Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Lessons Learned In Vietnam Applied To Afghanistan


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

As President Obama and his advisers debate the way ahead in Afghanistan, more and more comparisons are drawn to America's long, bloody and frustrating failure in Vietnam.

The similarities include a stubborn, resilient enemy, difficult terrain, sanctuaries in a neighboring country, weak, corrupt governments and dwindling public support.

Of course, these are very different countries. No one will argue the analogy is perfect. But are there lessons from Vietnam that may apply to Afghanistan?

We want to hear from Vietnam veterans today. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: [email protected]. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Cynthia Tucker joins us on the Opinion Page to ask: When did the greatest generation become the greediest generation?

But first, Afghanistan and Vietnam. Steve Coll is the author of "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden." He joins us from a studio at the New America Foundation, where he's president. Good to have you with us.

Mr. STEVE COLL (President, New America Foundation; Author): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And Neil Sheehan is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winner on Vietnam, "A Bright Shining Lie." He has a new book out called "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War," and he joins us from his home here in Washington. Nice to talk to you again.

Mr. NEIL SHEEHAN (Author): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And Neil Sheehan, where is the analogy to Vietnam instructive?

Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, there are a number of analogies to Vietnam. They're not -it's not absolutely similar, obviously. The two countries are different. But first of all, you're got a weak and corrupt central government, which limits what you can do. If you form an army in the name of that government, it may not function well. I may never get up to snuff to defeat its enemies.

Remember, the Russians formed an Afghan army that melted away. You've got a country where much of the population is opposed to you, and they have been -they are fierce fighters with a great sense of independence. No foreign army has ever lasted a long time in Afghanistan.

They have a sanctuary, as you mentioned, across the border. The American public's not enthusiastic. The problem is probably they will end up - we will end up either withdrawing or coming up with some sort of political solution, and I hope that if McChrystal is given more troops, that it is with the idea that he will use them to work his way toward some sort of political solution rather than attempting to win the war, because it doesn't seem possible to win a war in Afghanistan.

CONAN: Stanley McChrystal, of course, the U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan. Steve Coll, where is the Vietnam analogy unhelpful?

Mr. COLL: Well, I think only to the extent that it takes us away from the specificity of Afghanistan itself. I actually agree with everything that Neil just said. So I don't think I have a profound argument with his use of the analogy. But I do worry sometimes that in our inability to engage with the specific problem of Afghanistan, that we end up distracting ourselves with a lot of discourse about analogies.

There are some problems to expeditionary counterinsurgency that are universal, and you could find the kinds of structural problems that Neil correctly outlined in lots other expeditionary wars, including some that we've engaged in with more success, like in the Balkans.

I think in Afghanistan, the structure of the insurgency is really quite different from what occurred in Vietnam, very different. There's - it's a weaker insurgency. It is not connected to state competition, as the Vietnam War was. It - the terrain is difficult, but the terrain is really very different.

The sanctuary in Pakistan is a factor, but the sanctuary in Pakistan is really quite different. The Pakistani government is itself divided about what to do about the sanctuary, as evident in the campaign the army's opening this week in Waziristan.

So I'm just more of the school that things are what they are, and Afghanistan is complicated enough without trying to analyze it through the prism of analogy.

CONAN: And let me turn back to you, Neil Sheehan. A lot of people say the war in Afghanistan is not a war of choice, but one of necessity. In Vietnam days, people have said fight them in Saigon or fight them in Seattle, but nobody took that very seriously. In this case, this war began with an attack launched from Afghanistan that left 3,000 Americans dead.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, Vietnam was initially considered a war of necessity. As the years went by, it began to - we began to realize it had been a war of choice. It didn't start out that way.

Those who believed in all the Cold War doctrines about falling dominos, etcetera, which includes President Johnson, believed that the war was a necessary war.

The - you mentioned bin Laden and the danger he and those who follow him in al-Qaida pose to this country. That's true, but look at how bad the intelligence is. We haven't been able to find this man in all the years since 2001.

We haven't been able to find the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. So that gives you some idea of the great, enormous difficulty you're going to face if you press forward in a major effort in this country without having some sort of - with some sort of exit strategy as you go in.

The danger in these situations is is that you put more and more troops into them. You don't have an exit strategy and you get bogged down, and you're spending casualties for nothing.

I mean, the Vietnam War ended up with a - after the Vietnam War, excuse me, I should say. The Army came to a conclusion that has become known as the Powell Doctrine, after General Powell. It was that one, you don't start - you don't go to war unless it's absolutely necessary. Number two, you have public opinion in this country behind you. Unfortunately, you don't have that anymore for Afghanistan. And number three, you have overwhelming force to defeat your opponents.

