Also Posted on Atlantic-community.org
Comparisons between the Afghanistan conflict and the Vietnam war are completely unfounded as they have little in common. Obama has no choice but to agree to General McChrystal’s request of sending more troops into Afghanistan.
The US entered Afghanistan under the guise of “Operation Enduring Freedom” on October 8, 2001 following 9/11. This means it is more than 8 years since the war began. As a friend of mine noted, “it took the US less time to defeat Japan and Germany in World War II than it has so far taken to subdue the Taliban in Afghanistan.” As we pass the eighth anniversary of the war, there seems to be clear differences of opinion within the US government over the strategy to use whilst responding to the increasingly sophisticated Taliban insurgency. The initial aims of the war were to remove the Taliban from power and destroy their organization, which both supported and facilitated Al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and the Pentagon. But the reality is that this is taking longer than the entire length of World War II.
Although the war started with overwhelming public support in the US, favor has slowly ebbed away. With surging casualties some American pundits and media sources have started calling the campaign in Afghanistan ‘Obama’s Vietnam,’ US military commanders on the ground are demanding more troops, as in the late 60’s and early 70’s in Vietnam, whilst public approval is waning. However, there is one huge difference: Afghanistan is not Vietnam. This time the US military leadership and strategy is better and the cause is very different. Vietnam was more of an ideological war caught up in the context of the Cold War but Afghanistan is a war of necessity against those who have terrorized innocent people. By calling it ‘Obama’s Vietnam,’ Western pundits fail to recognize the successes of the last eight years. Although Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omer have not yet been arrested, the Al-Qaeda network has been dismantled fairly effectively with many of its senior members killed. Despite Al-Qaeda’s stated desire to launch a major attack, it has not not struck against the West in four years.
Critics are also increasingly drawing similarities between the current situation and the action the USSR took in Afghanistan during the 80’s. For those reading the headlines thousands of miles away it seems terrible. However, for those Afghan’s with dreadful memories of three decades of war – the bloody Soviet occupation followed by the brutal era of the Taliban – it is far better now. Over 1 million Afghans were killed by the Soviet forces whilst around 5 million fled the country. Afghans became the largest refugee diaspora in the world during the 1980s with over 1.2 million people, including children and women, displaced. Initially, the entire population resisted the invasion, but today the resistance is led by a small ethnic minorities who lack mass support. These small groups fight against a UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), composed of troops from 42 different countries including 28 NATO members. Also it must be considered that during the Soviet invasion the entire infrastructure was destroyed but over the last 8 years Afghanistan has had the kind of development in its economy, infrastructure and governance that it has lacked over the last two centuries. The country has never experienced a peaceful transition of power but today we have a democratic government selected by popular vote and an elected parliament. We also have an Afghan army of 90,000 troops and a similar number of police. Right after the Soviet withdrawal these were totally destroyed.
Today, the war in Afghanistan is at a historic juncture. At this crucial stage President Obama is set to take a risky decision. He has to decide between sending more troops in line with General McChrystal’s demand or to reduce forces in accordance with an exit strategy. With the controversial election situation in Kabul, the White House is now re-evaluating its strategy and Obama is stuck with a dilemma. As Henry Kissinger says “if he refuses the recommendation and General McChrystal’s argument that his forces are inadequate for the mission, Obama will be blamed for the dramatic consequences. If he accepts the recommendation, his opponents may come to describe it, at least in part, as Obama’s war.”
President Obama has no other policy option than to acquiesce to Gen. McChrystal’s request. With a range of voices all calling for different priorities, such as a focused targeting of Al-Qaeda leadership or negotiating with the Taliban, many forget that a sophisticated comeback will only be possible with Al-Qaeda funding. Tahir Yaldosh and the many other leaders killed in the tribal areas of Pakistan were the ones who made the Taliban revival possible through a considerable increase in the insurgency. Negotiating with the Taliban will never be a viable policy option. Any separation between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is only temporary and the West must quickly realize that Afghanistan could easily become the home for international terrorists once again.