Deja Vu All Over Again: Are We Repeating Vietnam?

S oon after Why Vietnam Matters , a memoir and history I had started over twenty-five years earlier, was published in the fall of 2008, I was invited to contribute to a combined military-civilian team preparing an assessment of Afghanistan. I traveled there in the summer of 2009 to assist an Afghan nongovernmental organization, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), in monitoring the elections. I also spent time at our embassy talking about counterinsurgency’s civilian side. While I came away impressed by General Stanley McChrystal’s changes in fighting the war to protect the population, I was much less sure we had a political strategy to match. In particular I wondered how we would help reform and reconstruct governance and security from the village up while also bringing about enough change from the top down to make this possible. Without both, we would not be able to turn over security and governance to an Afghan government sufficiently solid to hold back the Taliban.

What I saw and worried about in Vietnam was framed by my intimate participation in that struggle, from 1954 to 1968, as an Army officer and with the CIA, USAID, and State Department. Our involvement in Vietnam went through many phases. Sometimes we and the South Vietnamese seemed to get things right; at other critical times we were ships passing in the night. What I saw in Afghanistan that I had also seen in Vietnam was the belief that we could somehow impose our views on events and people in another country where we might exert influence, but were not in control. One incident from 1961 I remembered vividly illustrated this cast of mind. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asked Brigadier General Edward G. Lansdale, then in the Pentagon, for his comments on a chart the secretary had prepared to evaluate whether we were winning in Vietnam. It was all numerical factors—body counts and weapons captured.

“You forgot something,” Lansdale said. “The X Factor.”

“What’s that?” McNamara asked.

“The feelings of the Vietnamese people,” Lansdale replied.

This factor was too intangible for McNamara so he largely ignored it, although these “feelings” constituted the central political issue upon which that war’s outcome would ultimately depend.


T he similarities I see between Vietnam and Afghanistan are different from those generally asserted by political observers and commentators and can be illumined by a brief look at particular events in that prior war. At the time of the Geneva Accords in 1954, when Vietnam was about to be divided in two, the Communist-controlled Vietminh ruled almost as much rural territory and population in the south as the north. Under the Geneva Accords, when the Vietminh regular troops evacuated the south, they left behind an underground political and paramilitary structure. They also took with them, often forcibly, thousands of fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds for indoctrination in the north, with an eye toward sending them back south. As the sole American adviser accompanying the South Vietnamese army’s 1955 reoccupation of two important Vietminh-dominated territories in the south, I saw firsthand how the Vietminh were preparing to revive their insurgency.

Despite warnings at the time, Pentagon planners judged the principal security threat to be an overt North Vietnamese invasion across the 17th parallel. Hence the Vietnamese army was taken out of its territorial security role and converted into a conventional army of corps, divisions, regiments, and battalions to act as a blocking force long enough for the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) to come to the rescue.

A newly created South Vietnamese constabulary, the Civil Guard, was supposed to replace the army in its rural security role. However, our economic aid mission gave the training and mentoring job to Michigan State University, which used traditional policing as a model and hired former American state and local police as trainers and advisers, an approach copied to a considerable degree many years later in Afghanistan with similarly disastrous results.

Simultaneously, the United States ignored the need for responsive government reaching the Vietnamese countryside, where eighty percent of the population lived. To fill the gap, President Diem dispatched civilian teams with basic skills in public health, public works, education, and public information to work directly in rural villages, linking them through the districts and provinces to the central government. But requests for American aid were rejected on the grounds that rural governance was not a priority.

By 1956, after the initial honeymoon of Diem’s rise to power, a workable, positive political strategy for helping him and his government succeed with a positive politics of inclusion had yet to be attempted. That might have breathed life into the democratic aspirations of the South Vietnamese while encouraging political unity and opposition to the North’s totalitarianism. Instead, the United States supported a personal political party for Diem, and worse, the creation of an internal political control mechanism called the Can Lao, which resembled the Communist political commissar system that encouraged corruption and ultimately undermined Diem’s political support. A wise Vietnamese political commentator, Dan Van Sung, observed in 1962, “The anti-Communist fight in Vietnam is seventy-five percent political, twenty-five percent military. Yet everything American is directed to the twenty-five percent and nothing to the seventy-five percent.”


