July 2008: Canada's Quagmire

Parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam wars disturbing
July 1, 2008

In the few days before this article was written in early June, another Canadian soldier—Captain Richard (Steve) Leary—was shot and killed in a gun battle with Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. This happened just after four other Canadian soldiers were wounded, one “very seriously” and two “seriously.”

They were the latest casualties. Nearly 50 of our soldiers have already returned in caskets, and hundreds of others have come home with broken bodies and minds. Their growing number, and the fact that they are so often forgotten, are but two of many increasingly disturbing parallels between Afghanistan and the Vietnam War.

Both conflicts were preceded by a long history of failed foreign occupations. The Japanese and French had been forced out of Vietnam; Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union were all expelled from Afghanistan.

In both countries, long periods of coerced subservience engendered deep resentment toward foreign invaders or occupying forces. Decades of armed resistance turned amateur insurgents into seasoned fighters.

Cross-border support for the insurgents played a role in both conflicts, and was impossible to shut down. Attacking China during the Vietnam War would have risked a global cataclysm. Sending troops into Pakistan today would destabilize an already fragile nuclear-armed state.

In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the occupying powers arrived without much understanding of local cultures, languages, and histories. Ken Calder, assistant deputy minister of national defence, admitted as much in 2003, saying that “We don’t know anything about this country.”

On both occasions, the occupiers handpicked a local leader and ran an election to legitimize him. Like Ngo Dinh Diem, Hamid Karzai’s tolerance for corruption and nepotism undermines local support and hinders development efforts.

Both conflicts have been justified on the basis that it’s better to engage the enemy abroad than to wait for the threat to spread. In Vietnam, it was called the “domino theory.” In Afghanistan, it’s the Bush doctrine of pre-emption.

Just as the domino theory failed to take into account historic animosities between the Vietnamese and Chinese, the threat from Afghanistan is inflated. Interviews with insurgents indicate that many are motivated to fight by the loss of family or friends to U.S. air-strikes, or the destruction of their livelihoods through the policies of poppy eradication, and not by any desire to destroy the West.

As Col. John Paul Vann observed after years of carpet-bombing in North Vietnam, “This is a political war, and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife... The worst is an airplane.”

Canadian General Andrew Leslie made the same point in August 2005: “Every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you’re creating 15 more who will come after you.”
It seems the Pentagon wasn’t listening. Neither was the Canadian government.

Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle” became a major source of heroin during the Vietnam War. Today, Afghanistan accounts for more than 90% of global supply. Eradication efforts, by creating financial insecurity, apparently promote poppy production.

In Vietnam, human rights abuses undermined support for Diem’s leadership, while war crimes at My Lai and elsewhere undermined U.S. efforts to “win hearts and minds.” Allegations of torture in Afghanistan, and a willingness to transfer prisoners despite the risk of torture, may be just as corrosive.

Both conflicts have seen sophisticated PR campaigns aimed, not at the occupied populations, but at maintaining public support at home. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky based their book Manufacturing Consent on case studies of media manipulation during the Vietnam War. According to CBC’s The National, the Department of National Defence employs 500 public relations officers and spends $23 million a year spinning the Afghan war.

In both instances, charismatic military leaders assumed prominent roles. In 1965, Gen. William Westmoreland was named Time’s Man of the Year. Described by the magazine as the “sinewy personification of the American fighting man,” he “directed the historic buildup in Vietnam, drew up the battle plans, and infused the men under him with his own idealistic view of U.S. aims and responsibilities.”

In February 2008, just as MPs were considering whether to extend the Kandahar mission, Gen. Rick Hillier publicly spoke up: “Is it too much to ask that our Parliament... show their support for the men and women who will execute the mission by voting overwhelmingly to support them in the danger and risks they will encounter?”

In Vietnam, early predictions of a quick victory morphed into a focus on exit strategies. Washington became obsessed with benchmarks, which were progressively lowered as its troops sank deeper into the “quagmire.”

When Paul Martin agreed to send a battle group to Kandahar in 2005, he expected a two-year mission and minimal causalities. Since then, the security situation has degenerated. According to NATO, insurgent attacks in Afghanistan were up 64% between 2006 and 2007. More than 6,500 people, many of them civilians, were killed last year compared to 4,000 in 2006 and 1,000 in 2005.

In 2007, 412 Canadians were killed or wounded in Afghanistan, up from 300 in 2006 and only 10 in 2005.

The Canadian government is now striving to lower expectations. In April, Stephen Harper said: “It depends what you mean by ‘success.’ If you took the definition of success which could be Afghan forces able to ensure a Western equivalent security environment, maybe that’s a 20-25-year task. If you’re saying Afghan forces able to manage the day-to-day security in most of the country, we think that’s an objective that, if we put our focus and determination towards, is achievable in a much shorter timeframe.”

The effort to build up Afghan government forces is reminiscent of the Nixon Doctrine, whereby a strengthened Vietnamese army was supposed to take over from U.S. soldiers. This policy of “Vietnamization” failed spectacularly when the Viet Cong swept into Saigon.

The sight of panicked Afghan National Army soldiers fleeing an assassination attempt on Karzai in April inspired no confidence in our own training efforts.

While Canada is slowly realizing that there is no military solution, Washington seems intent on escalating the counterinsurgency. Poppy eradication and air-strikes are likely intensifying with the addition--in Kandahar, alongside the Canadians--of 3,500 U.S. Marines. Nor is there much prospect of a changed approach after the U.S. presidential election this November. Afghanistan has become the alternative mission for Democrats opposed to the continued occupation of Iraq.

With Canada feeling its way toward the exit just as the United States is rushing back in, a clash of policies is almost inevitable.

This country’s ability to conduct its own analysis, and make its own decisions, was not curtailed when Parliament voted to extend the mission. Far from it: the fact that our soldiers are losing so much demands constant vigilance, the courage to stand up to allies, and a willingness to reconsider past decisions as new facts present themselves.

In Vietnam, the United States’ biggest mistake wasn’t going to war, but stubbornly persisting as long as it did.

(Michael Byers is a CCPA Research Associate and the author of Intent For A Nation: What Is Canada For? He holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.)