Revolutionary War 1775-1781
War of 1812 1812-1815
Mexican- American War 1845-1848
Civil War 1861-1865
Spanish American War 1898
World War One 1917-1918
World War Two 1941-1945
Gulf War I 1991
Gulf War II 2003-2010
Afghanistan 2001- No end in sight
This fall will mark the eight year anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan by American Forces. That is a long time to be in a country and not to have accomplished the mission. The mission being the capture of Osama Bin Laden and the destruction of Al Qaeda. As one looks at the length of time spent in a single conflict, American Operations in Afghanistan are approaching Vietnam proportions with Vietnam like results. There are many similarities between the two conflicts and there are even more differences. But what matters in this comparison is will America get the job done in Afghanistan?
Vietnam: The enemies in Vietnam for the US were the Communists of North Vietnam. But that really is a simplified answer that doesn’t begin to explain who the enemy really was. The enemy in Vietnam really was a lack of education. For to understand the Vietnamese, you have to understand a thousand years of history. The Vietnamese were always an oppressed people. First the Chinese, then the French, throw in the Japanese during World War II, and then add the French back. All they wanted was a chance to run their own country. They even had tried during the Versailles Peace Treaty to gain their independence through peaceful means. The Big Four shot them down. After World War II, the French were once again placed in control of the region until a little battle at a place called Dien Bien Phu. It was after Dien Bien Phu that the Vietnamese thought they had won their independence fair and square just as the Americans had done at Yorktown. Lo and behold, in steps the UN and they split the country in two – a communist north and a democratic south. The north tried to take over the south and to aid the South, the US sent advisers, first under Eisenhower, and then up to 16,000 under Kennedy. But to understand who the enemy was, you could not tell walking down the streets of Saigon in 1962 or in 1968 for the enemy was all around. The so called Viet Cong wore no uniforms and they were everywhere. In the countryside, it was filled with peasant farmers by day, freedom fighters by night. Once again, no uniforms needed. This lack of knowing who the enemy was caused great consternation amongst the forces of the US.
Afghanistan: In Afghanistan, we know who the enemy is. We know where they are. We know where they are hiding. We know who is aiding them. Yet, we still cannot get the job done. Was Iraq a distraction in the real war on terror as Obama claimed? The answer is yes. For the last eight years, a small US contingent has been trying to prop and rebuild a country that really never recovered from its last invasion. Troops, supplies, and the attention of the US public has been diverted by Iraq from an enemy we know too much about. Unlike Vietnam, the Taliban are easily recognizable. They are not one thing then another. They are always the Taliban. They will always carry the weapon be it an AK-47 or a RPG. It is not that hard to identify them. However, when you look at the history of these people, they too have been a doormat for other cultures, armies, and civilizations. From Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to the British to the USSR, Afghanistan has always been in the way either going from Asia to Europe or from Europe going to Asia.
Vietnam: The US claimed that its ships were fired upon in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. President Lyndon Johnson used this incident to get the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed enabling him to send combat forces to Vietnam without a declaration of war. Whether or not the US forces were actually fired upon remains up for debate (and maybe another post).
Afghanistan: Al Qaeda planned and carried out an attack against 4 targets in the United States on September 11, 2001. 3 of the targets were hit resulting in the loss of 2000+ American lives in Washington and New York City. Being that Al Qaeda’s base of operations were Afghanistan, President George W. Bush asked for the Taliban to give up Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. If they refused, the US would take them down as well. They refused and in October of 2001, the US began its conflict in Afghanistan.
Vietnam: Jungle, rice paddies, mountains, monsoon season. Caves litter the country side from years of fighting the Chinese Japanese and French.
Afghanistan: Mountains, mountains, mountains, and more mountains. Caves also are dug into the mountains from years of fighting invaders.
What Went Wrong
Vietnam: Pure and simple, the US leadership was not prepared to fight this war to win it. Maybe it was the philosophy of containing communism rather than defeating it, but more likely, it is the manner in which the war was strategically planned. What did in the US forces were four things.
1. The Ho Chi Minh Trail – traversing through Cambodia and Laos, this footpath was never destroyed as supplies and weapons poured into the Vietcong in the south. By constantly using large scale bombing run with airplanes, the North adapted the trail to avoid not only detection, but also to avoid being attacked.
2. History: The US State Department grossly underestimated the will of the enemy to fight as well as the history of the region.
3. Strategy: General Westmoreland has over 500,000 US forces in Vietnam. In fact, this should have been more than enough to secure the country. But due to tactical mistakes and blunders by the first two reasons on this list, American forces were basically fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. I don’t really know if there ever was a clear cut goal or strategy to actually defeat the North or whether the goal was just to defend the South. Either way, it does not matter as the powers that be messed this conflict up from the start.
4. Public Opinion: The US public, myself included, saw this war every night in the living room at 5:30. The leaders of the US said one thing, the images on TV and in Life magazine said another. After the images of Tet in 1968 poured into our consciousness, the war was over and un-winnable in the minds of many Americans. From photographers Eddie Adams and Don McCullin, the images of what was being said and what was happening on the ground did not fit.
Afghanistan: For the Bush administration, Afghanistan was never the high value target that Iraq was. Maybe it was unfinished business from 1991 in the minds of Bush, Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, but the fact of the matter is this: They screwed the pooch. Money, manpower and resources in Afghanistan have never been the top billing or priority that Iraq was. Add in the factor that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have sympathetic allies in the villages of Pakistan, the eerie similarity of an Afghani Bin Laden Trail is evident. Whether or not Obama’s different strategy and priority towards Afghanistan will pay off can only be seen from the future.
As the eight year anniversary approaches this October, there is definitely no end in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel, or an insurgency in its last throes. Afghanistan is most likely going to be America’s longest war and its most silent. Unlike Vietnam or Iraq, the press, the public, nor the past president have given it much attention. There are a lot of unknowns about Afghanistan but for me, it all hinges on Pakistan. For the first six years of the troubles, Pervez Musharraf was somewhat of an ally. Now, instability has creeped into northwest Pakistan as the Taliban have made inroads into the region. Could this conflict spread even further? Will the American public be willing to provide the money, resources, and soldiers willing to take out Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and will we have any allies to help us? These are some tough questions. I do not see any answers coming soon.