Could Afghanistan Be Obama's Vietnam?

About a year ago, Charlie Rose, the nighttime talk-show host, was interviewing Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the military adviser at the White House coordinating efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. "We have never been beaten tactically in a fire fight in Afghanistan," Lute said. To even casual students of the Vietnam War, his statement has an eerie echo. One of the iconic exchanges of Vietnam came, some years after the war, between Col. Harry Summers, a military historian, and a counterpart in the North Vietnamese Army. As Summers recalled it, he said, "You never defeated us in the field." To which the NVA officer replied: "That may be true. It is also irrelevant."

Vietnam analogies can be tiresome. To critics, especially those on the left, all American interventions after Vietnam have been potential "quagmires." But sometimes clichés come true, and, especially lately, it seems that the war in Afghanistan is shaping up in all-too-familiar ways. The parallels are disturbing: the president, eager to show his toughness, vows to do what it takes to "win." The nation that we are supposedly rescuing is no nation at all but rather a deeply divided, semi-failed state with an incompetent, corrupt government held to be illegitimate by a large portion of its population. The enemy is well accustomed to resisting foreign invaders and can escape into convenient refuges across the border. There are constraints on America striking those sanctuaries. Meanwhile, neighboring countries may see a chance to bog America down in a costly war. Last, there is no easy way out.

True, there are important differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam. The Taliban is not as powerful or unified a foe as the Viet Cong. On the other hand, Vietnam did not pose a direct national-security threat; even believers in the "domino theory" did not expect to see the Viet Cong fighting in San Francisco. By contrast, while not Taliban themselves, terrorists who trained in Afghanistan did attack New York and Washington in 2001. Afghanistan has always been seen as the right and necessary war to fight—unlike, for many, Iraq. Conceivably, Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the successful surge in Iraq and now, as the head of Central Command in charge of the fight in Afghanistan, could pull off another miraculous transformation.

Privately, Petraeus is said to reject comparisons with Vietnam; he distrusts "history by analogy" as an excuse not to come to grips with the intricacies of Afghanistan itself. But there is this stark similarity: in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, we may now be facing a situation where we can win every battle and still not win the war—at least not within a time frame and at a cost that is acceptable to the American people.

A wave of reports, official and unofficial, from American and foreign (including Afghan) diplomats and soldiers, present and former, all seem to agree: the situation in Afghanistan is bad and getting worse. Some four decades ago, American presidents became accustomed to hearing gloomy reports like that from Vietnam, although the public pronouncements were usually rosier. John F. Kennedy worried to his dying day about getting stuck in a land war in Asia; LBJ was haunted by nightmares about "Uncle Ho." In the military, now as then, there are a growing number of doubters. But the default switch for senior officers in the U.S. military is "can do, sir!" and that seems to be the light blinking now. In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, when in doubt, escalate. There are now about 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration appear to agree that the number should be twice that a year or so from now.

To be sure, even 60,000 troops is a long way from the half million American soldiers sent to Vietnam at the war's peak; the 642 U.S. deaths sustained so far pale in comparison to the 58,000 lost in Vietnam. Still, consider this: that's a higher death toll than after the first nine years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. And what is troubling is that no one in the outgoing or incoming administration has been able to say what the additional troops are for, except as a kind of tourniquet to staunch the bleeding while someone comes up with a strategy that has a chance of working. The most uncomfortable question is whether any strategy will work at this point.

It's still too early to say exactly what President Obama will do in Afghanistan. But there are some signs—difficult to read with certainty, yet nonetheless suggestive—that reality is sinking in, at least in some important corners of the new administration. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the one Bush cabinet holdover, worries that increasing the size of the U.S. military's footprint in Afghanistan will merely fan the locals' antipathy toward foreigners. "We need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan," he told a congressional committee last week. "My worry is that the Afghans come to see us as part of the problem, rather than as part of the solution. And then we are lost."

