In 1999, two years before America’s longest war would begin in Afghanistan, Lewis Sorley published a seminal work titled A Better War about America’s last longest war that raged in the 1960s and 70s. The subtitle of this great work serves as the thesis of the book and says it all: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. Effectively beginning when the 88th Congress enacted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August, 1964, which authorized Lyndon Johnson to use military force in Southeast Asia, and continuing to the end of direct military involvement in 1973 with the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War cost over 55,000 American lives over the course of roughly 9 years.
The ultimate loss of the Vietnam War after the expense of so much blood and treasure serves as a cautionary tale for what we are now witnessing in Afghanistan.
The Vietnam War was doomed from the beginning, not by a lack of American military might or readiness, but by the political image-making that trumped sound military policy. From the earliest days of America’s involvement in Vietnam, policymakers tried to win the war effort while concurrently trying to co-opt the current political leadership in South Vietnam. That was a mistake. In the early 1960s, the Kennedy Administration sent military advisers and aides to assist the Diem government, in an effort to stop the advance of North Vietnamese Communists. The Diem government, however, was hopelessly corrupt, which undermined America’s moral authority in the conflict, and hampered sound military planning. By the time Diem was assassinated in late 1963, ironically weeks before President Kennedy himself was killed, the political situation in South Vietnam was perilous.
When Lyndon Johnson took-over as Commander-In-Chief, he also tried to work through the South Vietnamese military to coordinate America’s war effort in the region. Additionally, he insisted on managing the war from the Oval Office, not through his commanders on the ground. In a rather candid admission, Johnson told his aides that “I won’t let those Air Force Generals bomb the smallest outhouse without checking with me.” This style stymied U.S. commanders in their effort to decimate the communist forces flooding southward. The end result of political micromanagement and diplomatic indecision was the loss of the war and, ultimately, the unification of Vietnam under communist control.
This same failed approach has been used in Afghanistan for the better part of the past decade. Under the Obama Administration, in particular, the White House micromanaged the war effort, set arbitrary timelines for military actions and withdrawals, and consistently ignored commanders in the field. Additionally, U.S. forces have consistently been ordered to coordinate with a hapless Afghan government, which is replete with corruption, and to consider Pakistan an ally though they have harbored terrorists in their midst. It is as if the lessons of Vietnam were lost on the politicians who have continually tried to run the Afghan War with an eye on PR instead of military victory.
If America is going to turn the tide in Afghanistan, and avoid withdrawing in defeat after years of war as we did in Vietnam, then we must adjust our strategy. By listening to commanders in the field, instead of talking heads on television, America can begin to win again in Afghanistan. We must stop trying to placate Pakistan, and force them to choose between us and the terrorists they harbor, and cut-off all foreign and military aide to them if they do not deliver. We must also stop having U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan subject to any authority other than U.S. commanders, and we must never telegraph to the enemy when we plan to take any sort of military action.
Only by charting a new course in Afghanistan can we hope to prevent this fractured nation from, once again, becoming a training ground for terror. If America dithers, the Taliban will again seize control of the country, and ISIS will raise its banner over soil saturated with the sacrifice of American service members who have fought for freedom from the tyranny of radical Islamic terrorism. For the sake of American military morale, and the security of our homeland, we cannot – and must not- allow Afghanistan to become the new Vietnam.