US & Canada

Afghanistan: Viewpoints on whether US should stay or go

Protesters carrying a red cross fill a street in the village of Panjwai, Afghanistan [13 March 2012]
Image caption Anti-American protests broke out in Afghanistan after a US soldier killed 16 civilians, one of several recent setbacks for Washington

The bloody Tet offensive of 1968 fatally undermined US public support for the war in Vietnam. Five months of mis-steps may now have done the same for Afghanistan.

In the aftermath of the tragic killings in Panjwai, Afghanistan, US President Barack Obama rightly swatted away a comparison between the deaths of 16 Afghan citizens - evidently at the hand of a single soldier - and the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese citizens by a US Army unit at My Lai, Vietnam.

While there are a handful of parallels, it is the essential differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam that are likely to shape a different political and military outcome than we experienced more than 35 years ago.

It is likely that the sequence of mis-steps by the US military over the past five months, particularly the Koran-burning, the Afghan retribution and now the Panjwai murders, will be Afghanistan's Tet moment - the point at which a majority of Americans turn firmly and permanently against the US presence, as happened in Vietnam in 1968.

Profound differences

The My Lai massacre occurred only a few weeks after the North Vietnamese defeat during the bloody Tet offensive. But the killing was not broadly reported for another year. The tide of public opinion turned because, according to extensive academic research, the American people perceived that success was no longer possible at an acceptable cost.

Image caption The My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1968 helped turn American public opinion against the war

In the context of Afghanistan, this sentiment is perhaps best captured by Newt Gingrich's comment earlier this week. The mission, he said, "may frankly not be doable".

The US intervened in Afghanistan because of the 9/11 attacks, real-life terror strikes on the US mainland. In Vietnam, the military operation began based on a perceived Communist threat that was presumed but ultimately overstated.

Nevertheless, with many key al-Qaeda operatives now dead, detained or on the defensive, it is possible to advance the argument that the insurgents we are battling in Afghanistan today are some way removed from al-Qaeda's core - in other words they are not a monolithic threat. These groups, including the Taliban and the Haqqanis, continue to challenge Afghanistan and Pakistan (like the Viet Cong did) but not the United States.

Given the duration of the conflict in Afghanistan - which will surpass Vietnam as the nation's longest later this year - the US population is simply war-weary and wants to see some kind of negotiated end. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll indicates that 60% of Americans no longer believe that the ongoing Afghan mission is worth the cost.

But there are profound differences that suggest a different ending in Afghanistan than Vietnam.

The Vietnam War was the defining issue of the 1968 presidential campaign. In the aftermath of Tet and the dramatic shift in public opinion against the war - most notably communicated by CBS anchor Walter Cronkite - President Lyndon Johnson declined to run for re-election. President Obama is running, but domestic issues are likely to be far more decisive in determining his electoral fate.

Vietnam was ripping the American social fabric apart at the seams, with significant protests focused not only on the war but also the draft. Far more Americans (although hardly a majority) were directly affected by the war in 1968 than today. Although there is increased scepticism about Afghanistan, given the advent of a professional all-volunteer military that is prepared to fight with or without significant public support, few people in America gave the Afghan war that much thought - until this string of events.

Taliban leverage

The only political pressure that President Obama is likely to feel in the immediate future will come from Congress. No doubt a few members, facing at least $487bn in defence cuts, might encourage more troops to come home sooner to reduce the existing $111bn being spent on Afghanistan. But a Congress that can barely agree on what day it is will hardly shut down a war abruptly as it did in 1975.

Unlike Vietnam, the Obama administration plans to negotiate a long-term status of forces agreement that enables a contingent of special operations forces to remain in Afghanistan. That would be a tangible manifestation of a partnership that the US is only now developing with Vietnam, more than 35 years after the last US soldier left.

A residual force, in addition to training Afghan forces, would ensure that any peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban was respected, something that did not happen with the abrupt end of the Vietnam War. A corrupt and dysfunctional South Vietnam was left to fend for itself and was quickly overwhelmed.

This is the one thing the United States cannot afford, not only with regard to Afghanistan but also even more importantly to Pakistan. While winding down a war, America cannot just pack up and leave.

We made the mistake of turning our backs on the region 20 years ago after the Soviets withdrew. Negotiating a long-term partnership with Afghanistan, sustaining targeted military and civilian assistance and maintaining a smaller, sustainable, focused residual force should ensure that history will not repeat itself.

PJ Crowley is a former US Assistant Secretary of State and now the Omar Bradley Chair at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law and School of International Affairs and a Fellow at the Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at The George Washington University.