Afghanistan Is Today’s Vietnam Not Iraq

There is virtual consensus in America that the War in Afghanistan is going badly and unless some thing is done, America could end up losing it. Words like Quagmire are being applied to this war by pessimists and optimists are pointing to General Petraeus & his Iraq surge strategy as a way to victory.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq was a far more complex and daring endeavor than the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.  The Iraq invasion was stridently criticized while the Afghanistan liberation was generally welcomed and praised. Iran hated and opposed the Iraq invasion but supported the Afghanistan liberation. In fact, it was Iran that played the crucial part in persuading the Northern Front (the militia that liberated Afghanistan with American help) to disband and then support the Karzai regime.

Yet, America has clearly won in Iraq and the Iraq adventure looks like a success. On the other hand, the Afghanistan liberation has been a clear failure and old Vietnam-era labels such as quagmire are being applied to Afghanistan.

These labels are relevant because the parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan are striking.

  • The land of the Afghans is divided into North Afghanistan (where American forces are) and South Afghanistan  (called as North West Frontier Province) which is controlled by Pakistan.  On both sides of the border live the same people, the Pushtuni Afghans. The land of the Vietnamese people was divided into North Vietnam and  South Vietnam.On both sides of the border lived the same people, the Vietnamese.

  • In Afghanistan, America controls and tries to manage North Afghanistan while the South is controlled by the Pakistani regime. In Vietnam, America controlled South Vietnam while the North was controlled by the Ho Chi Minh regime.

  • American troops were not allowed to cross into North Vietnam but the Vietcong could easily go back and forth. The supplies for the Vietcong could go seamlessly into South Vietnam despite valiant efforts by American troops. American troops are not allowed to cross into South Afghanistan but the Taliban can go back and forth easily. The supplies for the Taliban can enter North Afghanistan seamlessly despite valiant efforts by American troops.

  •  The American-installed South Vietnamese regime was riddled with corruption and was hated by the people. The American-installed Afghan regime is riddled with corruption and is hated by the people. America kept blaming the leaders it had installed in South Vietnam and tried to change its fortunes by replacing the leaders. Today, America has begun blaming Karzai, the leader it installed and is now trying to change its fortune by replacing Karzai.

America could not win in Vietnam under those restrictions and in our opinion, America cannot win in Afghanistan under these restrictions.

The One Significant Difference

North Vietnam was a declared enemy of America and it was supported by Russia and China. On the other hand, Pakistan, which controls South Afghanistan, is a declared friend of America and receives billions of dollars of American aid.

In 2001, it would have been fairly easy for America to demand that Pakistan cede its border areas to American control temporarily.  Pakistan would had no choice but to accept this demand had America made it forcefully. With control of both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, American Military could have controlled the entire military theater as it does in Iraq. American forces could have encircled the Taliban and slowly but surely killed its leaders just as it did in Iraq. Like Iraq, it would have been very difficult for the Taliban to rearm and regroup.

Had President Bush taken this aggressive but necessary step, America would have been able to control Afghanistan and win the war against the Taliban.

But, wily Musharaf conned President Bush. Musharaf  promised the world but delivered very little. The Pakistanis kept control of all access routes and border areas. They demanded a huge price (over $10 billion so far) for their continued support. America has had no choice but to pay and keep paying for very little help. Pakistan continues its policy of extortion today and America keep paying.

What should President Obama do?

President Obama can still take the same steps that President Bush should have taken. Pakistan is an impoverished country and cannot survive without American or World Bank support.

Legally, Pakistan has no right to occupy South Afghanistan or the North West Frontier Province as the British called it. Pakistan’s occupation of this territory of Afghanistan comes from the 1893 British Treaty with Afghanistan. That treaty is null and void today because the British Indian government that signed the treaty does not exist. In fact, Afghanistan repudiated this treaty on these grounds in 1949. (see our article“Afghanistan-Pakistan  – Will the Sins of England be Visited Upon  America?”August 9, 2008) ––will-the-sins-of-england-be-visited-on-america.aspx 

So, President Obama should ask Pakistan to cede South Afghanistan to American control temporarily. If Pakistan refuses, he could threaten Pakistan with a UN Resolution repudiating the 1893 Treaty and thereby permanently stripping Pakistan of all rights over this territory. President Obama’s envoy, Richard Holbrooke – a man with a tough-as-nails reputation, is the perfect man to deliver this message to Pakistan.

Faced with this prospect, Pakistan will have no choice but to agree. American forces can then encircle the Taliban from all sides, isolate it from the rest of Pakistan, especially from Taliban supporters in the Pakistani Army and slowly but surely subdue the Taliban. Under these situations, the Petraeus surge would work in Afghanistan just as it did in Iraq. America can then win the war in Afghanistan just as it has won Iraq.

On the other hand, unless President Obama breaks out of the trap in which Musharaf placed President Bush, the Pakistani Army and their Taliban allies will eventually win Afghanistan just as North Vietnamese and their Vietcong allies eventually won South Vietnam.

President Obama has come to power with a clean slate in Afghanistan. What he needs now is clear vision and fierce determination.

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