Archive for November, 2009



Afghanistan: Obama’s Vietnam?

Published November 29th, 2009 by tcarpenter

President Obama will address the American people on Tuesday night regarding Afghanistan.  Reports have leaked out over the past week that he will announce that he is sending additional troops into that quagmire.  The only question seems to be whether he will send 30,000, 40,000 or some number in between.  That is, frankly, not a very important issue.  And for all of his talk about “off ramps” for the United States if the Afghan government does not meet certain policy targets or “benchmarks,” the reality is that he is escalating our commitment.  Since Obama has repeatedly asserted that the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity, not a war of choice, his talk of off ramps is largely a bluff–and the Afghans probably know it.

I am in the process of co-writing a book that includes a chapter on America’s disastrous war in Vietnam.  I’m the first to acknowledge the hazards of equating one historical event with a development in a different setting and time period.   In fact, the tendency of U.S. leaders to view every conflict in the world over the last 60 years through the prism of the failure to stem Nazi aggression in the 1930s has been a major cause of policy disasters like Vietnam and Iraq.  And I don’t want to imply that what Obama is doing is exactly the same as the foolish strategy that the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations adopted in Southeast Asia during the 1960s.  But there are a couple of very disturbing similiarities.  In both cases, U.S. leaders opted to try to rescue a failing war by sending in more troops.  And in both cases, Washington found itself desperately searching for a “credible” leader who could serve as an effective partner in the war effort.  The United States never found such a leader in Vietnam.  From the first client, Ngo Dinh Diem, to the last leader of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, American policymakers were frustrated by a parade of repressive, corrupt, and ineffectual political figures.  Now, doesn’t that sound more than a little like the problem the Bush and Obama administrations have encountered with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government?

That fact alone suggests that our Afghanistan mission is not likely to turn out well.

Instead of escalating, Obama should move to rapidly draw-down our forces and narrow the mission to one of trying to harrass Al Qaeda and keep it off balance.  My colleague, Malou Innocent, and I published a Cato Institute White Paper, “Escaping the Graveyard of Empires,” describing how to achieve that goal without pursuing the futile objective of nation-building in Afghanistan.