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The Vietnam-Afghanistan Mirror
9 November 2001
It's been nearly two months since the September 11 mass-slaughters, and the U.S. response more and more resembles that period when America was beginning its long slide into Vietnam.
I grant you that it's not an exact comparison -- one obvious difference, because the 9-11 attack took place on our own soil, is that the U.S. public has a better idea why we're there -- but there are enough similarities to make the skin crawl.
* In Vietnam, the U.S. took over a war from another country (France), who could not defeat the Vietcong. In Afghanistan, the U.S., so to speak, is taking over from the Russians, who could not defeat the Afghanis.
* In Vietnam, the U.S. had very little understanding and knowlege of Vietnamese culture and history -- and language. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has very little understanding of Afghani culture, history and language.
* In Vietnam, the U.S. was constantly fighting an inhospitable geography -- the jungles, the muck, the highlands, the monsoons. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is constantly fighting an inhospitable geography -- the high mountains, the snowy winters, the lack of infrastructure.
* In Vietnam, the U.S. tried to win the hearts and minds of the native population, while it bombed their villages with napalm, Agent Orange, and cluster bombs. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is trying to win the hearts and minds of the native population with its yellow-packeted food drops, while it continues to mistakenly bomb their villages and hospitals and food warehouses, sometimes with cluster bombs.
* In Vietnam, the U.S. depended on its high-tech weaponry in fighting guerrillas who for years, decades, centuries, had found a way to disappear into jungles, caves, tunnels, and then drive the invaders from its soil. In Afghanistan, the U.S is relying heavily on its high-tech weaponry in fighting guerrillas who for years, decades, centuries have found a way to disappear into caves and tunnels, and then drive invaders (British, Soviets) from their soil.
* In Vietnam, the U.S. (unsuccessfully) tried to prevent the truth of what was happening there from being reported by the American news media. In Afghanistan, the U.S. military doles out the news it wants to have reported.
* In Vietnam, the U.S. in the early stages sent "advisors" and other small contingents of troops, and used the local army in its fight against the bad guys, prior to sending in hundreds of thousands of drafted soldiers. In Afghanistan, the U.S. wants the local opposition troops to do the major land fighting, but realizes it may have to send in hundreds of thousands of American troops (probably re-instituting the draft) to do the job.
* In Vietnam, the U.S. escalated the war beyond the borders of the country it was fighting. In the current war, there is widespread speculation that the U.S. is ready to go beyond Afghanistan, with Iraq the next likely target. (You can imagine what that will do to the fragile coalition of Muslim states currently supporting or tolerating U.S. actions in Afghanistan.)
* In Vietnam, the U.S. was at a loss to figure out how to win the war. In Afghanistan, it seems apparent that the U.S., anxious to retaliate for September 11, rushed in and now is flailing about trying to figure out what to do, given that (surprise!) the Taliban are a clever, tenacious force of guerrillas fighters -- who also are well-skilled in public relations marketing.
Now, of course, the two wars are not exactly parallel. This is a far different conflict, in a far different place, with no Cold War serving as background music. But the similarities are striking, especially the main one: the U.S. administration really doesn't know what it's doing, or how to do it.