Vietnam then, Afghanistan now

Obama’s ‘surge’ reminiscent of previous US failures

In late March President Barack Obama unveiled his new policy for dealing with the war in Afghanistan, a conflict that is escalating and drawing the United States into deeper involvement in Central Asia.  There was something of an eerie déjà vu to the president’s new policy. It was reminiscent of a previous policy put forward by a former US president in another conflict: President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 decision to dispatch thousands of additional combat troops and civilian advisers to Vietnam — a major step in the escalation of the war.

In his speech to the nation, President Obama said that sending civilian advisers to Afghanistan was paramount to winning the war. In 1964, the US had 23,300 civilian advisers in Southeast Asia, and we know the outcome of that war. US policymakers in the mid-1960s feared that if Vietnam fell to the communists, it would only be a matter of time before the region would be engulfed by the Reds. This was called the “domino” theory.

More than 40 years later the threat of communism is no longer a reality, having all but disappeared from the geopolitical map of the world — Cuba and North Korea being the exception. Today the enemy has changed; communism was replaced by a more potent enemy given that philosophy has been replaced by theology. Bringing God into the picture has always been a powerful ingredient to raise the level of violence and hate.

This new threat is often referred to in the West as Islamist; a more politically correct term would be Salafist or Takfiri. Regardless of what you call them, the fear of the domino effect persists.

History has shown the war in Vietnam could not be won by sending more civilian advisers or combat troops.  The same applies in Afghanistan. In recent history the British tried, as did the Soviets. Both failed.

While one may draw many similarities between the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, there are important differences to bear in mind when considering why Western involvement in Afghanistan is important.

The Vietnamese fought to liberate their land. They had no intention of supporting or exporting terrorism.  They did not attack targets in the United States, Europe or in the Arab and Islamic world. Al Qaeda and other Takfiri groups on the other hand have proven otherwise.

Obama’s new policy may not be the most brilliant, and may draw the US into an open-ended conflict, but the administration has little choice. The situation in Afghanistan represents a real danger to the security of Western nations. Much time was wasted by an unnecessary war in Iraq.

An important distinction from the previous administration’s Afghan policy is the inclusion of Pakistan as part of the problem, and therefore part of the solution. Pakistan is to the war in Afghanistan what Cambodia was to Vietnam.

Successful engagement in Vietnam, it was believed, necessitated expanding the conflict into Cambodia, and today, similarly, the success of the Afghan campaign requires extending military operations into Pakistan.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are intricately connected. Neither country’s problems can be solved so long as the Taliban enjoy rear bases in the Pakistani border areas. And as long as Afghanistan remains unstable and insecure, it accentuates the risk of the conflict expanding and engulfing other countries in the region.

While Obama’s new policy was welcomed in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, some Afghan diplomats remain skeptical, as elements in the Pakistani leadership, especially in the military, continue to profit from what one diplomat termed “the AAA of Pakistan.” The diplomat explained: “Allah, army and America.”

For some members of Pakistan’s military intelligence branch, the ISI, the AAA has turned into a lucrative business. While the problem of the jihadist Taliban and al-Qaeda (fighters in the name of Allah) continues, America — the first ‘A’ — will continue to send funding to Pakistan and to support the country’s military with weapons and money, thus keeping the army — the second ‘A’ — in business. There is however a new twist in this tale. While America’s European allies may be reluctant to contribute more troops to the Afghan war effort, help may come from an unexpected source: Russia.

The Russians know only too well the problem in Afghanistan, and Moscow has indicated its willingness to help out. Despite recent tensions between the Russians and the West over the war in Georgia and the U.S. plan to position an anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe, Moscow is aware that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would threaten its national security.

Speaking to the BBC, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said Moscow “was ready to participate in the efforts directed at putting things in order” in Afghanistan. This is an offer Washington cannot and should not refuse.

Despite the analogies made to Vietnam and Cambodia, the final chapters of US involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan do not have to match those of Southeast Asia. Having Russia as an ally in this war can make all the difference and set the tone for a positive epilogue.

As mentioned earlier, this war will not be won through military force alone. Winning the war in Afghanistan will necessitate covert operations. Successful covert operations sometimes require the use of unorthodox methods, which is a domain where the Russians may prove very helpful.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political editor in Washington, DC