O ur past policies in Afghanistan, as I saw during my involvement there, have to a marked degree followed a similar path. We failed to anticipate the resurgence of the Taliban just as we had the rebirth of the North Vietnamese–directed insurgency in South Vietnam. We did not learn the lesson we had ignored in Vietnam about the absolute importance of security and responsive local governance in encouraging a rural population to resist an insurgency, particularly one disliked as much as the Taliban.

Not until 2006 was a serious effort made by international security forces (American and NATO) to fill the security vacuum in the former Taliban stronghold of southwestern Afghanistan, and even then it was undermanned and slow to adopt counterinsurgency tactics (suggesting that at least three years should be subtracted from the characterization of Afghanistan as “America’s longest war”). From that point until 2009, international forces tried varying approaches in different areas, including some counterinsurgency. To make up for the general shortage of troops, high intensity raids were conducted on suspected Taliban locations, often supported by airpower that produced significant civilian casualties, thus driving Taliban recruiting—eerily similar to General William Westmoreland’s heavy-handed tactics in Vietnam.

A constant shifting around of scarce international forces and lack of joint operations with Afghans ensured the impermanence of whatever population security was achieved. We didn’t begin to confront the insurgency at its roots until Canadian and British forces finally went to Kandahar and Helmand in the summer of 2006 in operations that were undermanned and poorly executed. Broad counterinsurgency was never really implemented until McChrystal took command in June 2009.

I also felt a sense of déjà vu all over again when I saw the failure to focus on developing Afghan governance at the local level. U.N. and other aid programs worked with the ministries nationally while turning a blind eye to the corruption fostered by this top-down approach and its reliance on private contractors. While the Afghan government with international funding created the National Solidarity Programme, extending development grants directly to elected village development councils, there was no agricultural component or sufficient tie-in with local government. Coalition provincial reconstruction teams operating independently completed many useful local projects, but without an Afghan face. Provincial and district government had no dedicated sources of reliable funding.

Some of the miscommunication I witnessed between President Karzai and the United States reminded me of that image of ships passing in the night that I had taken from my experiences in Vietnam. When I arrived in Kabul in July 2009 to help FEFA monitor the election, the U.S. stance of neutrality during the presidential elections was interpreted by the Karzai camp as a deliberate attempt to make him lose, as illogical as that seemed. When it came out that I had been Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s first boss in Saigon back in 1963, the Karzai campaign treated me as a plant. Though this was absolutely untrue, suspicion was thrown onto FEFA’s impartiality, so I stayed away near the end of the campaign. In Afghanistan as in Vietnam, perceptions, not realities, were what mattered.


S ome of Karzai’s emotional reactions to U.S. “pressure” before his May 2010 trip to Washington recalled all too well some of Diem’s outbursts during the Buddhist crisis in Saigon in 1963 (although Diem was a more stable personality). Washington certainly deserved some of the blame: Publicly beating up on the leader of a lesser-allied country mired in adversity conveys an air of superiority that magnifies the resentment (we don’t talk publicly to Western leaders that way). Tough advice needs to be given in private, not displayed like dirty laundry for the rest of the world to see. We also need to be aware of how our own broken commitments can affect an ally’s distrust. President Bush’s promise of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan is a case in point. So was the time in 2003 when Karzai wanted to take on the warlords but we wouldn’t commit to using our forces to back him up if necessary. (This episode is chronicled by Sarah Chayes in The Punishment of Virtue .)

The Obama administration went out of its way to repair the damage during Karzai’s visit. The president’s declaration of a moral commitment to protect the Afghan population and arrangements for Karzai to visit wounded American veterans at Walter Reed and the graves of the fallen in Arlington conveyed important symbolic messages. But the question remains whether we can develop a coherent approach to improving the Karzai government that would work on the ground in real time.

