From Vietnam to Afghanistan

The final chapter of US involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan does not have to match that of Southeast Asia



By Claude Salhani (View From Washington)

Published: Sat 4 Apr 2009, 10:33 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:42 AM

One cannot but help notice frightful similarities between President Barack Obama’s new Afghan policy and that which was unveiled by Lyndon B. Johnson’s, which led the United States in full involvement in the conflict in Southeast Asia.

America’s involvement in Vietnam began with indecisions of whether the US should become more involved in the war. President Johnson decided in 1965 that the best plan of action would be to attack the problem from two sides: the military and the civilian. Therefore, Johnson decided to increase the number of US combat troops, but to also raise the number of civilian advisers in Vietnam. Likewise, last week when Obama unveiled his new policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan the American president stressed the importance of deploying additional troops, but was specific on the issue of more civilians needed to help rebuild Afghanistan.

It is worth mentioning that by 1964 Johnson had dispatched some 23,300 American civilians to help Vietnam defeat the communists. US policy makers were convinced at the time that if Vietnam fell to the communists it would only be a matter of time before the rest of Southeast Asia followed. This was called the domino effect theory.

Forty-some years later the enemy is a very different one. Communism has all but disappeared, replaced by Islamist takfiris and Al Qaeda terrorists. And NATO, initially founded to defend Europe from communism now finds itself engaged -- though not nearly enough – in fighting a new threat, one for which they had not trained.

But if communism has disappeared as a threat to the free world, the fear of the domino effect very much remains. Still, despite the similarities between the two conflicts, there are nevertheless fundamental differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Unlike the violent breed of Islamists who have attacked cities in the United States and in Europe as well as targets in the Muslim and Arab world, the Vietnamese were simply fighting to free their land with no intention of supporting terrorists.

And while Obama’s new policy may leave much to be desired, in essence, the US president has little room for manoeuvre, the steps he took last week should have been taken eight years ago. Indeed, the world today would have been a very different place.

Obama’s inclusion of Pakistan as part of the problem is an important distinction from previous policies. In Obama’s new plan Pakistan becomes to the war in Afghanistan, what Cambodia was to Vietnam. The administration believed that successful engagement in Vietnam necessitated expanding the conflict into Cambodia, and today, similarly, the success of the Afghan campaign requires extending military operations into Pakistan. Much as the Vietcong made use of Cambodia, the Taleban today rely on rear bases inside Pakistan. Both countries are intricately connected in more than one manner.

Neither problem can be solved so long as the Taleban enjoy rear bases in the Pakistani border areas. And as long as Afghanistan remains unsettled, it accentuates the risk of the conflict expanding and engulfing other countries in the region.

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan welcomed Obama’s announcement, however, a high-ranking Afghan diplomat in Washington remains skeptic regarding the success any plan may have as long as some elements in the Pakistani leadership, more particularly in the military, continue to profit from what he called “the AAA of Pakistan. “Allah, Army and America.”

The problem, explains the diplomat is that for some leading members of Pakistan’s ISI, the military intelligence branch, the AAA has turned into a lucrative business. While the problem of the jihadi Taleban and Al Qaeda continues, (fighters in the name of Allah), the US (America) will continue to send funding to Pakistan and to support the country’s military in weapons as well as with money, thus keeping the second “A” (the army) in business.

Obama reminded the US allies in Western Europe that the danger in Afghanistan is not simply an American problem: “It is instead an international security challenge of the highest order,” he said.

While America’s European allies may be somewhat reluctant to contribute more troops to the Afghan war effort, help may come from unexpected sources: Russia, NATO’s former Cold War enemy.

The Russians appear to be far more aware of the threats posed to their security and have indicated their willingness to help out. A Russian military attaché told this reporter last summer, “had it not been for the tensing of relations between Moscow and Washington over the Bush administration’s support of the Georgians during the very brief, but very fierce war between Russia and Georgia, Russia would have been ready to help out in Afghanistan.”

The Russian might begrudge the US for the Georgian affair and for the anti-missile defence system the previous administration had planned to establish in Poland and the Czech Republic, but Moscow knows where the real threat lies. In an interview with the BBC, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said Moscow, “was ready to participate in the efforts directed at putting things in order” in Afghanistan. This is an offer Washington cannot refuse and should not refuse. Because despite the analogies made to Vietnam and Cambodia, the final chapter of US involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan does not have to match those of Southeast Asia. Having Russia as an ally in this war can make all the difference and set the tone for a positive epilogue.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington, DC.


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