All these were present in 1991, when we went into Kuwait to defeat, to drive out Saddam Hussein who, in effect, seized our gas station and was threatening another gas station, Saudi Arabia.

They're not present in Afghanistan. So I think it's a very dangerous situation, and you have to proceed very carefully.

CONAN: Steve Coll, there is - as Neil Sheehan points out, the domino theory didn't really hold up, except, of course, nearby dominos did fall after Vietnam: Laos and Cambodia> And the neighboring country where the sanctuaries are in the case of Afghanistan is Pakistan, and this is a trans-border insurgency, and Pakistan, of course, has nuclear weapons.

Mr. COLL: Well, I think that's right. I mean, I think that the United States has two interests that are at issue in the war. That's not to say that it's easy to figure out how to pursue those interests, but just to define them. One is to disable al-Qaida, prevent it from being able to carry out attacks against Americans and American allies, at least in Europe and in the neighborhood. And the second is to prevent Pakistan from collapsing completely.

And if you agree with that statement of our interests, or at least approximately, then you have to confront the problem that is present in Afghanistan now, which is that the Taliban are a revolutionary movement that threaten both the Afghan and the Pakistani governments. And there are some who feel that we could accept a violent course of Taliban revolution in Afghanistan and still protect our interests.

I'm not one of those. I think that a successful second Taliban revolution in Afghanistan would have very dangerous implications for Pakistan. And I don't know whether to call that a domino concern or not, but it's a transnational insurgency. There are more Pashtuns from whom the Taliban draw their recruits and leadership, more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan.

So in that sense, it's not a domino. It's a fused insurgency that self-consciously sees itself waging a revolutionary cause in two countries simultaneously.

CONAN: We're talking with Steve Coll of the New America Foundation and Neil Sheehan, the author of "A Bright Shining Lie," among many other books. His new one is called "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War."

We want to talk with Vietnam veterans today. The analogy to Afghanistan, in what ways is it useful, in what ways not? 800-989-8255. Email us: t[email protected]. And let's go to Paul, Paul with us from Cincinnati.

PAUL (Caller): Hi, Neal, thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

PAUL: I think there's a couple of things. Number one, where it is different, when we went into Vietnam, we didn't have much of a clue about counterinsurgency, and those people that did know counterinsurgency and special-ops, which I was in for most of my time, the problem was is we weren't really listened to.

So you had a fixed-base, traditional military thinking trying to apply to a counterinsurgency situation. In this case, I think we have some good, solid leadership with regards to understanding and dealing with a counterinsurgency and being able to put it down.

The other part of it is, at least as I view it, we have become known, as I travel around the world on business, we have become known as great starters and poor finishers, so that we've really got to change that image, I think, and that perception that if we're going to get into something, we go in with a clearly defined plan. We know where we're going, we do it, and we see it all the way through to the end - as opposed to gee whiz, we can't quite do it now.

CONAN: Let me throw that to Neil Sheehan, and, of course, that one of the major differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan is the U.S. Army. It's very different now than it was then.

Mr. SHEEHAN: You're right, of course, but Westmoreland's plan in Vietnam was a war of attrition. He was going to wear down the enemy to the point where they would be so weakened that they would have to either stop fighting completely or, in effect, surrender.

The situation also in Vietnam was you had a national movement, a war for national independence on the communist side, which was opposed to those who had - who were on the South Vietnamese, so-called South Vietnamese side, who had fought with the French and whom we supported.

Afghanistan is different than that in that you have various divided groups, but the main insurgency, as Steve Coll correctly pointed out, is among the Pashtun, and that extends across the border into Pakistan, which also has a weak central government and which could come apart, and is a nuclear-armed state. So it's a very dangerous situation.

I would say that you - there is no clear, deliberate analogy in the sense that you could follow the one to the other. But whatever you do, you've got to proceed with great, great caution and not just get yourself bogged down in a situation from which you can't retrieve yourself.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the call. Steve, very quickly.

PAUL: Thank you.

Mr. COLL: Could I just ask Neil a quick question…

CONAN: Can you wait a minute and a half, and we can get to it?

Mr. COLL: I can.

CONAN: Okay. We'll come back with a question from Steve Coll to Neil Sheehan in a minute and a half. That's, of course, the time between now and when we resume. So stay with us. We'd like to hear from Vietnam veterans today. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: [email protected]. Analogies to Vietnam in Afghanistan: are they useful? If so, what? I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION form NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As President Obama charts the way forward in Afghanistan, he's said himself it's hard not to think about the long, frustrating experience of Vietnam.

