Afghanistan is not Vietnam

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. As the United States enters its ninth year in Afghanistan, President Obama and his national security advisors are debating strategy for the region. Some of those advisors have been reading up on the Vietnam War to try to avoid the mistakes of the past. There's been a lot of talk about Afghanistan as the latest Vietnam, and that made us wonder in what ways the two are different. The World's Jeb Sharp reports.

JEB SHARP: You can't avoid the analogy. For a year or more it's been tossed around by all manner of commentators. Marilyn Young, a historian at New York University, says the comparison is instructive, but you have to tread carefully.

MARILYN YOUNG: Afghanistan and Vietnam could not be more different, in terms of, well everything, history, the nature of the insurgencies, the history of the insurgencies, all of that. There's really just no resemblance. Where there is an analogy and something maybe to be learned is on the American side. That is, how did the United States approach interventions of this type?

SHARP: Like Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, President Obama is having to make agonizing decisions about strategy in the context of rising casualties, murky goals and a lengthening conflict. Amin Tarzi directs Middle East Studies at Marine Corps University. He says the nature of the presidential decision-making is analogous but not the nature of the two wars.

AMIN TARZI: When you look at it Vietnam was � If you go deep down into the type of warfare or the jungle warfare, here you have very much a different terrain. It was a country to which we had access from the sea. This is a landlocked country. I always caution for making comparisons because once you make comparisons we bring in preconceived ideas of a history path and then try to apply them to the current, and I think then we create our own realities and our own narratives which are not really Afghan-related.

SHARP: Terrorism expert Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation dismisses comparisons between the two wars. He says for a start the Vietnam War was orders of magnitude larger.

PETER BERGEN: Millions of civilians were killed. It was a superpower proxy war between the Soviet Union, Maoist China and the United States. The North Vietnamese Army was half a million men strong with artillery; the Taliban is maybe 20,000 very lightly armed. I mean these wars are on such different scales. 155 American soldiers were killed last year in Afghanistan, 155 American soldiers were dying every 4 days in 1968.

SHARP: Vietnam expert Gareth Porter says Bergen's argument makes sense to a point but he argues the better analogy is an early period in the Vietnam War. Communists took over large areas of the country side without firing a shot because of what he calls the fecklessness of the South Vietnamese government. That Gareth Porter says is not so different from the way the Taliban have expanded their influence because of the ineptitude of the Afghan government. Still, Peter Bergen says it's important to focus on Afghanistan itself and not dwell on comparisons.

PETER BERGEN: You know, I don't think this is going to be Obama's Vietnam. It's not going to be Obama's Iraq. It could be Obama's Afghanistan, meaning it's got its own set of problems.

SHARP: President Obama and his advisors are working on those problems right now. The overall lesson they seem to be taking from Vietnam is the need to get the strategy right. Marilyn Young of NYU says it's striking though that in all the effort to completely re-think strategy, there's one option that doesn't seem to be coming up.

MARILYN YOUNG: What hasn't been talked about is non-military approaches, by which I don't mean compromising with various dastardly groups. I mean the possibility of a regional conference that takes into account all of the competing and conflicting interests, Russians, Chinese, Iranians, Indians, and Pakistani.

SHARP: Young says that's probably pie in the sky at this point, given that the debate now seems to center on whether to stay the course or add even more troops to the fight. For The World, I'm Jeb Sharp