" My partners in the Oxford- style debate were my esteemed B.U. colleague Andrew Bacevich, who has written and spoken eloquently about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and B.U. graduate student Kenice Mobley. We argued the Negative position. Across the stage were old friend (from 1980s Peshawar days) Thomas Johnson, an Afghanistan expert if ever there was one; Marin Strmecki of the Smith Richardson Foundation; and B.U. doctoral candidate Abram Trosky. At the conclusion of the debate, the house was asked to divide (move to one side of the auditorium or the other, depending on which side you felt won) and our Negative team carried the day.

Is the war in Afghanistan worth fighting? That's a harsh question, which pretty much asked the Negative side to write off the Afghan people, which none of us advocated. But we based our argument chiefly on Andrew Bacevich's compelling premise that the strategic interest of the United States in Afghanistan is minimal, and grossly disproportionate to the amounts of blood and treasure we are spending there when we have crying needs to address within our own borders. Furthermore, I argued, the more we try to fight for the Afghan people the more we find ourselves fighting against them. Most of the Taliban, after all, are Afghans, and the ranks of the Taliban grow with every misguided American bomb that kills civilians, and with every house-to-house, kick-down-the-doors search by U.S. troops in violation of centuries of Afghan tradition and custom.

Andrew Bacevich's case was succinctly stated earlier, in the August 15, 2009 issue of Commonweal and reprinted in the November issue of Harper's Magazine.

Our position in the Great Debate was supported in substance by our putative opponent, Tom Johnson, who argued passionately that the war was worth fighting only if the U.S. abandons the "Big Army" approach, tries a lot harder to understand the people we are trying to protect, and works to reestablish Afghanistan's traditional governance, which is at the local, village level.

Now Tom Johnson and co-author Chris Mason have published a forceful argument for this approach in the November-December issue of Military Review. The article, titled "Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template" deftly illuminates the haunting similarities between the U.S. failure in Vietnam and our headed-for-failure approach in Afghanistan. As the authors note, many people have been reluctant to compare the two wars for fear of "taking the analogy too far," but in fact the analogy can be taken a long, long way.

The Vietnam and Afghan wars are bookends to my own experience in war zones. As a U.S. Army officer in Vietnam in 1968-1969 I could see for myself the futility of the Big Army approach to fighting an indigenous insurgency. When I returned to Vietnam in 2003, in the company of a former South Vietnamese army officer who had spent a decade in the "re-education camps" after the war, I came to the ironic conclusion that Vietnam was finally the country we had promised the Vietnamese - we had just delayed its arrival by a couple of decades and countless lost lives. My non-military experience with the Afghans began as a journalism trainer for Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan in the 1980s and finally took me to Kabul in 2004 and 2005 for extended working visits. During those months the echoes of Vietnam rang loudly in my head, from the creation and propping up of a corrupt and ineffective government to the asymmetrical warfare pitting Big Army against indigenous guerrilla.

If the U.S. and the NATO allies truly want to help the Afghan people - and the Afghan people truly want help, I'm sure of that - we should stop trying to force-fit Afghanistan into a rigid Western mold and work with the Afghans, not against them. I'll bet the Obama team formulating the way forward in Afghanistan did not invite a single Afghan village leader to the table. As Johnson and Mason point out, the government must be perceived as legitimate "by 85 to 90 percent of the population" for a counterinsurgency to succeed. In Afghanistan today, you can stand those percentages on their heads.