Several weeks ago, an opinion piece in The Record compared our current war in Afghanistan to Vietnam. This is not true.
The two wars are fundamentally and irrevocably different, in their aims, in their conduct, in the conditions they were fought in, and in the response of the American nation. At its core, Vietnam was a war that did not need to be and should not have been fought, despite the best intentions of the Johnson Administration. The war in Afghanistan not only needs to be fought, as a matter of national interest, but should, and must, be fought, as a matter of moral imperative.
When the United States plunged into Vietnam in 1964, we did so with no clear objectives in mind. We were to protect and defend the South Vietnamese government from Communist encroachment, but what did that specifically mean? No specific military aims were ever articulated. A strictly political (and vague) idea of protecting South Vietnam was never accompanied by strategic goals, such as the capture of Hanoi or the destruction of the North Vietnamese Army. Our military essentially relied on a strategy of attrition, of killing as many of the enemy as possible without concern for the capture of territory. This was the case because in large part there were no front lines ? the Viet Cong’s guerilla attacks made the whole idea inapplicable.
In Afghanistan, not only are there front lines, but, more importantly, the goals are clear-cut: finding bin Laden and toppling the Taliban. Political goals, such as the creation of a new Afghan government, have been accompanied by military ones, such as the use of a strategic bombing campaign coupled with assault by proxy forces on the ground (the Northern Alliance).
Now, perhaps the Government did not plan the war in Afghanistan as extensively as it did the Gulf War. There has not been enough time to, no six-month showdown with the Taliban in which to plan and war game and build up our forces. In this, perhaps there is a parallel with Vietnam ? but it is a moot one.
The success of the war ? the vital criteria on which war planning must be judged ? has not been affected by the fact that we did not go into this venture with the utter tactical and strategic precision of the Gulf. As of this writing, anti-Taliban forces are closing in on Kandahar, the only city left in the hands of the Taliban. The war, despite the lack of massive planning, is going well.
Some say, though, that the goals of the War on Terrorism are vague ? and this is right, to an extent ? but the war on Terrorism must be viewed in a larger context than the conflict in Afghanistan. It is more along the lines of the Cold War ? another conflict with vague aims, fought for moral reasons ? than, say the Gulf War. In that context, its vagueness makes more sense.
Furthermore, the conditions under which the war in Afghanistan is being fought are radically different from those in Vietnam, and the methods through which the war is executed diverge considerably from our tactics in Vietnam. Simply because both Afghanistan and Vietnam are poor, Third World countries where the United States is fighting a war does not mean that a parallel exists between either the countries or the wars. The terrain of each land differs vastly: where Vietnam is tropical and covered with jungle, Afghanistan is dry and arid, bare of most vegetation, mountainous, and covered with deserts. Both are hostile environments, to be sure, but, as far as hostile environments go, they stand in stark contrast to one another.
Also, the tactics used in each war are different. We are not carpet-bombing Afghan civilian centers, as we did in Vietnam. There have been some civilian casualties, and these are awful things for which the United States is sorry, but they come as the result of surgical strikes gone wrong, of misses ? not of an intentional bombing campaign against innocents ? as our enemy did, with no good reason and no warning, that awful September morning. We have not committed massive ground forces, as we had in Vietnam; indeed, most of our fighting is being done for us, by the Northern Alliance. Moreover, the rebel force, the Northern Alliance, is on our side, as opposed to Vietnam, in which the rebels (the Viet Cong) fought against us.
Most importantly, this war is morally right. Innocent American civilians have been slaughtered on our own soil by a group which hates Modernism, Liberalism and the Secularism that America represents and brings to the world. This group, Al-Qaeda, and its allies the Taliban, are not only guilty of one of the worst atrocities in our history, but also of brutalizing Afghanistan, of evilly oppressing its men, its women ? especially its women ? of all religions. It is guilty, as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times puts it, of “religious totalitarianism.” We must fight this war, both for freedom, worldwide and here at home, but also for our own self-preservation.
While the U.S., through our funding of the mujahadeen, the Afghan religious warriors that fought off the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, did to some extent help to create the unstable environment which led to the rise of the Taliban. This creation became a safe haven for Al Qaeda. But this in no way justifies what they have done. Does the Treaty of Versailles make the Holocaust permissible? No, of course not.
Similarly, our mistakes, both in Afghanistan and in the world at large, do not come close to justifying what the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have done. Our actions allowed for the rise of the Taliban only indirectly. (We did not support them, like Pakistan has, though I will concede that many of the players in Afghanistan today, both Taliban and otherwise, were supported by the U.S. in the 1980s. We still, however, did not support the Taliban.) Also, at the time, funding the mujahadeen religious warriors in their battle against Soviet Communism ? an evil foe if ever there was one ? seemed like the right thing to do.
The fact remains that we are fighting a very evil enemy, and that the United States of America is a fundamentally good nation. We have made mistakes in our past, but we stand for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, where our foes stand for murderous cruelty, brutal oppression, and the pursuit of their twisted and fanatical vision. They are totalitarians, and we must stop them. And that is, in large part, what this war is about.
Not only is this a moral war, unlike Vietnam, but it is also one that is supported by the public at home. While it is still early on, public support for the war shows no sign of evaporating. All across the political spectrum, backing for this war can be found. Both conservatives, like the President, and liberals, like Maureen Dowd of the New York Times (who recently wrote, “this is a just war.”) are behind it. Hard-boiled professional critics, like Chris Matthews (who, in one of his recent columns, wrote that this war is about an inner feeling of personal freedom, quoting Adlai Stevenson), support it. And though the divisions around Vietnam that rent America apart in the ’60s did not happen until several years into the war, as of right now, the nation is unified.
There is one more difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam: in Afghanistan, the United States and the forces of good are winning.