As in Vietnam more than forty years ago, too much public attention has focused on troop numbers in Afghanistan rather than on the circumstances under which the troops are operating. Before the surge there, existing international troop numbers were insufficient to stop Taliban progress, protect the civilian population in critical areas, and train and mentor enough Afghans forces, including local government officials, to start turning over security and governance. But the real hitch is the lack of the kind of capability and readiness that ultimately dictate security arrangements. An added handicap has been the lack of systematic intelligence about the local operating environment and the local people, as described earlier this year in an unclassified paper by U.S. Army Major General Michael Flynn, the international force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence.

The feeling persists among some in Congress that a deadline for American withdrawal will spur the Karzai government to take positive and presumably decisive action. But even if the Afghan government in Kabul became more efficient, security force and civil administration capabilities are not there yet and will not be there soon. Step-by-step change on the Afghan side brought about by pressure, persuasion, and mentoring may eventually do the job, but everything depends on how much time we are allowed and how capable our in-country team is at working with the Afghan leadership to foster such changes. In the meantime, congressional imperatives about Afghanistan unhinged from the realities there recall ritual prayers for rain in the desert.

While the July 2011 date set by Obama to begin withdrawal was welcomed at home, it played very differently with the Taliban, the Afghan public, and the Pakistanis. To most Afghans, rightly skeptical about their own government and living daily with its inadequacies, 2011 is clearly too soon. Nader Nadery, chairman of FEFA and a respected nongovernmental Afghan leader, told the New York Times that it “was very unrealistic to think that in eighteen months [the U.S.] would be able, with the Afghan government, to secure a very large part of the country which is insecure today.” Even more telling are firsthand reports in the Times of villagers in Helmand Province refusing to help construct a new school for fear of Taliban retribution “after the Americans go home next year.” In the same story, a senior American intelligence officer pointed out that not only were the Taliban exploiting this perception but the deadline had encouraged the Pakistanis to “hedge their bets” and continue supporting militant Afghan groups such as the Haqqani network. Why should ordinary Afghans commit themselves in the face of the Taliban’s deadly ability to take names, especially when they will be deserted next year? Assassinations are already under way in Kandahar, targeting those helping our forces and the Karzai government.

Until recently, the Afghan police, the first line of defense for the population, were receiving only four weeks of training under a contract with the private military contractor DynCorp. Practically the entire police force has to be reconstructed. The Afghan army we are trying to improve is not only too small but critically lacking in competency and capability. Widespread local government reform remains a long way off. Above all, popular skepticism runs deep because of past government incompetence and corruption. A Pentagon assessment has highlighted this dimension of the problem: in one hundred and twenty districts considered critical to Afghanistan’s future stability, only a quarter of the population view the Afghan government favorably, and the government has full control in fewer than six of these districts.


I began 2010 thinking we just might be able to turn over a significant piece of contested territory to the Afghan government by next July. I no longer think so, although I remain convinced that with more time it can still happen. Establishing permanent security in the Marja area of Helmand Province, where our Marines are concentrated and little prior government exists to be reformed, has proven more difficult than anticipated. Even so, Helmand is not an example of what will work for the rest of the country. A truer test is Kandahar, now our main objective, where the local political structure is much more complicated and difficult.

Kandahar is the second-largest city in Afghanistan, with a population of more than five hundred thousand, and is surrounded by a provincial population of roughly the same size. It is the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar’s birthplace and the prime target for a Taliban takeover. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said, “As goes Kandahar so goes Afghanistan.” I think he is right: the Afghan government, with our support, will either win there or lose most of the rest of the country.

The plan for securing Kandahar City is to use the police, retrained to some degree and bolstered by American military police mentors, while our military works with the Afghan army to tackle the surrounding province. Whether this will work in the city remains doubtful because Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half brother and chairman of the Kandahar provincial council, governs there from behind the scenes with his own private militia—and eventually we will have to deal with the incompatibility of that force with the government’s. Legitimate Afghan city and provincial government will have to be installed with real authority to make counterinsurgency work, which means that the brother, widely seen as a symbol of corruption, will either have to stop running things or remove himself. Before his retirement, McChrystal had said some “adjustment” by local power brokers would be necessary. On the nature of that adjustment will hang the ultimate outcome of the struggle for Kandahar.

