BRUSSELS — Top U.S. officials have reached out to a leading Vietnam
war scholar to discuss the similarities of that conflict 40 years ago
with American involvement in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is seeking
ways to isolate an elusive guerrilla force and win over a skeptical
The overture to Pulitzer Prize-winning
historian Stanley Karnow, who opposes the Afghan war, comes as the U.S.
is evaluating its strategy there.
President Barack Obama has
doubled the size of the U.S. force to curb a burgeoning Taliban
insurgency and bolster the Afghan government. He has tasked Gen.
Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander, to conduct a strategic
review of the fight against Taliban guerrillas and draft a detailed
proposal for victory.
McChrystal and Richard Holbrooke, the U.S.
special envoy to the country, telephoned Karnow on July 27 in an
apparent effort to apply the lessons of Vietnam to the Afghan war,
which started in 2001 when U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban regime in
the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Among the concerns voiced by
historians is the credibility of President Hamid Karzai's government,
which is widely perceived as being plagued by graft and corruption.
They draw a parallel between Afghanistan's presidential election on
Aug. 20 and the failed effort in Vietnam to legitimize a military
regime lacking broad popular support through an imposed presidential
election in 1967.
"Holbrooke rang me from Kabul and passed the
phone to the general," said Karnow, who authored the seminal 1983 book,
"Vietnam: A History."
Holbrooke confirmed to The Associated Press
that the three men discussed similarities between the two wars. "We
discussed the two situations and what to do," he said during a visit
last week to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
In an interview
Thursday with the AP, Karnow said it was the first time he had ever
been consulted by U.S. commanders to discuss the war. He did not
elaborate on the specifics of the conversation.
When asked what
could be drawn from the Vietnam experience, Karnow replied: "What did
we learn from Vietnam? We learned that we shouldn't have been there in
the first place. Obama and everybody else seem to want to be in
Afghanistan, but not I."
"It now seems unthinkable that the U.S.
could lose (in Afghanistan), but that's what experts ... thought in
Vietnam in 1967," he said at his Maryland home. "It could be that there
will be no real conclusion and that it will go on for a long time until
the American public grows tired of it."
official said academics and outside experts have been consulted
frequently during the Obama presidency, especially around high-profile
events or decisions. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to
speak more freely about the administration's behind-the-scenes thinking.
and Karnow have known each other since they were both in Vietnam in the
early 1960s. At the time, Holbrooke was a junior U.S. diplomat and
Karnow a Time-Life correspondent.
Holbrooke briefly commented on
contrasts between the two conflicts, noting that the military regime in
Saigon was corrupt and unpopular, while the international community
seeks to build a democracy in Afghanistan.
The Vietnam war also
was a much bigger conflict. Nearly 550,000 U.S. troops were deployed at
the height of the war, whereas 102,000 international troops are
currently in Afghanistan — of which 63,000 are American.
McAllister, a professor of political science at Williams College in
Massachusetts who has written extensively about Vietnam, said the
administration could learn a lot from Vietnam.
makers clearly see parallels between the two wars," he said. "They know
that the mistakes we made in Vietnam must be avoided in Afghanistan."
McAllister cited analogies between the two wars:
_ In both wars, security forces had an overwhelming advantage in firepower over lightly armed but highly mobile guerrillas.
_ Insurgents in both cases were able to use safe havens in neighboring countries to regroup and re-equip.
pointed to McChrystal's order to limit airstrikes and prevent civilian
casualties, linking it to the overuse of air power in Vietnam which
resulted in massive civilian deaths.
McAllister drew a parallel to another failed political strategy from Vietnam — the presidential election.
('67 ballot) helped ensure that U.S. efforts would continue to be
compromised by its support for a corrupt, unpopular regime in Saigon,"
Rufus Phillips, Holbrooke's boss in Vietnam and author of the book "Why Vietnam Matters," echoed that warning.
rigged election in South Vietnam proved (to be) the most destructive
and destabilizing factor of all," said Phillips, now in Kabul helping
to monitor the upcoming election.
David Kilcullen, a
counterinsurgency specialist who will soon assume a role as a senior
adviser to McChrystal, compared Karzai to South Vietnamese President
Ngo Dinh Diem.
"He has a reasonably clean personal reputation but
he's seen as ineffective; his family are corrupt; he's alienated a very
substantial portion of the population," Kilcullen said Thursday at the
U.S. Institute of Peace.
"He seems paranoid and delusional and
out of touch with reality," he said. "That's all the sort of things
that were said about President Diem in 1963."
AP correspondents Anne Gearan and Jennifer Loven in Washington contributed to this report.