In terms of combat casualties, the numbers are not as high now as they were during the Cold War, but some observers have argued that when it comes to strategic direction, the stakes may be even higher. Vietnam didn’t make the United States demonstrably weaker, but by focusing on the wrong jihadists—and getting sucked into exactly the draining Soviet-style war that Osama bin Laden hoped the September attacks would elicit—Washington is ignoring real threats elsewhere.
The political stakes are high as well. Just as Vietnam led to détente with the Soviet Union, splits in both parties, and a weakened national commitment to wage the Cold War, leaving Afghanistan to its own chaos—and the Taliban—could trigger a huge political upheaval at home. Among other things, such a defeat could force an acknowledgement from unrepentant supporters of the Iraq war that the United States botched the war on terrorism by failing to finish the job in Afghanistan.
President Johnson wished for more stalwart support from fellow Democrat and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright. Instead, Fulbright used his post to challenge the Vietnam War.
Kerry, of course, is all too aware of the Vietnam-Fulbright comparison. But he is quick to note the differences between now and then. “Senator Fulbright was obviously opposed to what Johnson was doing. And I’m trying to work here to refine what we’re doing, to see what we can achieve,” Kerry says. “There really is an enormous difference between Vietnam and our presence in Afghanistan, and that difference centers on the fact that there really was no realistic national-security threat to the United States of America in Vietnam. There is a realistic national-security threat through the Taliban’s affiliation with al-Qaida and al-Qaida’s efforts to attack us.… Look at what happened in the Times Square bomber case; look what happened to the airplanes” that were recently threatened by package bombs.
Yet Kerry acknowledges that credible participants in the discussion—among them his old pals Hagel and Biden (at least before the latter acceded to Obama’s surge)—argue that it’s not that different; that in fact, the Karzai government will never control more than a sliver of the country; that the Afghan military will never be up to snuff; that the Taliban insurgents are not as damaging to American security as al-Qaida; and that with the U.S. effort there now into its 10th year, it’s time to wind down and get out. Hagel says, “It’s a huge mistake to get bogged down with over 100,000 American troops. And this latest decision to bring in armor, that’s astounding to me at a time when we’re trying to work our way out. When you sink in a battalion of armor, sophisticated tanks, you’re going in deeper. You’re not getting out. The optics of that go back to Vietnam. When people see tanks in their country, they think occupation. That’s not something that’s winnable.”
Indeed, a debate still rages over whether the counterinsurgency strategy that Petraeus, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has adopted—and Kerry has endorsed—can ever succeed, especially given Americans’ limited patience for war. The fundamental COIN strategy is based on the idea of protecting the people and thereby winning hearts and minds and getting the locals’ help in rooting out the guerrillas or terrorists (back then, the Vietcong; today, the Taliban).
But a number of well-informed critics say that in Afghanistan, several prerequisites for success are as absent today as they once were in Vietnam—in particular, a central government with credibility, a large-enough military presence for the size of the country, and a local force (the Afghan army and police) to hand things off to. “Requirement No. 1 is to have a host country government that is up to the task. We don’t,” says Paul Pillar, the CIA’s former top counterterrorism analyst, who has become a strident critic of the war. “But Petraeus’s prestige is such that very few people dare to challenge him or the COIN doctrine.”
Questions about the reliability of the Afghan government elicit long pauses—and a lot of sighing—from U.S. military advisers in Afghanistan. One big problem is the mismatch of timelines: Effective counterinsurgency just takes too long. Consider the buildup of Afghan forces. “In the Army, it takes 20 years to make a colonel, best case. But we don’t have 20 years. We’ve got an Afghan army of 50,000 privates,” many of them on drugs, says another critic of COIN, an Army officer who is engaged in the debate inside the Pentagon but would talk about it only on condition of anonymity. “Especially among U.S. soldiers coming back from Afghanistan, it’s very hard to find true believers at this point. It’s hard to find people who tell me the plan is actually working.”