The Agenda

Brief Note on the Afghanistan Address

While listening to President Obama’s Afghanistan address, I was struck by two things: (1) the fact that the speech was very politically astute and in tune with the changing mood of the country; and (2) the fact that the goals it sets out for the Afghan government seem almost entirely out of reach. But at this point, I imagine that (1) will outweigh (2). That is, I don’t think the American public cares enough about the survival of the Afghan government to invest the resources it would take to defend it. 

I’m reminded of revisionist accounts of the winding down of the U.S. role in Vietnam. Lewis Sorley has argued that between 1968 and 1972, the United States and South Vietnam had achieved extraordinary success in defeating the Viet Cong, i.e., by securing the bulk of the population of South Vietnam against terrorist attacks. Moreover, South Vietnam proved capable of defeating North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter invasion, having dramatically increased its effectiveness. By the end of 1972, after the U.S. bombing of Hanoi, North Vietnam was in an extremely weak position. Yet according to Sorley and other revisionists — and I should stress that this view is not universally held — the U.S. made a number of concessions to the North Vietnamese that strengthened their position. At the same time, Congress began withdrawing support for South Vietnam. This proved particularly problematic, as the South Vietnamese had been trained to defeat their enemies via a very American approach — through superior maneuverability (which requires a lot of oil) and superior firepower (which requires a lot of bullets). The oil shock meant that oil had become very expensive, and bullets aren’t cheap either. There is at least some reason to believe that South Vietnam, despite its very real problems (the most pressing of which was pervasive corruption), could have successfully defended itself had the United States been more committed to its defense, and (separately) if the U.S. had been willing to take the ground war to the North. But as the 1970s dragged on, the American public was ready to wash its hands of the country’s long, costly engagement in Vietnam, having grown inured to the consequences of defeat.

I get the strong impression that the U.S. has reached roughly the same point with Afghanistan. Are the prospects for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan substantially more favorable than for the U.S. effort in Vietnam in the early 1970s? 

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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