An editorial cartoon in the early 1980s, as the Soviet Union army struggled against the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, featured two shivering soldiers in furry hats in front of a Soviet tank half-buried in snow.
“At least,” one soldier says to the other, “Americans had enough sense to get bogged down in a TROPICAL Asian country.”
At the time, many Americans hoped Afghanistan would become the Soviets’ Vietnam, an unwinnable war in a distant country that sapped the country’s strength and will. In many respects, it was.
Now that the United States has been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviet Union was, and is on the verge of adding 30,000 more troops, some are asking if it will be our next Vietnam.
As he announced the troop buildup last Tuesday, President Barack Obama emphasized the differences. The coalition of allies is larger, the Taliban don’t have the popular support the Viet Cong had, and South Vietnam had never been the base for an attack on the United States the way Afghanistan was for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But there are similarities Obama didn’t mention.
South Vietnam was plagued by the corrupt government of Ngo Dinh Diem during the early days of U.S. involvement there. Likewise, allegations of corruption surround Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said Dale Soden, a Whitworth University professor who teaches a course on the history of the Vietnam War.
“Karzai, like Diem, seems not to have won the hearts and minds of the people,” Soden said. “We struggled with each war: How do we establish a counterinsurgency strategy?”
In both cases, the United States started with a “search and destroy” strategy against opponents. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s proposed shift to secure the population, similar to what Gen. David Petraeus instituted in Iraq, also is akin to the strategy Gen. Creighton Abrams brought to Vietnam when he replaced Gen. William Westmoreland in 1968.
Joe Shogan, now the Spokane City Council president, was a first lieutenant with an armored cavalry unit in South Vietnam in 1970-’71. He believes troops in Afghanistan face many of the same challenges he did a generation ago.
One is the lack of a strong central government, he said. Another is the enemy’s use of booby traps or improvised explosive devices.
“That was the biggest thing I feared,” he said, while noting some differences: “We didn’t have them being set off by cell phone. And I didn’t have to deal with suicide bombers.”
In both cases, the enemy could also escape by crossing a border to a safe haven, Shogan said. The Viet Cong retreated into Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam, where American troops weren’t always allowed to follow. Taliban and al-Qaida fighters find sanctuary in Pakistan.
There’s also the problem of telling friend from foe, said Norm Ernst, a retired elementary school teacher who was part of a group protesting the Afghan war Wednesday.
“You don’t know who the enemy is and who the civilians are,” he said as he stood near the intersection of Wellesley Avenue and Division Street.
One big difference between the two conflicts, at least so far, has been the public’s reaction. The night after Obama announced plans to send an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, about 50 protesters lined the intersection near the NorthTown Mall. Organizers said it wasn’t a bad showing for less than 24 hours notice and temperatures that dipped into the 20s. But it was a far cry from the crowds that protested Vietnam in the late ’60s and early ’70s, or even those that marked the start of the war in Iraq.
“We don’t have the numbers that are willing to go to the streets,” said Rick Galloway, who protested both wars. “There’s no visible cost; there’s no visible pain.”
That’s a result of one of the biggest differences between the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, said Galloway, who sported a vintage peace sign button from a generation ago. The draft made everyone vulnerable during Vietnam, but now the United States has a volunteer force.
Today’s soldiers also see more combat than most Vietnam-era troops. Many draftees on active duty served only one tour in Vietnam unless they volunteered to go back, Shogan said, and few Guard and Reserve units were called up. Between Iraq and Afghanistan, some of today’s soldiers are on their second and third combat tours, and Reserve units serve in both countries.
Right now, one of the biggest differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan is the public support the current war has, said Soden, the Whitworth history professor. Public opposition to Vietnam grew over time, fueled by the draft and increasing casualties.
For Vietnam, the turning point came in the Tet Offensive of early 1968, when the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army attacked a series of cities in South Vietnam. Although they were eventually beat back with heavy casualties, Westmoreland’s call for as many as 200,000 more U.S. troops to defeat the Viet Cong turned many Americans against the war.
“After Tet … we lost confidence in the ability of the government to project when the end of the war would be,” Soden said.
By setting a timetable, Obama may be trying to assure the public that Afghanistan is not a war without end, and to placate liberal members of his own party who argue that America shouldn’t be fighting in the first place. But he’s also leaving enough caveats to the benchmarks for withdrawal to quiet conservative Republicans who argue that any timetable allows the Taliban simply to wait it out.
Obama argued last week that Afghanistan was vital to the larger war against al-Qaida and terrorism.
He seemed to suggest that Vietnam wasn’t in America’s strategic interest, but Afghanistan is, Soden said. Even though Vietnam is commonly referred to as “the wrong war at the wrong time,” there’s still debate over that.
Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson clearly thought Vietnam was in America’s strategic interest, Soden said: “They believed Vietnam was vital to the larger war against communism.”