May 21, 2013
The Afghan Syndrome
Posted on Apr 11, 2012
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
Afghanistan is, in fact, only longer than Vietnam if you decide to date the start of the American war there to 1964, when Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (in place of an actual declaration of war), or 1965, when American “combat troops” first arrived in South Vietnam. By then, however, there were already 16,000 armed American “advisors” there, Green Berets fighting there, American helicopters flying there. It would be far more reasonable to date America’s war in Vietnam to 1961, the year of its first official battlefield casualty and the moment when the Kennedy administration sent in 3,000 military advisors to join the 900 already there from the Eisenhower years. (The date of the first American death on the Vietnam Wall, however, is 1956, and the first American military man to die in Vietnam—an American lieutenant colonel mistaken by Vietnamese guerrillas for a French officer—was killed in Saigon in 1945.)
Of course, massive U.S. support for the French version of the Vietnam War in the early 1950s could drive that date back further. Similarly, if you wanted to add in America’s first Afghan War, the CIA-financed anti-Soviet war of the mujahideen from 1980 to 1989, you might once again have a “longest war” competition.
The essential problem in dating wars these days is that we no longer declare them, so they just tend to creep up on us. In addition, because undeclared war has melded into something like permanent war on the American scene, we might well be setting records every day on the Eurasian mainland—if, for instance, you care to include the First Gulf War and the continued military actions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq which, after 2001, blended into the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, its invasion of Afghanistan, and then, of course, Iraq (again).
For those who want a definitive “longest,” however, the latest news is promising. Obama administration negotiations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government are reportedly close to complete. The two sides are expected to arrive at a “strategic partnership” agreement leaving U.S. forces (trainers, advisors, special operations troops, and undoubtedly scads of private contractors) ensconced on bases in Afghanistan well beyond 2014. If such official desire becomes reality, then the Vietnam record might indeed be at an end.
Now, skip ahead almost two years and consider what’s missing in action today. After all, dealing with the Afghan War in Vietnam-analogy terms right now would be like lining up ducks at a shooting gallery. Just take a run through the essential Vietnam War checklist: there’s “quagmire” (check!); dropping the idea of winning “hearts and minds” (check!); the fact that we’ve entered the “Afghanization phase” of the war, with endless rosy prognostications about, followed by grim reports on, the training of the Afghan army to replace U.S. combat troops (check!).
There are those sagging public opinion polls about the war, dropping steadily into late-Vietnam territory (check!); the continued insistence of American military officials that “progress” is being made in the face of disaster and disintegration (not quite “light at the end of the tunnel” territory, but nonetheless a check! for sure).
There are those bomb-able, or in our era drone-able, “sanctuaries” across the border (check!); American massacre stories, most recently a one-man version of My Lai (check!); a prickly leader who irritates his American counterparts and is seen as an obstacle to success (check!), and so on—and on and on.
While the Afghan War has always had its many non-Vietnam aspects—geographical, historical, geopolitical, and in terms of casualties—anyone could have had a Vietnam field day with the present situation. At almost any previous moment in the last decades, many undoubtedly would have, and yet what’s striking is that this time around no one has. Unlike any administration since the Nixon years, nobody in Obama’s crowd now seems to have Vietnam obsessively on the brain.
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