Winning the Good War: Why Afghanistan Is Not Obama's Vietnam

By Bergen, Peter | The Washington Monthly, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview

Winning the Good War: Why Afghanistan Is Not Obama's Vietnam


Bergen, Peter, The Washington Monthly


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Throughout his campaign last year, President Barack Obama said repeatedly that the real central front of the war against terrorists was on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. And now he is living up to his campaign promise to roll back the Taliban and al-Qaeda with significant resources. By the end of the year there will be some 70,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration is pushing for billions of dollars in additional aid to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This has caused consternation among some in the Democratic Party. In May, fifty-one House Democrats voted against continued funding for the Afghan war. And David Obey, the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which controls federal spending, says the White House must show concrete results in Afghanistan within a year-implying that if it doesn't do so, he will move to turn off the money spigot. If this is the attitude of Obama's own party, one can imagine what the Republicans will be saying if his "Af-Pak" strategy doesn't start yielding results as they gear up for the 2010 midterm elections.

It's not just politicians who are souring on the Afghan war. A USA Today poll earlier this year found that 42 percent of Americans believe the war is a mistake, up from 6 percent in 2002. The media has only added to the gloom. Newsweek ran a cover story in January speculating that Afghanistan could be Obama's Vietnam. And the New York Times has run prominent opinion pieces with headlines like "The 'Good War' Isn't Worth Fighting" and "Fearing Another Quagmire in Afghanistan."

But the growing skepticism about Obama's chances for success in Afghanistan is largely based on deep misreadings of both the country's history and the views of its people, which are often compounded by facile comparisons to the United States's misadventures of past decades in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Afghanistan will not be Obama's Vietnam, nor will it be his Iraq. Rather, the renewed and better resourced American effort in Afghanistan will, in time, produce a relatively stable and prosperous Central Asian state.

Objections to Obama's ramp-up in Afghanistan begin with the observation that Afghanistan has long been the "graveyard of empires"--as went the disastrous British expedition there in 1842 and the Soviet invasion in 1979, so too the current American occupation is doomed to follow. In fact, any number of empire builders, from Alexander the Great to the Mogul emperor Babur in the sixteenth century to the British in the Second Afghan War three decades after their infamous defeat, have won military victories in Afghanistan. The graveyard of empires metaphor belongs in the graveyard of cliches.

The Soviets, of course, spent almost a decade waging war in Afghanistan, only to retreat ignominiously in 1989, an important factor in their own empire's consignment to history's dustbin. But today's American-led intervention in Afghanistan is quite different from the Communist occupation. The Soviet army killed more than a million Afghans and forced some five million more to flee the country, creating what was then the world's largest refugee population. The Soviets also sowed millions of mines (including some that resembled toys), making Afghanistan one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. And Soviet soldiers were a largely unprofessional rabble of conscripts who drank heavily, used drugs, and consistently engaged in looting. The Soviets' strategy, tactics, and behavior were, in short, the exact opposite of those used in successful counterinsurgency campaigns.

Unsurprisingly, the brutal Soviet occupation provoked a countrywide insurrection that drew from a wide array of ethnic groups--Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtuns, and Hazaras--and every class in Afghan society, from mullahs to urban professionals to peasants. By contrast, the insurgents in Afghanistan today are overwhelmingly rural Pashtuns with negligible support in urban areas and among other ethnic groups. …

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