The Vietnam-Afghanistan Mirror
by Bernard Weiner
November 10, 2001

It's been nearly two months since the September 11 mass-slaughters, and the U.S. response more and more resembles that period when America was beginning its long slide into Vietnam.

I grant you that it's not an exact comparison one obvious difference, because the 9-11 attack took place on our own soil, is that the U.S. public has a better idea why we're there but there are enough similarities to make the skin crawl.

  • In Vietnam, the U.S. took over a war from another country (France), who could not defeat the Vietcong. In Afghanistan, the U.S., so to speak, is taking over from the Russians, who could not defeat the Afghanis.
  • In Vietnam, the U.S. had very little understanding and knowlege of Vietnamese culture and history and language. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has very little understanding of Afghani culture, history and language.
  • In Vietnam, the U.S. was constantly fighting an inhospitable geography the jungles, the muck, the highlands, the monsoons. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is constantly fighting an inhospitable geography the high mountains, the snowy winters, the lack of infrastructure.
  • In Vietnam, the U.S. tried to win the hearts and minds of the native population, while it bombed their villages with napalm, Agent Orange, and cluster bombs. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is trying to win the hearts and minds of the native population with its yellow-packeted food drops, while it continues to mistakenly bomb their villages and hospitals and food warehouses, sometimes with cluster bombs.
  • In Vietnam, the U.S. depended on its high-tech weaponry in fighting guerrillas who for years, decades, centuries, had found a way to disappear into jungles, caves, tunnels, and then drive the invaders from its soil. In Afghanistan, the U.S is relying heavily on its high tech weaponry in fighting guerrillas who for years, decades, centuries have found a way to disappear into caves and tunnels, and then drive invaders (British, Soviets) from their soil.
  • In Vietnam, the U.S. (unsuccessfully) tried to prevent the truth of what was happening there from being reported by the American news media. In Afghanistan, the U.S. military doles out the news it wants to have reported.
  • In Vietnam, the U.S. in the early stages sent "advisors" and other small contingents of troops, and used the local army in its fight against the bad guys, prior to sending in hundreds of thousands of drafted soldiers. In Afghanistan, the U.S. wants the local opposition troops to do the major land fighting, but realizes it may have to send in hundreds of thousands of American troops (probably re-instituting the draft) to do the job.
  • In Vietnam, the U.S. escalated the war beyond the borders of the country it was fighting. In the current war, there is widespread speculation that the U.S. is ready to go beyond Afghanistan, with Iraq the next likely target. (You can imagine what that will do to the fragile coalition of Muslim states currently supporting or tolerating U.S. actions in Afghanistan.)
  • In Vietnam, the U.S. was at a loss to figure out how to win the war. In Afghanistan, it seems apparent that the U.S., anxious to retaliate for September 11, rushed in and now is flailing about trying to figure out what to do, given that (surprise!) the Taliban are a clever, tenacious force of guerrillas fighters who also are well-skilled in public relations marketing.

Now, of course, the two wars are not exactly parallel. This is a far different conflict, in a far different place, with no Cold War serving as background music. But the similarities are striking, especially the main one: the U.S. administration doesn't appear to know what it's doing, or how to do it.

To his credit, Bush has told the American people straight out that this will be a long war, with lots of casualties. But probably the bloody reality has not sunk in yet, just as it didn't with regard to Vietnam until the rain of body bags came pouring down on the American body politic.

So what are ex-Vietnam War peace activists to do, given the new realities? Many of us are not oppossed to the idea behind Bush's war on terrorism after all, these bad guys upped the ante by their horrendous, inhumane actions on our own soil on September 11. Their terror network must be destroyed. But we do have large questions to raise about the way this war is being conceived and carried out, and about the consequences to U.S. national interests.

Is this bifurcated political view supporting the goals of the policy but disagreeing with the current tactics and strategies "unpatriotic"? Many of us critical of U.S. governmental policy have been called that.

My approach, and I think I speak for many others so inclined, is dictated mainly by a desire to enhance the national interests of the United States, and the way Bush & Co. are going about things seems that it could easily damage those interests in the long run, maybe even in the short run.

Bush quickly swallowed bin Laden's bait and started a war in one of the most difficult areas of the world to win such a conflict. The Taliban are egging on the U.S. government to introduce ground troops, because they know in that kind of war, as history has demonstrated, the Afghanis stand to win. The U.S., having gone this far, probably will swallow that bait as well.

Meanwhile, the U.S. bombs from the air. Such bombing knocks out some Taliban armaments and such, but the Taliban and Al Queda troops hide deep in caves and tunnels until the sorties are over, and then come out ready to fight. And, as predicted, by bombing from such heights (often using out-of-date maps), we often hit civilian targets, hospitals, homes, villages. These are the images inflaming Muslim populations worldwide.

Even worse, in an already destitute country, millions of refugees, who normally would be receiving food aid from the U.N. and other relief agencies, probably will starve to death this winter. First, the Taliban made sure they wouldn't get the food, and now the U.S. bombing ensures that no relief agencies will get the supplies to the refugees. And the U.S. has announced no plan to prevent this "collateral damage" tragedy.

As a matter of fact, as has been evident from the beginning of the war, the U.S. doesn't appear to have much of a plan for anything. It's pretty much an ad-hoc approach to warfare. Bomb and see what happens. Oh my goodness, the Taliban are more resilient than we thought, this might take years. On to Plan B.

In so many ways, then, as Yogi would have said, it's deju vu all over again, with the chance that Russia's "Vietnam" will become ours, because Bush felt he had to rush into a war without first thinking about the Law of Unintended Consequences. (Now, it must be said, even by this critic: It's possible that the U.S. strategy will prevail, that the Taliban will be toppled shortly and that Al Queda will be destroyed, or at least so decimated that it will take years to rebuild. Maybe Bush & Co. really do know what they're doing, or at least will stumble into success.)

But once the war-genie was let out of the bottle, there was no way to prevent the inevitable SNAFU and FUBAR syndromes, and those nasty little Unintended Consequences. There's the possibility of Pakistan's government falling (and nuclear weapons then going to the fundamentalist Islamicists); there's the possibility of India and Pakistan going to war, perhaps nuclear; there's the likelihood, unless action is taken soon, of an all-out Israeli/Palestinian war; there's the possibility of Chinese mischief; there are the unknown motivations of the Russians and other possibilities not even conceived of now, including devastations within our own borders.

Meanwhile, Bush narrowly focuses on Afghanistan (and Administration hawks drool over the prospect of moving on Iraq), with little or no thought given to how to ameliorate by altering U.S. foreign/military policy the conditions in the Mideast and elsewhere that create the fertile soil in which terrorism and anti-Americanism grows. Bush's foreign and domestic policy goals remain pretty much the same right-wing ones he came into office with, and the Congressional Democrats seem totally confused and disorganized, not wanting to seem "unpatriotic" by raising objections to U.S. war plans and strategies. In short, as Hemingway once wrote, the shitstorm is coming.

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government and international politics at Western Washington University and San Diego State University; he was with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly two decades.

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