As I have thought about the time required to achieve meaningful progress in counterinsurgency in Afghanistan (which really only began in 2009), I recalled the somewhat similar situation in Vietnam where we were making real progress in the Strategic Hamlet Program until the Diem government became embroiled with the Buddhists and was overthrown in late 1963. At that time, our estimate was that it would take at least three more years to overcome most of the insurgency. It was very painful in September 1963 for me to have to tell President Kennedy, with McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor in attendance, that we were not winning the war in the Vietnamese Delta, especially because the president had just heard a high-ranking military officer say we were—“handily.” If what Jonathan Alter said in his recent book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One , is even half accurate, Obama and the Pentagon have apparently boxed themselves into the unrealistic estimate that some substantial part of Afghanistan could be turned over to the Afghan army and government by July 2011. It now falls to General David Petraeus to undertake the arduous process of adjusting that estimate to reality and persuading the administration and the Congress to accept a more realistic timeline.

The recent blowup over McChrystal and his staff unveiled a deep disunity among American leaders stemming from the impossibility of any substantial withdrawal by next July (a reality lately recognized by Vice President Biden himself). Besides the disastrous interpretation by the Afghan population and the Taliban of what it meant, the deadline created an unattainable standard for measuring progress in a very hard counterinsurgency fight. Failure to change immediately and permanently the security situation in Marja was interpreted as a defeat. Counterinsurgency was seen as failing (see Richard Haas’s recent Newsweek story, “Rethinking Afghanistan”). Suddenly, the surge was viewed as losing before the full complement of troops had even arrived. In addition to running the military campaign, McChrystal had been carrying the political load of involving the Karzai government in a positive way in the conflict. It is not to excuse McChrystal’s actions to sympathize with his frustration with what was starting to seem a mission impossible before it even got up to speed.


W here do we and the Afghans go from here? Our interrelated involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan and Pakistan is so deep and so critical to the future stability of both countries and the region that it cannot be terminated by some master stroke of withdrawal without adverse consequences for our national security. There are no silver bullets for withdrawal, just as there are none for success.

Petraeus appears to be our last best hope. He has already changed the tone of civil-military cooperation and introduced a new burst of optimism within the American mission, according to my sources. Clearly he will try to replicate the success of his teamwork with Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Iraq. Given the personal animus Karzai reportedly feels toward Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, it remains to be seen whether a similar team approach will work in Kabul. By assigning Petraeus, who has a constituency beyond the White House, Obama has pushed many more chips out on the table.

The only reasonable alternative I see is to give Afghanistan at least three more years of serious, sustained effort at close to the current level. Those who counsel simply withdrawing should be required to say how this can be done in a practical way without losing Kabul, thus leaving Afghanistan pretty much where it was in 2001—but this time giving an even greater boost to the extremist Muslim cause worldwide and, most dangerously, in Pakistan. As for our moral commitment to the Afghan people, I am reminded of what a young student said to then Senator Biden when he visited a newly opened girls’ school in Afghanistan in 2002. She told him, “You cannot leave. They will not deny me learning to read. I will read. . . . I will be a doctor like my mother. . . . America must not leave.” Now there are more than four million girls and women in school in Afghanistan.

Based on everything I remember about Vietnam, know about counterinsurgency, and have learned about Afghanistan, a meaningful handover of Kandahar, or any other substantially contested Afghan area, cannot be completed by July 2011. In fact, we will be lucky if there are any meaningful signs of progress by that time. While everyone should await the December 2010 progress assessment before rendering final judgment, as part of that process Obama should reexamine the deadline assumptions made last year. This will likely mean recasting the challenge in a more accurate and clear light, resisting public pressure for a substantial pullout next year, and convincing the American people (and a majority of his fellow Democrats) that a firmer, longer-term commitment is necessary. Similarly, for any kind of decent outcome, the Afghan people will continue to need reassurance that we are truly dedicated to their cause, for they too are our constituents in this enterprise.

We should continue to be aware of and learn from the similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam. But part of these “lessons” should involve remembering what happened to the South Vietnamese people after they saw our last helicopters fly away in 1975.

Rufus Phillips is the author of Why Vietnam Matters. He worked in Vietnam as an Army officer and with the CIA, USAID, and State Department from 1954 to 1968.

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