A look at history may be valuable in this case. We're doing that today with journalist Steve Coll and Neil Sheehan and with Vietnam veterans in our audience. We'd like to hear from you. Based on your experience, is the comparison valid? If so, why or why not? 800-989-8255. Email us: [email protected]. You can join the conversation at our Web site at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Many people from across the political spectrum have been writing on this issue. We've posted links to several of them at our Web site. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

But when we left just a minute and a half ago, Steve Coll had a question for Neil Sheehan. Steve?

Mr. COLL: Yes, I'm - can you hear me all right?


Mr. COLL: I think I'm one of a generation of journalists who was inspired by Neil's book, "Bright Shining Lie," and I wanted to come back to the question the previous caller asked about counterinsurgency capabilities in the U.S. Army.

The protagonist of his book, John Paul Vann, I remember - it's been a while since I read the book - was - imagined himself as a specialist in counterinsurgency, but his commanders seemed not to understand the theory and practice of this more-political form of warfare. And the book to some extent leaves you with the impression that counterinsurgency is naive ambition, and on the other hand, it leaves you with the impression that we missed an opportunity to do things right.

And so when you look back at Vietnam, there's a big debate in the Army now about whether we could have succeeded if we had properly applied counterinsurgency doctrine. How do you think about that?

Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, we might have lasted longer if we'd applied the counterinsurgency doctrine that the Marines wanted to apply, namely General Victor Krulak, who destroyed his career by his objection to Westmoreland's attrition strategy. But if you are in a situation where you have a fiercely independent people who don't want to tolerate foreigners, then counterinsurgency becomes a kind of myth.

It is not a panacea for it because you're foreigners operating in an environment that's hostile to you. And I don't know exactly whether McChrystal should be given these troops or not, but if you look at the history in Afghanistan of foreign armies, none of them have lasted very long.

The British went in there in the 1840s with an Indian army. They tried to retreat in the wintertime because the Afghans told them they could safely do so. They had their word. The Afghans fell on them and massacred them. Only one man survived, the doctor the Afghans let out to tell the story.

The Brits went back in the 1880s, they conquered the major cities, towns. The British general, Lord Roberts, said the trouble with Afghanistan was what to do with it when you had it. They got out. They went in again in 1919 and got out.

The Russians went in with a very powerful army and formed - with an Afghan government, and then formed an Afghan army. They had to get out, and the Afghan army they formed melted away.

So I think these counterinsurgency theories are wonderful ideas, but in practice, they're very, very difficult to implement, and I don't think over the long term, they would have worked in Vietnam, Steve.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Ed, Ed with us from Jonesboro in Arkansas.

ED (Caller): Yeah, good afternoon. My comments are short and brief. I was a Marine in Vietnam, and I was there during '68 and '69. And I came back to an environment that was quite a bit different from what those that are returning from war today and those that I see as I travel throughout the world. And that was when I got off a plane in Travis Air Force in California, I had to walk through a protest, having spent 13 months in a combat zone to be able to get on a plane to fly home.

And I found my reception not like the many warriors before with tickertape parades, but yet a more very reluctant and reticent kind of philosophy throughout the nation.

That, I think, has been stemmed in the war in Afghanistan because we were attacked. We were not attacked in Vietnam.

CONAN: It's also not a draftee army.

ED: Yes, and I think one of the things that has - I see financially, had our country, and we're still not completely out of that. But had our country gone into a big depression, this war probably would be over by now. And the financial ramifications of it are taking a heavy toll on our country today, as opposed to the crisis that we were in in Vietnam.

So what I'm saying is the basics of the condition in Vietnam, as opposed to the condition in Afghanistan, are identical, in my opinion. The support of the U.S. populous and the world populous is different because we were attacked, as opposed to being involved in the Vietnam, of course. And I think the support of the United States at large will wane because as we encounter more and more difficulties and more and more failures and more and more constant billions of dollars being poured in and yet no results, I think the support for the war itself will wane.

CONAN: All right, Ed. Thanks very much. And that's, Steve Coll, a critical point, and while the opinion has - in support of the war has indeed been dwindling, it is not yet to the point where there are hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demanding the U.S. withdraw.

Mr. COLL: Correct. Well, there's two aspects. One is the support for the war and the policy, which clear is deteriorating but hasn't yet collapsed. And where I think national leadership always plays a role in shaping opinion over time, the president is preparing, I assume, to address the country and explain his policy, and that may or may not succeed in changing public opinion. But it hasn't happened for some months now.

