Afghanistan, another Vietnam?

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Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae says it's a mistake to compare Afghanistan to Vietnam. Writing in the Toronto Star he concludes that in Afghanistan " the West can't afford to lose." The "deep instability in many parts of the globe" pose a risk, not just to the regions like Afghanistan, but to us, he argues. Though Rae wants Canada's combat role in Kandahar to end, he proposes our political and aid efforts grow.

Tom Walkom reports that Rae is now prepared to have Canadian soldiers stay on in Afghanistan as military advisors after 2011, which is a reversal of the Liberal Party position, and goes against the resolution of the House of Commons calling for Canada to leave its combat role by the end of 2011.

The Afghan war is going badly, and public support is dropping across NATO countries. The United States president has announced the beginnings of phased withdrawal of combat troops by July 2011. Obviously, President Barack Obama does not want the Afghan war to overshadow his second term, or allow it to derail his chances for a second term.

The problem for Obama is that -- Bob Rae not withstanding -- Afghanistan is another Vietnam. It is a military disaster, based on faulty political analysis, and it reveals the deep-seated problems within the U.S. ruling class, and its projects for the world.

Without a system of compulsory military service, the infamous "draft," Afghanistan never had a chance of capturing the full attention of young Americans, the way Vietnam created a political activist cohort among the baby boomer. Neither the Iraq nor the Afghan war will force Obama to step aside, the way Vietnam forced President Johnson to withdraw his name from consideration for a second term nomination by his party. But, as a political and military operation, Afghanistan bears an eerie resemblance to Vietnam.

Speaking about Vietnam, State Department insider Leslie Gelb argues the main reason Americans stayed, and lost, was that the upper reaches of the U.S. government (like Bob Rae today) could not countenance "losing." The initial military move by President Kennedy was to send military advisors to Vietnam (like Rae wants to leave in Afghanistan beyond 2011).

Gelb reminds us that during World War II, the U.S. backed Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese anti-colonial movement, and that it was only once his nationalist forces defeated the French, that the U.S. worried about the threat Ho supposedly posed, as a communist, to regional stability. Likewise, when the Soviet Union was fighting in Afghanistan in the 1970s, the U.S., under President Jimmy Carter, provided arms and money to help Osama bin Laden and his mujahedeen fighters organize internal resistance. On that infamous September 11, it turned out Bin Laden posed a threat to U.S. security that the Bush administration choose to ignore.

In the Vietnam war, Ho posed such a strong military threat on his home ground, his forces pushed the U.S. to abandon the battlefield. Similarly, the loose association of regionally based resistance to the NATO invaders, collectively referred to (rather inaccurately) as the Taliban, have staying power on the ground that NATO forces will not overcome.

Politically, Vietnam was seen as a proxy war between the U.S. and its communist "enemies" the Soviet Union and China. Afghanistan conceals a proxy war between India with its allies in the Northern Afghan tribes, and Pakistan and the Southern (Pashtun) tribes. Since the long standing India-Pakistan conflict is not going to be resolved soon, the Afghan war will continue with or without a NATO military presence.

Discussing the Wikileaks secret Afghan security papers, and comparing them to the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers, Leslie Gelb talks about South Vietnam and its corruption, inefficiency, and the nationalism of North Vietnam, and asks rhetorically "Sound familiar? Not exact, to be sure, but familiar?"

Gelb concludes that Obama has to resolve the same dilemma identified by President Johnson (and faced by President Nixon later) : "I can't win, I can't get out."

One major lesson of Vietnam that applies today is that military invasions do not quell national feelings. Any threats posed to Western states by turbulence in other regions, needs to be dealt with by state building (and intelligence operations) not the use of force.

In Afghanistan, Canadians were initially told by the Chrétien government we were peacekeeping. Then General Rick Hillier announced we were in a fire fight. Now in Afghanistan Prime Minister Harper acts as if Canada was the proud inheritor of the 19th-century tradition of British military imperialism.

Yes, the British lost, withdrew and then came back again a century later with the NATO forces. They seemingly did not learn anything from history either.

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