Vietnam, half a world away, seemed alien to many Americans and to Westerners generally. Afghanistan might as well be the moon. At least Vietnam had been a French colony, albeit a troubled one. Afghanistan resisted colonization, dispatching 19th-century British and 20th-century Russian soldiers with equal efficiency. "Afghanistan is not a nation, it is a collection of tribes," according to a Saudi diplomat who did not wish to publicly disparage a Muslim neighbor. In Vietnam, the Ngo Dinh Diem government was seen as illegitimate because Diem was a Roman Catholic in a mostly Buddhist country and because it was propped up by the United States. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai's government was essentially created by the United States after local warlords, backed by American airpower, ousted the Taliban in 2001. (Karzai was elected in his own right in 2004, but at a time when he was clearly favored by America and faced no serious rivals.)

As in Diem's Vietnam, government corruption is epic; even Karzai says so. "The banks of the world are full of the money of our statesmen," he said last November. His former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, rates his old government as "one of the five most corrupt in the world" and warns that Afghanistan is becoming a "failed, narco-mafia state." In a country where seven out of 10 citizens live on about a dollar a day, the average family each year must pay about $100 in baksheesh, or bribes (in Vietnam, this was known as "tea" or "coffee" money). Foreign aid is, after narcotics, the readiest source of income in Afghanistan. But it has been widely estimated that because of stealing and mismanagement in Kabul, the capital, less than half of the money actually finds its way into projects, and only a quarter of that makes it to the countryside, where 70 percent of the people live.

To Afghans now, as to Vietnamese then, the government is more often an arbitrary force to be feared than a benevolent protector. Ordinary Vietnamese lived with the fear of crossing someone more powerful, who could always turn them over to the Americans as an enemy sympathizer; a similar fear pervades Afghanistan now. When U.S. forces quickly crushed the Taliban after 9/11, many Afghans welcomed them, thinking the all-powerful Americans would transform their streets and schools and the economy. Now bitterness has set in. "What have the people of Afghanistan received from the Coalition?" asks Zamir Kabulov, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan. "They lived very poorly before, and they still live poorly—but sometimes they also get bombed by mistake."

Nation-building in Afghanistan may be a hopeless cause. Periods of peace under centralized rule have been few and far between. Violence has been the norm: in the 18th century a Persian king, Nadir Shah, suppressed a revolt and beheaded 6,500 tribesmen (chosen by lot). He stacked their heads in a pyramid—with one of the instigators of the revolt entombed inside. And the Saudi diplomat is right in this sense: especially across the Pashtun belt in southern Afghanistan, local leaders have traditionally held more sway than whoever's in power in Kabul. The Taliban may not be fighting in a nationalist cause per se, as the Viet Cong were. But they certainly are more local, better rooted than the U.S.-led coalition.

The basic mantra of counterinsurgency is "clear, hold and build." Clear the area of insurgents. Hold it so the insurgents cannot return. Build the civic works and government structures so that the community decides to back the government. That's a coherent approach. But while foreign troops can clear better than the Taliban, they simply can't hold as well. In fact, the Taliban are getting pretty good at counterinsurgency themselves—"clear, hold and build" is what they're doing across southern Afghanistan. Their strict brand of justice is appealing to some Afghans, who crave order and security. In some areas Taliban commanders have even relaxed some of their more unpopular dictates, allowing girls to go to school, for instance. Last month, the sober and respected International Council on Security and Development reported that the Taliban "now holds a permanent presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan, up from 54 percent a year ago." They are moving in on Kabul; according to the ICOS report, "three of the four main highways in Kabul are now compromised by Taliban activity."

The Taliban also has one resource that the Viet Cong never enjoyed: a steady stream of income from Afghanistan's massive heroin trade. Afghan poppies produce roughly 93 percent of the world's opium. Although, nominally, eradication has been a high priority since 2004, poppy cultivation has more than doubled. Farmers can't be persuaded to switch to other crops unless they feel confident that the Taliban won't return to kill them as punishment. And besides, they'd need passable roads to move more legitimate crops to functioning markets. The Americans don't have anywhere near enough troops—their own or those of increasingly disillusioned NATO allies—to secure the roads and the farm areas. That's not only because of Afghanistan's size (similar to Texas), but also because of a failure of strategy reminiscent of Vietnam.