And then the second question is the support for the U.S. military, which I think is now quite resilient in the country, in part because it's a volunteer Army that is drawn from regions and communities where support for soldiers and officers is just unshakable, and in part because the country itself has interpreted the Vietnam era in a way to distinguish between the volunteerism of soldiers and officers on the one hand and national policy on the other hand.

So even during the Iraq War, I don't think hostile U.S. opinion about that war was directed in a meaningful way at soldiers who were fighting it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Bob, Bob with us from Roscoe, Illinois.

BOB (Caller): Yeah, I was in Vietnam for 14 months, and I don't see how there's any way in the world we can represent the Afghan government against insurgent forces when we don't even speak the language of the people.

You go into a village, you can't communicate with the people. You go into their house, searching for weapons, you know, and they've got an old tin pot sitting there, and that might be the most valuable thing that those people own, and you just kick the stuff around. You don't have any respect for the people or their culture. There's a total cultural gap between the United States people and people who live that, you know, poor in third world countries.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, that's the myth of counterinsurgency. It's a quick - it's a lovely thing to talk about, but it's extremely difficult to apply. I would agree with everything Steve said about the resilience of the American military, but part of it's due to the fact that the casualties in Iraq and so far in Afghanistan have been low, and we have all-volunteer force.

You don't have the - in Vietnam, in 1968, we lost almost 10,000 men in one year, 58,000 dead in the whole war, and we had the draft, which was cutting -which as beginning to take - which had begun to take the sons of the middle class. So it was a quite different situation politically. But you could still get disillusionment with the war in Afghanistan if it drags on without a solution.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the call.

BOB: Thank you.

CONAN: And Neil Sheehan, I wanted to raise another point, and this, I guess, goes to a lot of what you wrote about the war in Vietnam. There was a tinge of cynicism in this. There was a point at which there were a lot of people who had come to the conclusion that this was not going to work, and they went ahead with it, anyway. Do you detect that quality in Afghanistan?

Mr. SHEEHAN: No, I think, you know, one must give people, like, I presume - I don't know General McChrystal, but I do know Richard Holbrooke. You must give people like this credit for sincerity. They're trying to do the best they can.

The problem is whether their judgment is correct or not, but it's not a question of cynicism, of people saying, well, let's just make it look good. They're trying to do the best they can, and maybe they'll succeed. But I think if they do succeed, they have to have some sort of an exit plan. You can't go on with something like this indefinitely, without knowing what you're doing and having a way out.

CONAN: Is that what you would hope to hear from President Obama, when he makes his decision this week or next?

Mr. SHEEHAN: Yes, that's what I would hope to hear from him. I think you should ask Steve Coll also what he would think.

CONAN: I was just about to.

Mr. COLL: Well, I think they do have an exit strategy. Whether they'll announce it or not I don't know because of the way they tried to manage their signaling in the region, but they do have an exit strategy. I don't know whether it's plausible, but I know they have one. And it's essentially based on the idea that they need about three or four years to build up Afghan security forces. And, as in Iraq today, they'll gradually shift from direct combat to supportive roles and then head for the exits as those forces are brought forward. The problem with that plan is what Neil identified at the beginning which is the question of whether that army, as it's built up and deployed, will be connected to a coherent and self-sustaining government.

You know, in Iraq for all of the fissures that were created by the U.S. invasion, self-interest and self-preservation has caused that government to hold together as American forces have pulled back and headed to the exit. So it's conceivable that something like that could happen in Afghanistan, but there are enormous risks.

CONAN: And that prospect, Neil Sheehan, raises another word from the Vietnam era, Vietnamization, which is turning the whole thing over to a, in this case, South Vietnamese army which proved unsuccessful.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, the Russians did that in Afghanistan. They finally had to withdraw and they turned the country over to an Afghan government - weak Afghan government - which they had been supporting and an Afghan army and they collapsed. Vietnamization didn't work in Vietnam for the same reason. We had a weak, corrupt central government in South Vietnam. You had an army which had no confidence that it could stand up to its opponent, the army - the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong guerillas. And when the North Vietnamese finally attacked in the final offensive in 1975, the Saigon troops ran faster than they could catch up with them, there was one major battle towards the end but this - it's very, very difficult for foreigners to inject resolution into a foreign - into a local army which is the product of a - which is the arm of a weak, corrupt central government.

Mr. COLL: Neal, just a…

CONAN: Go ahead, Steve.

