Analysis: It's not Vietnam, but parallels are growing
Thursday 24 September 2009
Two conflicts, a generation apart, in some ways so similar, in others so different. But the question gnaws, ever harder to dismiss. Will Afghanistan prove Barack Obama's Vietnam?
Despite the growing American casualties, Afghanistan is a far smaller conflict. Some 60,000 US troops are currently deployed there. At the height of the Vietnam War, US forces in the field topped half a million. Afghanistan has cost an estimated $171bn (£113bn). Vietnam, in today's dollars, cost $686bn.
That cost would have been higher still had the US not had a largely conscript army. The fact that there is no longer a draft is a major reason that public protest at the Afghan war is virtually non-existent. Casualties in Afghanistan have been a fraction of those in Vietnam, where 58,000 US servicemen died. As of yesterday, 842 Americans have died in Afghanistan.
The justifications for the two conflicts are very different too. Vietnam was fought in the name of the "domino theory" – that if one country in South-east Asia went Communist, the rest would follow. Afghanistan is a post-Cold War conflict, in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
But the similarities are disquieting. Both wars have officially lasted eight years: Vietnam from 1965 to 1973, Afghanistan from 2001 to 2009 (and counting.) Both have unfolded in far-away Asian countries. As in the former South Vietnam, Washington is propping up a corrupt regime in Afghanistan that does not command the allegiance of much of its people. In both, the US is trying a "hearts and minds" campaign to win the loyalty of civilians – and failing. Finally, in Afghanistan as in Vietnam, the goal of the conflict is not clear.
In short, the similarities are not only disquieting. They are also growing.
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