America has been trying to pacify Afghanistan essentially through a counterterrorist campaign. The consequence has been that some of the military's most valuable warriors—its Special Forces—have been largely misused. Most people think of Special Forces as jumping out of helicopters on secret and dangerous missions. Actually, until George W. Bush launched his Global War on Terror—and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave the Special Operations Command the lead role—their normal (and arguably more useful) mission was to train up the armies of developing countries. In Vietnam, the Green Berets were initially (and successfully) sent into the highlands to train indigenous tribesmen as guerrilla fighters.

After 1962, however, they were diverted to fruitless efforts to seal Vietnam's frontiers. Similarly, the Special Forces in Afghanistan have been used mostly as strike teams to go after Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders—or deployed along the 1,400-mile border in an effort to stop insurgents from Pakistan—rather than to train Afghanistan's own forces. "The development of Afghan security forces has been a badly managed, grossly understaffed and poorly funded mess," concluded Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Anthony Cordesman in a briefing to Democratic congressional leaders in January. The United States didn't even seriously fund the development of Afghanistan's own forces until 2007.

Even now, America and its NATO allies have provided fewer than half the trainers the Afghans need; and many of those are unskilled. As a result, the Afghan Army is too small and too poorly trained to take over the counterinsurgency missions that constitute the real battle in Afghanistan. The Afghan Army is getting better, but slowly. U.S. commanders privately think it may be five years before most units are able to operate on their own. The Afghan police remain a disaster—leaving U.S. forces to fill the vacuum.

As in Vietnam, efforts to seal the frontier have failed. The Taliban, like the North Vietnamese, has depended crucially on supply routes and sanctuaries just over the border. Just as NVA units were able to slip up and down the Ho Chi Minh trail running through Laos, the Taliban can fade away into the mountains and over the border into the lawless regions of Pakistan. These safe havens give them an invaluable space in which to train and resupply. Taliban fighters are much more willing to return to the fight knowing that their families are parked safely in Pakistan, and that they themselves can retreat there if wounded. One Taliban commander based in Pakistan even gave his men five cell-phone numbers to call for help if they got shot fighting U.S. troops across the border, promising they'd be evacuated and treated quickly.

The Americans have to be careful about chasing after the Taliban into their sanctuaries. In Vietnam, American strategists worried about bringing Russia or China into the war if they bombed too freely in and around Hanoi (by, say, sinking a Russian freighter in Haiphong Harbor). In Pakistan, the Americans worry that a heavy-handed intervention could destabilize the government, a risky move in a country with nuclear weapons. The Pakistanis have shared intelligence on Qaeda targets—and have from time to time launched offensives against Pakistani Taliban fighters along the border—but meanwhile, members of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, have formed covert alliances with some Afghan Taliban factions. The Pakistanis have a strategic interest in keeping Afghanistan—which has developed close ties to archenemy India—weak. Since many Pakistani leaders are convinced that America will eventually leave, they're covering their bets for the future.

In Vietnam, America worried about covert Russian and Chinese backing for the North Vietnamese (some would say too much). Here, Pakistan may not be the only country playing a double game. While neighboring Iran is predominantly Shiite, and has traditionally backed the Sunni Taliban's foes in the Northern Alliance, Tehran may also be the source of some of the more sophisticated IEDs turning up on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Certainly Iran has some interest in seeing the American forces on its border bleed a little. At times, though, the United States can seem like its own worst enemy in Afghanistan. Lacking enough troops, forced to cover vast areas, U.S. forces depend far too heavily on strikes by A-10s, F-15s, even B-1 bombers. In 2004, the U.S. Air Force flew 86 strike sorties against targets in Afghanistan. By 2007, the number was up to 2,926—and that doesn't count rocket or cannon fire from helicopters. U.S. commanders have become much more careful about collateral damage since Vietnam. There are no more "free fire zones" or Marines using Zippo lighters to torch villages. But innocents die in the most carefully planned raids, especially when the enemy cynically uses civilians as cover—as the Viet Cong did, and the Taliban does. Already, civilian casualties have climbed from 929 in 2006 to close to 2,000 in 2008, according to the United Nations. "When we kill innocents, especially women and children, you lose that village forever," says Thomas Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. In the dominant Pashtun tribe, revenge is a duty. Kill one Pashtun tribesman, sadly observes a U.S. Special Forces colonel who spoke anonymously to be more frank, and you make three more your sworn enemy.

