Wednesday, August 26, 2009

If Afghanistan Was Vietnam, We'd Be Winning

The internet has recently blossomed with commentary saying Afghanistan is today's Vietnam, or that the United States is now in the place of the Soviet Union. Don't believe a word of it.
Let's look first at the local population. As Robert Kagan points out (I can't believe I'm linking positively to the Weekly Standard), in Afghanistan the Soviet Union was supporting a puppet state it helped install against the will of the vast majority of the local population. The same thing was true for the United States in Vietnam. In modern Afghanistan the population supported the U.S.-led invasion by a wide margin, and still supports U.S. efforts by a healthy majority.
Both the Soviet Union and the United States in Vietnam were fighting for, or against, an ideology, rather than for their security. The local populations did not embrace their goals, and were fighting for their own security. We want Afghanistan to become a stable, secure nation, and our primary aim is security and freedom for the people. Afghanistan just had an election, and the United States was and is prepared to live with whoever wins.
At its peak we had over 500,000 troops in Vietnam. We currently have around 68,000 in Afghanistan, where the Soviets had two to three times that number. It helps that we're not fighting against the entire population the way they were, but we're still far below the Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual's recommended twenty troops per 1,000 residents ratio. 500,000 doesn't even get us to that ratio (though it surpasses it for just the areas where the insurgency is strong). I'm not calling for half a million troops or anything like it, but we do need to note that disparity in commitment. We have just enough troops now to tread water. If we had as many troops as we committed to Vietnam--or even the troops we stupidly sent to Iraq instead--Afghanistan would have been stable long ago.
One final similarity between the U.S. loss in Vietnam and the Soviet failure in Afghanistan is the massive amounts of external support each insurgency received. We should know, we helped provide it to the mujaheddin. The Taliban enjoy some support from fringe elements in Pakistan and some funding from a few rich extremists in the Gulf, but as far as I know no major foreign power is hoping to defeat the United States in Afghanistan.
Success in Afghanistan, even minimal success, will require additional troops and the time to let them work. However, it will also require better goals and actual strategies. We didn't fail in Vietnam for lack of resources, we failed because we were opposed by the population, fighting against an ideology not an actual enemy, and didn't have the correct strategy to accomplish our goals. In Afghanistan we need the resources and an actual strategy to accomplish defined and limited goals. Hopefully President Obama can balance his guns and butter well enough to maintain support, and hopefully General McChrystal's imminent review had enough good ideas that we don't miss our window of opportunity.

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