Alex Massie

Despite Pundits’ Best Efforts, Afghanistan Stubbornly Refuses to be Obama’s Vietnam

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So, you see, Barack Obama is a Democratic president just like Jack Kennedy and LBJ and, right, there's a war going on in Aghanistan which is in asia, just like Vietnam! So the parallels are just uncanny. Right? Wrong.

It's time, people. for a comprehensive ban on making facile comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam. Prospect's Tom Streithorst is only the latest fellow to warn that Afghanistan "could destroy Obama’s presidency, as Vietnam did Johnson’s."

This seems extremely unlikely. Let's trot through some of the reasons:

1. 50,000 Americans died in Vietnam. The current figure for Afghanistan? 796. There may be quite a number of troops involved but Afghanistan is, by the standards of these things, a small and non-deadly war. US deaths are running at a little over 100 a year. Absent soaring casualty rates body bags aren't going to end the war.

2. Anyway, the US military is the most respected institution in the United States. This was not the case in the 1960s and 70s. More importantly, it's an all-volunteer force. No-one is being drafted to go and die in the Hindu Kush. You want to make Afghanistan really unpopular? Reinstate the draft. Not gonna happen. At the moment, however, and for most people it's someone else's war.

3. One of the ugly secret truths about the war: elite opinion is much more engaged with and concerned by what's happening in Afghanistan than is the general public. Most people don't care that much about it. The war doesn't make the news every night. It's a very long way away and not much ever seems to happen. There are few battles, only the day to day grind of counter-insurgency. For a war, it lacks drama. Most people just aren't that into it. This is true in Britain too: when was the last time you talked about Aghanistan over dinner? And how much attention did it receive at the party conferences? Precisely. Seen any mammoth anti-war demonstrations lately? No, me neither.

4. One way or another and in some shape or form, the US is going to be involved in the region for years to come. No-one is enthused by this, but nor is anyone surprised. Heck, we're still in Bosnia. The argument, in as much as there is one, concerns the scope and scale of that involvement in Afghanistan, not the involvement itself. At the moment, as Marc Lynch says, we're muddling through and that's not so very terrible. Or at least, it's not the worst thing.

5. Public concern with the war may be rising but while wide it's not, I think, deep. But while Osama bin Laden remains at large there'll still be some residual support for the conflict. Voters get the link between 9/11 and Afghanistan. They also understand the propaganda consequences of abandoning Afghanistan. No-one can be happy about what's happening but not many people have many better, plausible alternatives. This is not like Vietnam. Afghanistan is not tearing society apart at home, is it? No.

6. If anything is going to "destroy" Obama's presidency it's jobs and the economy. Unemployment looks as though it may reach 10%. That's not good. We're returned to an era in which it is, once again, the economy stupid.

Anyway, if you must compare Afghanistan to previous conflicts then Vietnam provides an almost comically inapt comparison. Much better - and more original! - to note that it's much more like the counter-insurgency war and occupation of the Philippines more than a century ago. Even then it's not an exact comparison. But it is at least a better one than the tired, cliched, inaccurate and endless comparisons with Vietnam.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleInternationalafghanistanvietnam