Afghanistan & Vietnam – Newsweek, Zakaria, Stephanopoulos & Admiral Mullen

This morning, we saw George Stephanopoulos of ABC conduct a round-table on Afghanistan as “Obama’s Vietnam”.  Having written an article yesterday on this theme (“Afghanistan Is Today’s Vietnam Not Iraq” ),  we listened carefully. Frankly, we were depressed with the quality of analysis and knowledge of this group. It was a rehash of tired thinking, one of the key reasons we have the mess that we do in Afghanistan.

During the round-table, Stephanopoulos showed the cover of Newsweek titled “Obama’s Vietnam”. So we went to and read the five page cover story. This long article lays out the internal similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam. This is pointless and misleading. The internal similarities of Afghanistan are very similar to those of Iraq as well as to those of Vietnam. Yet, Iraq is a success and both Afghanistan and Vietnam are failures.

The most important factors in these three wars are:

  • whether the population is divided in to 2 countries and 
  • whether the other country with half the population can provide safe haven, support and weapons.

Iraq has all its population within Iraq and Iraq does not have a neighbor that could support the Iraqi insurgency in size. On the other hand, Vietnam and Afghanistan have these 2 all-important factors. Like Vietnam, the population of Afghanistan is divided into Afghanistan (North) and the Pushtun part controlled by Pakistan (South). Therefore, like in  Vietnam, America is fighting half the battle in half the battleground, a recipe for disaster. 

The critical part of the analogy between Vietnam and Afghanistan is that Pakistan is today’s North Vietnam. Today, Pakistan is behaving exactly like North Vietnam by providing safe haven, support and arms to the Taliban. These are being used by the Taliban to attack American Troops in Afghanistan. The ultimate irony is that American aid given to Pakistan, an ally, is being used by Pakistan, an enemy, to support the Taliban and enable attacks on American soldiers.

This split-personality Pakistan is the X-factor that makes Afghanistan worse than Vietnam. At least, you knew that North Vietnam was an enemy.

Kudos to Pakistani Generals. Musharaf conned President Bush beautifully and now you see General Kiyani doing the same to Admiral Mullen, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Read what Admiral Mullen says in his Newsweek interview “The Afghan Puzzle” (

If Admiral Mullen really believes what he is saying, write off Afghanistan right now as a disaster. That is what Andrew Bacevich advises in his Newsweek article “Time to get out (of Afghanistan) and give up on nation building( Bacevich may be misguided but at least his way would save a great deal of money and lives.

Bacevich is a historian and so he can use phrases like “one of history’s enduring lessons is that Afghans don’t appreciate it when outsiders tell them how to govern their affairs” and what is history to him “just ask the British or the Soviets”

Another article that espouses this sort of rhetoric is the New York Times article “Obama’s War – Fearing Another Quagmire in Afghanistan”  by Helene Cooper. Ms. Cooper asks plaintively “Can President Obama succeed in that long-lamented “graveyard of empires” — a place that has crushed foreign occupiers for more than 2,000 years?” And what evidence does she provide for this assertion – “Afghanistan has, after all, stymied would-be conquerors since Alexander
the Great. It’s always the same story; the invaders — British, Soviets …”.

Notice something. Every one of these writers or speakers is European-American. Their entire knowledge base comes  from studying European-American history and so is their frame of reference. History begins with Alexander and ends with the English; no need to find out what happened during the 2,000 years in Afghanistan or its history before Alexander. It is sadly obvious that none of these authors know anything about Afghan history and none have bothered to learn about it.

This is another repeat of Vietnam – the utter lack of knowledge about the people, their history, and what drives them. We think this is the single critical reason why American Policy fails so often. The American Establishment understands Europe very well.  That is why America has won very war in and against Europe. The American Establishment looks at the rest of the world with a European frame of reference and consequently tends to fail miserably.

It is perhaps hard for European-Americans to not be racist when they look at Afghanistan. This is why, most articles describe the Afghans as tribal people and call upon the white-man’s burden to bring modernity to Afghanistan.Fact is,  Afghanistan is as tribal as Ireland and Scotland are clannish. But no one considers Irish/Scottish clans as evidence of backwardness. The so-called tribalism of the Afghans did not prevent Afghanistan from creating great empires, the last empire being the Abdali-Durrani empire in the 18th century. But ask, any European-American writer about Abdali and they will stare at you blankly. We are not making a moral point here but a tactical one. Our main problem with racism is that it makes powerful countries and their leaders stupid & arrogant and arrogant stupidity is usually the main cause of defeat.

Not surprisingly, the best article in Newsweek about Afghanistan is by Fareed Zakaria titled “How to salvage Afghanistan? – A Turnaround Strategy”. Let us be clear. We think Fareed Zakaria is wrong in his analysis of the Petraeus Strategy for Afghanistan. Like many, he seems to think that talking to an enemy gets you half-way to winning their trust. He, like others, does not realize that talking also exposes you to their misinformation, especially if you are as uneducated and ill-informed as most American leaders are about Afghan history. Frankly, we were disappointed in Mr. Zakaria’s article, because we expected a lot more from him. 

However, Zakaria, unlike the others, has the insight and the journalistic courage to state the true aim of Pakistan in Afghanistan, “It is crucial to recognize that the Pakistani military achieved
substantial success with these
(taliban like) militias. They bled India at very low
cost, neutralizing New Delhi’s much larger army*, and chased the Soviet
Union out of Afghanistan. These represent the only two significant
strategic successes for the Pakistani military in decades, perhaps in
its history
….The American debate on the need to “press” Pakistan to dismantle these
militias misses this point. Pakistan has long viewed its clients as
having given the country “strategic depth”—keeping its historic foes,
India and Afghanistan, off balance.”

In other words, it is in the highest strategic interests of Pakistan to ensure that America fails in Afghanistan.  This paramount strategic imperative makes Pakistan behave exactly like North Vietnam. Unless the Obama Administration &  the American Establishment gets this and acts on it, America’s Afghan War will end up like America’s Vietnam War.

How Really to salvage Afghanistan? Change the Dynamic from Vietnam to Iraq.

This is not a trite comment. This is the only strategy that will work. What does it mean?

  • Unite the Afghan people into one country – the real Afghanistan – the Afghanistan as every Afghan knows it – the Afghanistan before its forced partition by the English in 1893. The unity of their country will be the one imperative that will make all Afghans work together. Iraq was considered to be ungovernable with its tribal structure. Appeal to the Iraqi and Sunni sense of one country was the key ingredient in the Petraeus strategy. A united Afghanistan is required for Petraeus strategy to work as it did in Iraq.
  • The united Afghanistan should be controlled by America and Nato until the bad parts of Taliban are killed or captured. The Pakistani Army has to vacate Afghan territory and return to Pakistan.What remains of the current Pakistani civil structure can be embedded into the new Afghan civil structure of United Afghanistan.
  • Pakistan no longer will have the controlling stake in Afghanistan. In the Vietnam analogy, this will change Pakistan from North Vietnam into Cambodia. In the Iraq analogy, Pakistan will become like Syria or Iran – still a pain but not enough to change the outcome.

This will change the dynamics of Afghanistan from Vietnam to Iraq. This will not be easy. After all, Iraq has not been easy.  The huge difference is that Iraq was winnable and a United Afghanistan is winnable. But, today’s Afghanistan, divided like Vietnam, is not winnable.

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