Is Afghan Conflict Akin To Vietnam?

As White House and Pentagon officials debate the way ahead in Afghanistan, they are looking to Vietnam as a model of what not to do. Lawmakers opposed to sending more troops to Afghanistan have found a perfect term to describe the conflict: quagmire.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A few weeks ago, two old friends from the Vietnam War days got to talking. One was Richard Holbrooke. He's the Obama administration's point man on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The other was journalist Stanley Karnow. He covered Vietnam for 15 years. As Karnow told us, Holbrooke put him in touch with the top commander in Afghanistan.

Mr. STANLEY KARNOW (Journalist): So he got on the phone, General McChrystal, and said, is there anything we learned in Vietnam that we can use in Afghanistan? And what we learned is we never should have been there in the first place.

SIEGEL: As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, decisions about war today are being shaped by a war fought 40 years ago.

TED BOWMAN: Stanley Karnow literally wrote the book on Vietnam, a history of American failure there. This is what Karnow says he told General McChrystal.

Mr. KARNOW: We could have avoided it. It was in my estimation Vietnam was the most probably avoidable war in American history.

BOWMAN: He says General McChrystal had little to say.

Mr. KARNOW: It didn't last very long. And what he took away from my conversation, I don't know. But I see from what I read in the paper that he's pretty gung-ho about going ahead and sounding like a lot of his generals (unintelligible) in Vietnam.

BOWMAN: The generals today are backing McChrystal's request for more troops. General David Petraeus, the overall commander for the region, supports him as does Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Others aren't so sure and they're looking back to Vietnam to see what they can learn. The must-read book now in Washington is called "Lessons in Disaster" by Gordon Goldstein. Even Admiral Mullen has asked his staff to read it. The book tells a story of the run-up to the Vietnam War through the eyes of a chief architect, McGeorge Bundy. Bundy was a top advisor to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and constantly pushed for military escalation, Goldstein says.

Mr. GORDON GOLDSTEIN (Author, "Lessons in Disaster"): But when he looked back on it three decades later, he said, Vietnam was a war that can never have been won and should not have been fought.

BOWMAN: Goldstein says the key lesson from Vietnam is to question assumptions. In the 1960s, official Washington believed if Vietnam fell to the communists, so, too, would all of Southeast Asia, like dominoes. That didn't happen. In Afghanistan, officials assumed that country has to be protected and rebuilt for Americans to be safe. But the threat to Americans is one big difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan. In 1966, Muhammad Ali refused to serve in the military and famously said, I got nothing against no Vietcong. That can't be said about al-Qaida, says retired Lieutenant General David Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Lieutenant General DAVID BARNO (U.S. Army, Retired; Commander, Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan): The attacks of 9/11 on the United States, which killed nearly 3,000 Americans, were direct attack from that part of the world that was directly supported by the Taliban, who were harboring al-Qaida at that time. Taliban continues to harbor al-Qaida and that threat still is there.

BOWMAN: Officials say even that assumption is being questioned at the White House. If the Taliban came back to power, would they provide a safe haven to al-Qaida? And would American troops make a difference? That's where Goldstein sees one more similarity with Vietnam: another young president being advised by his military to send large numbers of forces. Kennedy rejected that advice. His successor Lynda Johnson approved massive troop increases for Vietnam. Now, Johnson's name is being invoked by opponents of the Afghan War.

Congressman Jim McGovern is a Democrat from Massachusetts.

Representative JIM McGOVERN (Democrat, Massachusetts): Lyndon Johnson had it right. He said, it's easy to get into war. It's hard as hell to get out of one. And I think we're getting sucked into something here.

BOWMAN: McGovern and more than 50 House members are asking President Obama to reject troop hikes. Their letter to the president drops the greatest of all Vietnam-era buzzwords: quagmire. So here's what it comes down to: if you're against sending more troops, like Jim McGovern, Afghanistan is like Vietnam, if you favor sending more troops, Afghanistan is not Vietnam. Now, it's up to President Obama to decide what lessons apply.

President BARACK OBAMA: You never step into the same river twice, and so, Afghanistan is not Vietnam. But the dangers of overreach and not having clear goals and not having strong support from the American people, those are all issues that I think about all the time.

BOWMAN: Overreach, no clear goals, lack of support from the American people -all shorthand for Vietnam.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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