Mr. COLL: Just to correct one thing real quickly about the Soviet experience because I think it's important, and I happened to cover it directly as a newspaper correspondent and was there when it ended. Actually, the Soviet Afghanization strategy succeeded in the sense that they held the city and the states. The army held together. The government held together. The only reason it collapsed was because the Soviet Union collapsed. And it might not have lasted longer than another three or four years, but it melted away when the Soviet Union melted away and the supply lines collapsed and the political support collapsed. As a state, the Afghan state, client state of the Soviet Union, survived against enormous American efforts to tear it down. In fact, they were so afraid of the Islamist rebels that that seemed to be the glue that held them together for three or four years.

CONAN: Steve Coll is the author of "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden from the Soviet Union(ph) to September 10, 2001." He's with us from the New America Foundation where he's the president. Also with us, Neil Sheehan, author of "A Bright Shining Lie," which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1989. His new book "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Guy(ph). Guy with us from Las Vegas.

GUY (Caller): Oh, hi. Yes. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

GUY: Yeah. You know, I'm listening to everybody and a lot of interesting points (unintelligible) I've spent 18 months in Vietnam up in I Corps, I was in the Marine Corps. But any rate, if the mission is to stabilize Afghanistan, give it a popular, stable government in there, then we have to have enough troops in there to take and hold the territory, deny the Taliban room to maneuver. You've got to take all the high ground, control all the mountain passes. You've got to set up safety zones around these villages, so these villages can go ahead with their lives in safety. Now, that takes a lot of troops. It's going to take more than 40,000 troops.

CONAN: Neil Sheehan, does…

Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, it's a good point. If McChrystal is given 40,000 more troops, you'll have 100,000 troops. The question is what can you do with 100,000 troops in a country with terrain as difficult as Afghanistan? There was a photograph on the front page of the New York Times two or three weeks ago which showed a group of American Marines or soldiers or Army men out on an operation against the Taliban. And behind them, in the backdrop, were these absolutely forbidding mountains.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And you look at it and you say to yourself, my God, these guys are going to get lost there. The same thing was true of Vietnam. You had the Annamite chain which, you know, the North Vietnamese could hide an entire division. So there is a question of how many - of whether even an injection of 40,000 troops is going to allow them to really get control of the country. I'm not sure that they - so that's why I say I hope that if he's given the troops, that there is a - Steve Coll said - there is an exit strategy. And I hope that it works.

CONAN: And there are, of course, European troops though they are of limited of use and even more limited numbers. Guy, thanks very much for the phone call.

GUY: Sure.

CONAN: And I'd like to ask you both about one other additional factor and that's the international situation in Vietnam, not only whereas the Viet Cong, supported by the North Vietnamese Saigon and its army, but they in turn were supported by China and the Soviet Union and the rest of the Soviet bloc. That kind of support does not exist in this circumstance.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, look at today's New York Times and the amount of money that's flowing through the Taliban which our people say they can't stop. And they're very, very - they're very well financed and they have another country right next to them where they can retreat to. And so, it's - yes, they're not getting trucks from Czechoslovakia as the Vietnamese did, but they're getting an awful lot of support from abroad in terms of funds.

CONAN: Steve Coll?

Mr. COLL: Well, I think it's important though to recognize that there is no state in the neighborhood that actively - other than perhaps Iran - that is actively working to support the Taliban. China would prefer a stable Afghanistan. Russia would prefer a stable Afghanistan. Pakistan's ambivalent, but they're engaged now in fighting the Taliban to a much further degree than before. It's true that the Taliban have access to resources nonetheless and enough money by taxing local poppy farmers and smugglers to get by. But the absence of a big state machine supporting them does signal that they're weaker than, I think, we sometimes imagine them to be.

CONAN: And Neil Sheehan, we think of the Viet Cong as a guerilla army and in some respects it was, but - and we just have a few seconds left, I'm sorry. But at the end of the day, the war was very conventional with large North Vietnamese forces.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, what happened was the Viet Cong guerillas grew into a, well, a solid army and became an adjunct to the regular communist army from North Vietnam. Yes, and they were able to take on the regular South Vietnamese army, that's correct, and defeat it at the end.

CONAN: All right. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. But, thanks very much for the interesting conversation. Neil Sheehan, his new book is "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon," with us from his home here in Washington. Thanks for your time today. And Neil - Steve Coll is the author of "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden from the Soviet Union(ph) to September 10, 2001," with us today from the New America Foundation where he's the president, and thank you for your time.

Mr. COLL: Thanks, Neil. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Coming up, Social Security and seniors are on the Opinion Page this week. Columnist Cynthia Tucker's got a bone to pick with what she calls the greediest generation.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.