Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template

Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason. Military Review, November/December 2009.


By misunderstanding the basic nature of the enemy, the United States is fghting the wrong war again, just as we did in Vietnam. It is hard to defeat an enemy you do not understand.

Elections don’t make democracies; democracies make elections.

As Jeffrey Record … notes, “the fundamental political obstacle to an enduring American success in Vietnam [was] a politically illegitimate, militarily feckless, and thoroughly corrupted South Vietnamese client regime.” Substitute the word “Afghanistan” for the words “South Vietnam” in these quotations and the descriptions apply precisely to today’s government in Kabul. Like Afghanistan, South Vietnam at the national level was a massively corrupt collection of self-interested warlords, many of them deeply implicated in the proftable opium trade, with almost nonexistent legitimacy outside the capital city. The purely military gains achieved at such terrible cost in our nation’s blood and treasure in Vietnam never came close to exhausting the enemy’s manpower pool or his will to fght, and simply could not be sus-
tained politically by a venal and incompetent set of dysfunctional state institutions where self-interest
was the order of the day.

No Pashtun would ever identify himself by his province, where we are attempting to impose external governance. Rural Pashtuns thus have no perceivable political interest in this keystone of international military and political effort in Afghanistan.

“Extending the reach of the central government” is precisely the wrong strategy in Afghanistan because it is exactly what the rural people do not want. The level of coercive social change that would be required to actually implement this radical social revolution in Afghanistan is beyond our national means.

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