Saigon 2009

Afghanistan is today's Vietnam. No question mark needed.

For those who say that comparing the current war in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War is taking things too far, here's a reality check: It's not taking things far enough. From the origins of these North-South conflicts to the role of insurgents and the pointlessness of this week's Afghan presidential elections, it's impossible to ignore the similarities between these wars. The places and faces may have changed but the enemy is old and familiar. The sooner the United States recognizes this, the sooner it can stop making the same mistakes in Afghanistan.

Even at first glance the structural parallels alone are sobering. Both Vietnam and Afghanistan (prior to the U.S. engagement there) had surprisingly defeated a European power in a guerrilla war that lasted a decade, followed by a largely north-south civil war which lasted another decade. Insurgents in both countries enjoyed the advantage of a long, trackless, and uncloseable border and sanctuary beyond it, where they maintained absolute political control. Both were land wars in Asia with logistics lines more than 9,000 miles long and extremely harsh terrain with few roads, which nullified U.S. advantages in ground mobility and artillery. Other key contributing factors bear a striking resemblance: Almost exactly 80 percent of the population of both countries was rural, and literacy hovered around 10 percent.

In both countries, the United States sought to create an indigenous army modeled in its own image, based on U.S. army organization charts. With the ARVN in South Vietnam and the ANA in today's Afghanistan, assignment of personnel as combat advisors and mentors was the absolute lowest priority. And in both wars, the  U.S. military grossly misled the American people about the size of the indigenous force over a protracted period. In Afghanistan, for example, the U.S. military touts 91,000 ANA soldiers as "trained and equipped," knowing full well that barely 39,000 are still in the ranks and present for duty.

The United States consistently and profoundly misunderstood the nature of the enemy it was fighting in each circumstance. In Vietnam, the United States insisted on fighting a war against communism, while the enemy was fighting a war of national reunification. In Afghanistan, the United States still insists on fighting a secular counterinsurgency, while the enemy is fighting a jihad. The intersection of how insurgencies end and how jihads end is nil. It's hard to defeat an enemy you don't understand, and in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, this fight is being played out in a different war.

This is but the tip of the iceberg of a long list of remarkable parallels. What's really startling are the deeper strategic connections. The United States lost the war in Vietnam, historical revisionism notwithstanding, because of a fatal nexus of political and military failure, and the exact same thing is happening in Afghanistan. As Andrew Krepinevich noted many years ago, the army failed in Vietnam because it insisted on fighting a war of maneuver to "find, fix, and destroy" the enemy (with what became known as "search and destroy missions") instead of protecting the people in the villages. Today these tactics are called "sweep and clear missions," but they are in essence the same thing -- clearing tiny patches of ground for short periods in a big country in hopes of killing enough enemy to make him quit.  But its manpower pool was not North Vietnam's Achilles heel and neither is it the Taliban's. Almost exactly the same percentage of personnel in Afghanistan has rural reconstruction as its primary mission (the Provincial Reconstruction Teams) as had "pacification" (today's "nation-building") as their primary mission in Vietnam, about 4 percent. The other 96 percent is engaged in chasing illiterate teenage boys with guns around the countryside, exactly what the enemy wants us to do. 

Meanwhile the political failure in Kabul is Saigon déjà vu. A government that is seen as legitimate by 85 or 90 percent of the population is considered the sine qua non of success by counterinsurgency experts. After the Diem coup, this was never possible in Vietnam, as one incompetent and utterly corrupt government succeeded another. None was legitimate in the eyes of the people. Contemporary descriptions of the various Saigon governments read almost exactly like descriptions of the Karzai government today. Notwithstanding all the fanfare over this week's presidential voting in Afghanistan, the Kabul government will never be legitimate either, because democracy is not a source of legitimacy of governance in Afghanistan and it never has been. Legitimacy in Afghanistan over the last thousand years has come exclusively from dynastic and religious sources. The fatal blunder of the United States in eliminating a ceremonial Afghan monarchy was Afghanistan's Diem Coup: afterwards, there was little possibility of establishing a legitimate, secular national government.

It doesn't matter who wins the August elections for president in Afghanistan: he will be illegitimate because he is elected. We have apparently learned nothing from Vietnam.



A Prescription for Safety

Buying drugs online may not be as dangerous as you think.

Why should Americans pay more -- often a lot more -- than Germans or Brits or Canadians for their drugs?

Pricey prescriptions are dead center in the finger-pointing going on in Washington's health-care reform debate, as Americans of all parties demand access to the cheaper drugs readily available in the rest of the world. Among the solutions congressional leaders are proposing is to legalize the importation of cheaper drugs from places such as Canada and the European Union, where governments restrict drug prices.

The plan would certainly lower costs, but will the drugs be safe? According to a recent study published by my research team, they could be a lot safer than you think. In fact, with the exception of fake Viagra with packaging from China, which not only didn't have the right active ingredient but could have contained a lethal one, none of the five drugs from the 26 Web pharmacies we assessed failed basic quality testing. Of the drugs that would be allowed to be imported under the new bill, all those we were able to test passed.

Yet so far, popular fear has paralyzed the legislation put forward by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). Drug manufacturers argue that allowing widespread drug re-importation will increase the opportunities that counterfeiters and illegal operatives have to insert dangerous products into the supply chain. They seem to have a point. Well over a hundred deaths have been attributed to counterfeit products, often diverted through Europe (though most were made in China, not in the European Union). Drug companies might also suffer if prices fall too much; it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to take a drug from development to market, and high prices in the United States explain how they're able to afford it for now.

But while Congress vacillates, the American public is already turning to the Internet to source cheaper drugs. In fact, consumers in the United States have been doing so for years. Surveys indicate that Americans are concerned about Internet drug quality -- yet millions buy online. The market is already more than $12 billion a year. For the elderly and isolated in particular, convenience and low cost outweigh the potential harm of using Web pharmacies.

Certainly, there are still risks to buying drugs this way. Twenty percent of the drugs we ordered, for example, didn't come as requested; instead of a name-brand drug, a substitute product was delivered. Because these drugs could not be tested accurately using our equipment, there is certainly room for concern.

This shouldn't be enough of a problem to stall common-sense legislation, though. The World Health Organization reports that drugs from Web sites that conceal their physical address are counterfeit in more than 50 percent of cases. And indeed, the few drug failures in our analysis came from Web sites lacking a physical address. Our research suggests that even non-approved Web sites (those breaking U.S. law by not requiring prescriptions and importing drugs) that at least have a physical address will deliver decent-quality brand drugs -- albeit illegally.

Contrary to what one might expect, we also found that price was no indicator of quality. Drugs from India, which were marked up 20-fold from their local retail price, passed our basic quality test. But so did those from Europe that were not only illegally diverted, but were probably stolen -- and sold at a heavy discount. And with the exception of Viagra, whose price was cheaper on less regulated sites, drugs were less expensive on the better, U.S.-approved sites than on less regulated and even rogue ones.

It's true our sample size is fairly small. But if replicated by further studies, the conclusion is clear: Though there remains a clear risk to buying cheaper drugs over the Internet, as long as the requested drug brand is delivered and the site has a physical address, contactable by phone, the risk is really pretty small.

Such a conclusion undermines the fear-based argument being used to oppose importation; if word gets out that imported drugs aren't so bad, the stalled legislation might even pass Congress. Of course, that could lead to another problem: We all may well suffer if drug companies' profitability -- and research budgets -- are cut.