A Military Quagmire Remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam

By R. W. APPLE Jr.

The New York Times

October 31, 2001, Wednesday

Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word "quagmire" has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy, both here and abroad.

Could Afghanistan become another Vietnam? Is the United States facing another stalemate on the other side of the world? Premature the questions may be, three weeks after the fighting began. Unreasonable they are not, given the scars scoured into the national psyche by defeat in Southeast Asia. For all the differences between the two conflicts, and there are many, echoes of Vietnam are unavoidable. Today, for example, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld disclosed for the first time that American military forces are operating in northern Afghanistan, providing liaison to "a limited number of the various opposition elements."

Their role sounds suspiciously like that of the advisers sent to Vietnam in the early 1960's, although Mr. Rumsfeld took pains to say of the anti-Taliban forces that "you're not going to send a few people in and tell them they should turn right, turn left, go slower, go fast." The Vietnam advisers, of course, were initially described in much the same terms, and the government of the day vigorously denied that they were a prelude to American combat troops.

In the most famous such denial, Lyndon B. Johnson vowed that he would not send American boys in to fight the war for Vietnamese boys.

Despite the insistence of President Bush and members of his cabinet that all is well, the war in Afghanistan has gone less smoothly than many had hoped. Not that anyone expected a lightning campaign without setbacks; indeed, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld have often said the effort would be long and hard.

But signs of progress are sparse. A week ago, the Pentagon said the military capacity of Taliban leaders in Afghanistan had been "eviscerated" by allied bombing raids; now ranking officials describe those leaders as "tough characters" who remain full of fight. The sole known commando sortie into enemy territory produced minimal results and ample evidence that American intelligence about the Taliban is thin.

The Northern Alliance, whose generals bragged for weeks that it was about to capture the pivotal city of Mazar-i-Sharif, has failed to do so. Nor have its tanks made any progress toward Kabul, the capital. Abdul Haq, the Afghan soldier to whom many had looked to unify anti-Taliban factions, was captured and killed by his enemies almost as soon as he returned to the country.

So influential voices have begun to call for something more than bombing, special forces raids and covert action. Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican whose views on military matters carry unusual weight with his peers because of his service as a naval pilot in Vietnam and his years as a prisoner of war, called on Sunday for the deployment of American ground troops "in force" in Afghanistan.

Air power alone, Senator McCain and some colleagues in both parties argue, will never force Osama bin Laden into the open. They believe that only ground troops, operating from a secure base within Afghanistan, will do the trick. That might well involve tens of thousands of troops, hundreds of casualties and many months of effort, they concede, but they see no viable option.

Conservative columnists like Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol have criticized the administration, in Mr. Kristol's words, for trying to fight a war "with half-measures."

The administration has been careful not to rule out the prospect of ground troops, mindful, no doubt, of the leverage that the Clinton administration lost by doing so in the Balkans. Asked about the idea over the weekend, Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, responded, "let's not go there yet." But it is not known whether it is under serious, active consideration.

Clearly, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, with the horrific loss of American lives they entailed, would give any United States decision to dispatch ground forces a kind of moral imperative that American involvement in Vietnam lacked, even if fighting a land war in Afghanistan would weaken the broad coalition that has been assembled to fight terrorism.

At least at first, American public opinion would present no problem. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows that a majority of Americans are prepared to accept the deaths of several thousand American troops there, although there were the first suggestions that many Americans think that the war is not going too well.

Strategically, the United States could benefit in Afghanistan from the Taliban's unpopularity with many Afghans, but American bombs falling on civilian targets will not win Afghan "hearts and minds."

The terrain in Afghanistan might in some ways be more favorable to the United States than in Vietnam. Tanks could play a much larger role, for example. But the Soviet Union, with good tanks in great numbers, was nonetheless stalemated and eventually defeated by Afghan rebel forces.

Finally, in Afghanistan as in South Vietnam, there is a huge question about who would rule if the United States vanquished its foe. Washington never solved that issue satisfactorily after the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, and solving it in Afghanistan, a country long prone to chaotic competition among many tribes and factions, will probably not be much easier.

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LOAD-DATE: October 31, 2001