25 October 2009

This one doesn't hold water

Every time I re-visit the Afghanistan debate, I also find myself dithering between counter-insurgency, counter-terror, and a hybrid mix between the two of them. I think that the latest "hybrid" theory on Afghanistan is based, in no small part, on the fair amount of logic in both camps about the operational needs in the COIN camp and the strategic value of Afghanistan in the CT camp.

Needless to say, this argument to abandon Afghanistan doesn't really seem to hold a lot of water (H/T SWJ, from today's Washington Post):

Vietnam is the nuclear option of historical analogies. Yet, rather than fear that Afghanistan will become another Vietnam, we should embrace the prospect. If the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan eventually resembles the one we now have with Vietnam, we should be overjoyed. Little more than a generation after a bloody, frustrating war, Vietnam and the United States have become close partners in Southeast Asia, exchanging official visits, building an important trading and strategic relationship and fostering goodwill between governments, businesses and people on both sides.

The lessons of the Vietnam War are clear and sobering, but history does not end in 1975, when the last American diplomats fled Saigon. Once large-scale fighting ends in Afghanistan, Washington should strive for the kind of reconciliation it has achieved with Vietnam. America did not win the war there, but over time it has won the peace. As unlikely as it seems today, the same outcome is possible in Afghanistan...

...Today, however, 76 percent of Vietnamese say U.S. influence in Asia is positive, according to a 2008 study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs -- a greater percentage than in Japan, China, South Korea or Indonesia. When President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam in 2000, citizens greeted him like a rock star, mobbing him whenever he stepped out in public. Two-way trade now surpasses $15 billion annually, compared with virtually nothing in 1995, the year the two countries normalized diplomatic ties. American companies have descended upon Vietnam, and last year foreign direct investment in the country tripled compared with 2007.

U.S. Navy ships now call at Vietnamese ports, and the two governments have institutionalized high-level exchanges, including a 2003 Pentagon visit by Vietnam's defense minister -- the highest-level Vietnamese military trip to Washington since the war. Following up on Clinton's visit, President George W. Bush traveled to Vietnam in 2006; the previous year, Bush welcomed Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai on a visit to America.

Why the dramatic reversal? Time helped, certainly: Just as Americans will forget Mohammad Omar, eventually the images of tortured American POWs and massive bombing of the Vietnamese countryside began to fade on both sides. But more important, American war veterans publicly made peace with their old adversaries. In the Senate, vets John Kerry and John McCain pushed for the normalization of ties between the nations in the 1990s. And on the ground in Vietnam, groups of veterans met with civilians from the areas where they had served. These meetings had a profound impact on Vietnamese public opinion.

Hanoi reciprocated American goodwill and allowed a U.S. investigative commission to scour the country for any remaining prisoners of war, a major concern of the U.S. veterans community. The commission reported in 1993 that it had found little evidence that any POWs remained. The report, more than any other gesture, helped bring the American public on board for reengaging with Hanoi.

A nation with no ports, minimal economic value, and poor road transportation will probably not become a beacon of liberal democracy, trusted friend, and booming economic partner upon NATO withdrawal and a resurgent Taliban sharia government. Sorry, foreign policy does not look like this:

Step 1.) Withdraw from Afghanistan
Step 2.) ?
Step 3.) Profit!


CJWilly said...

Hi, I really enjoy your blog, but I think you're really off with this post.

The point isn't that Vietnam is a happy, liberal democratic trading partner. (They're not, they poor and despotic.)

The point is, they're a poor peasant country for God's sake, how much can they possibly threaten you? Once bone-headed policymakers understood that reality in Vietnam, a perfectly good and reciprocal relationship with the Communist regime of Vietnam became possible. (As we have good relations with any number of dictatorships.)

Starbuck said...

Yeah, the sarcasm meter was running a little high this morning, what can I say? The coffee straightened me out :)

I think the author played up Vietnam's increasingly friendly relations toward the United States--and I think many took that to mean that the author felt that Afghanistan may yield the same results (which I doubt).

What you bring up is the ultimate crux of the matter--what would a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan mean for the United States? (And this is one of the most fundamental questions about Afghanistan).

Paul said...

Oh brother!

The comparison between Vietnam and Afghanistan breaks down right after you acknowledge that they’re both crummy places to fight a war (but then, who’s ever found a good place to fight one). Vietnam, no matter how you cut it up, was a “war of national liberation” with a single insurgent group backed by invasion from a neighbor. Afghanistan, on the other hand is essentially a militia war — a lot of little armies under one umbrella (the Taliban) against the (nearly phantom) Afghan National Army and a bunch of militias who are on our side for the moment at least. The whole group would fall to fighting among themselves pretty quickly if we were to up and leave — in other words, it’s anarchy waiting to happen. This is the part of COIN that has me worried — how are we going to weld all of the groups on OUR side into something resembling a cohesive government? Fortunately, though, I don’t have to worry about this too much; I’m too old. On top of that, we have plenty of smart people, including our host here and several thousand others, some maybe even smarter, thinking about this very thing.

Second, Vietnam always had a productive society — even in the North, which was always the poorer of the two halves. While both North and South suffered a great deal of damage during the war, Vietnam was never not able to feed itself and, in fact, rice is one of the country’s major exports today even though the population has doubled since the war. Think about that for a minute. We droped a higher tonnage of bombs on that one little corner of the world than we did all over the world during WWII, and sprayed enough defoliant on the South to keep every lawn in America weed-free forever, and they were STILL able to feed themselves. Moreover, Vietnam had, and certainly has today, a decently educated populace who aren’t stuck in the feudal stage. All of the leaders of both sides were university-educated and universities on both sides were kept open during the war. They have the brains and initiative to turn what some might consider economic disadvantages (e.g., low wages) into a competitive advantage. Does this sound like Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has an illiteracy rate of 60% among men and 80% among women. It has no industry to speak of and its major export is opium poppy. It’s entire GDP isn’t large enough to pay for an army of a size necessary to police it, let alone anything else. It’s a tribal society stuck in the feudal era. Reading recent Afghan history reminds me of the campaigns during the “Braveheart” era in the British Isles, complete with posturing, backstabbing, double-crosses and all the rest. (I wonder if that’s why the T’ban like the movie so much.) The major difference seems to be that these guys have Toyota pickups instead of cavalry and AK-47s and RPGs instead of swords and maces.

On top of everything else, Vietnam had enviable access to the sea and well-developed ports even during the war, and what we left them in terms of infrastructure — mainly airports and seaports — would be the envy of any country. It also has the world’s finest natural deep water port in Cam Ranh Bay, which Uncle Sugar developed for them from scratch for free. Afghanistan, by contrast, is landlocked, has little infrastructure and doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of real development out of us except for the FOBs, and what are they going to be good for when we leave?


Paul said...


Finally, no one except China, the Soviet Union and us wanted to play in the Vietnam sandbox. China tried to get pushy with an invasion after we left and Vietnam kicked their a55 right back across the border. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is a very crowded sandbox. Pakistan, India, Iran, the Gulf states, all of the -stans, Turkey, Russia and maybe China — plus us, of course — all want to play in it.

Frankly, if someone offered me 10 Afghanistans plus a first round draft pick in return for Vietnam, I’d keep Vietnam.

[Starbuck — Sorry to be so wordy. I’ll try to do better next time.]