On Tuesday night, President Obama announced his decision to increase U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan. It was a tragic error. He specifically said that to compare Afghanistan with Vietnam is a misreading of history. In a way, I would have to agree. We ultimately left Vietnam in humiliation. Afghanistan is not comparable, because our prospects for success there are even worse.
I am neither a military strategist nor a student of military history, but I recall well the U.S. experience during the Vietnam War. I was serving at the time as a U.S. Air Force Captain. My first assignment was as an instructor at the Special Air Warfare School in Florida, where we instructed Air Force pilots heading for Vietnam to be part of the Air Force's role in counterinsurgency operations. I later served in the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as military aide to the civilian responsible for monitoring all Defense Department-sponsored behavior and social sciences research.
These assignments brought me into contact with the most advanced thinking of the time about unconventional, asymmetric warfare—in which a conventional military force seeks to defeat an enemy who cannot be distinguished from a civilian noncombatant unless he is firing on you. This was the case in Vietnam and it is the case in Afghanistan.
I recall clearly one of the lectures I gave to Air Force pilots on the substantial body of social science research demonstrating that dropping bombs on civilian populations increases their will to resist. It isn’t a particularly startling finding, and I’m sure it holds up as well for any military operation in which seemingly indiscriminate fire causes significant civilian casualties.
So why are our prospects in Afghanistan even less hopeful than they were in Vietnam? As in Afghanistan, the enemy in Vietnam blended in with the people. In Vietnam, however, it operated as a coherent body with an allegiance to a command structure. Vietnam had experience functioning as a nation with a central government; it also had more physical infrastructure and a more educated population.
Afghanistan has never functioned as a nation under the central rule of either foreigners or Afghans. It is a land fragmented physically and politically into feudal fiefdoms ruled by local warlords united only by a fierce commitment to resisting any form of foreign occupation. What passes for a central government has less legitimacy than did the government of South Vietnam, is even more corrupt, and is arguably not even fully in control of Kabul, the capital city. The idea that we or any other group of outsiders can pacify Afghanistan and bring it under some semblance of central democratic rule with a legitimate and reasonably competent government is beyond ludicrous.
It is difficult to convince civilians that you are there to help them when you are maiming and killing their loved ones for no evident purpose. Yet when you cannot identify the enemy, you will almost inevitably kill more civilians than combatants. I know how I would respond if a foreign army inflicted such harm on my family. The more troops we put into Afghanistan, the greater the resistance.
On November 20, 2009, Bill Moyers PBS Journal presented an episode on President Lyndon Johnson’s path to war. It is a piece of history that Moyers knows well, having served as a top-ranking member of President Johnson’s staff from 1964-1967. Drawing on the archive of White House tapes, Moyers tells the story, in Johnson’s own words, of how the political dynamics of the time drew him into an ever more costly escalation in a war that he knew from the beginning we could not win.
President Obama seems to be repeating this sad history, caught up in much the same dynamic in an even more futile war. This one may not end with pictures of the last Americans in Afghanistan departing by helicopter from the U.S. Embassy roof, but the time will come when we will recognize as a nation that we cannot win this war. The only uncertainty is when that time will come that we make the decision to leave.
Ultimately we left Vietnam not because of bold presidential leadership, but because we the people of this country demanded it. We had been told that the fall of Vietnam would lead to the fall of Southeast Asia, with devastating consequences for U.S. interests and national security all around the world. It didn’t happen. Following our departure from Vietnam the people of Vietnam formed a coherent national government and rebuilt their country. Asia became stronger, freer, and more democratic; Vietnam is now one of our major trading partners. There has been much agony along the way and Vietnam is no model of democracy, but everyone is far better off than during the war that should never have happened.
Invading Afghanistan was a tragic error. Escalating our presence there compounds the error. We have created a terrible mess, but it is not within our means to clean it up. The sooner we leave Afghanistan and let the Afghan people sort out their future for themselves, the better off both we and they will be. We now know it will happen only when we send a message to our politicians, including President Obama, too loud and too clear to be ignored.
David Korten wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. David is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, and president of the People-Centered Development Forum. His books include Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World.