This, then, is the mess that faces General Petraeus. He was a near–miracle worker in Iraq, and it may be that just as Lincoln eventually found Grant, Obama will have been lucky to inherit Petraeus. So far, Petraeus is not signaling a new grand strategy, instead letting various policy reviews go forward. A shrewd politician, he may be seeking to quietly educate the new president on the high cost and many years required to "win" in Afghanistan—if such a thing is even possible.

It is a sure bet that Petraeus will want to unify the different commands now muddling the situation in Afghanistan. (Divided command was a chronic problem in Vietnam, too.) Some soldiers report to the Special Operations Command, some to the regular military; some to the U.S. Central Command and some to NATO; and, within NATO, to their own national governments. There are some 37,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan but many are more concerned with "force protection"—not sustaining casualties—than seeking out and engaging the enemy.

Petraeus will work closely with Richard Holbrooke, a veteran diplomat who helped broker peace in the Balkans. Holbrooke is being sent by the State Department to coordinate the scattered and easily corrupted foreign-aid programs and to knock heads to make sure the diplomats, politicians and soldiers are on the same page. Holbrooke is a force of nature; still, he could wind up like Robert (Blowtorch Bob) Komer in Vietnam in the late 1960s —brilliant, capable and too late.

In some ways, there is no mystery to what must be done to fight a successful counterinsurgency. As Petraeus himself has said, the United States cannot kill its way to success. Foreign troops cannot defeat insurgents. Only local forces with popular support can do that. (A RAND study of 90 insurgencies since World War II showed that "governments defeated less than a third of the insurgencies when their competence was medium or low.") It is a good bet that Petraeus will want American soldiers to train local village militias to fight the Taliban. The catch is that the Soviets already tried this (nothing is really new in counterinsurgency) and failed. In Afghanistan, local warlords quickly turn to fighting each other. The local saying is that they can be rented, not bought. And who wants to kill a Taliban fighter if the result is a blood feud?

Americans are appropriately skeptical about the chances of success in Afghanistan. A recent NEWSWEEK Poll shows that while 71 percent of the people believe that Obama can turn around the cratering economy, only 48 percent think he can make progress in Afghanistan. Deploying a U.S. force of 60,000 will cost about $70 billion a year. Training and supporting the 130,000 to 200,000 troops required for a proper Afghan Army would take another decade and could cost at least $20 billion. Petraeus has consistently warned that Afghanistan will be "the longest campaign in the long war" against Islamic extremism. But it's far from clear that Americans have the appetite for such a commitment: after the economy, their top priority is health care (36 percent). Only 10 percent put Afghanistan at the top of their list, even fewer than nominate Iraq. If there is no real improvement on the ground, by the 2010 midterm elections, candidates for office may be decrying "Obama's war."

So why not just get out? As always, it's not so simple. If the Americans pull their troops out, the already shaky Afghan Army could collapse. (Once they lost U.S. air support, South Vietnamese troops sometimes refused to take the field and fight.) Afghanistan could well plunge into civil war, just as it did after the Soviets left in 1989. Already, the Pashtuns in the south regard the American-backed Tajiks who dominate Karzai's administration as the enemy. The winning side would likely be the one backed by Pakistan, which may end up being the Taliban—just as it was in the last civil war.

Some argue this wouldn't be such a bad outcome, if the Taliban could be bribed or persuaded to not let Al Qaeda set up terrorist training bases on Afghan territory. According to one senior Taliban leader, a former deputy minister in Mullah Mohammed Omar's government who would only speak anonymously, some Pakistani officials are urging the insurgents to do something like this now—in return for talks with the Americans. On the other hand, Islamabad could be playing with fire. Given the longstanding ties between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, a jihadist state on its border is a threat to Pakistan, too. And here, U.S. national-security interests definitely do come into play.

Some problems do not have a solution, or any good solution. Two studies of the Afghanistan mess cochaired by retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, now President Obama's national-security adviser, asserted last year that America cannot afford to lose in Afghanistan. Who wants to be the American president who allows jihadists to claim that they defeated and drove out American forces? Daniel Ellsberg, the government contractor who leaked the Pentagon papers, used to say about Vietnam, "It was always a bad year to get out of Vietnam." The same is all too true for Afghanistan.