As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, truth is ridiculed, then denied, and then "accepted as having been obvious to everyone from the beginning." So let's start with the obvious: There isn't the slightest possibility that the course laid out by Barack Obama in his Dec. 1 speech will halt or even slow the downward spiral toward defeat in Afghanistan. None. The U.S. president and his advisors labored for three months and brought forth old wine in bigger bottles. The speech contained not one single new idea or approach, nor offered any hint of new thinking about a conflict that everyone now agrees the United States is losing. Instead, the administration deliberated for 94 days to deliver essentially "more men, more money, try harder." It sounded ominously similar to Mikhail Gorbachev's "bloody wound" speech that led to a similar-sized, temporary Soviet troop surge in Afghanistan in 1986.
But the Soviet experience in Afghanistan isn't what everyone is comparing Obama's current predicament to; it's Vietnam. The president knows it, and part of his speech was a rebuttal of those comparisons. It was a valiant effort, but to no avail. Afghanistan is Vietnam all over again.
In his speech, the president offered three reasons why the two conflicts are different. And all are dead wrong. First, Obama noted that Afghanistan is being conducted by a "coalition" of 43 countries -- as if war by committee would magically change the outcome (a throwback to former President George W. Bush's "Iraq coalition" mathematics). The truth is, outside of a handful of countries, it's basically a coalition of pacifists. In fact, more foreign troops fought alongside the United States in Vietnam than are now actually fighting with Americans today. Only nine countries in today's 43-country coalition have more than 1,000 personnel there; nine others have 10 (yes, not even a dozen people) -- or fewer. And although Australia and New Zealand have sent a handful of excellent special operations troops to Afghanistan, only Britain, Canada, and France are providing significant forces willing to conduct conventional offensive military operations. That brings the coalition's combat-troop contribution to approximately 17,000. Most of the other 38 "partners" have strict rules prohibiting them from ever doing anything actually dangerous. Turkish troops, for example, never leave their firebase in Wardak province, according to U.S. personnel who monitor it.
In Vietnam, by contrast, there were six countries fighting with the United States. South Korea alone had three times more combat troops in that country (50,000) than the entire coalition has in Afghanistan today. The Philippines (10,500), Australia (7,600), New Zealand (500), Thailand (about 1,000), and Taiwan also had boots on the ground. So the idea that Afghanistan's coalition sets it apart doesn't hold water.
The president went on to assert that the Taliban are not popular in Afghanistan, whereas the Viet Cong represented a broadly popular nationalist movement with the support of a majority of the Vietnamese. But this is also wrong. Neither the Viet Cong then, nor the Taliban now, have ever enjoyed the popular support of more than 15 percent of the population, according to Daniel Ellsberg, the senior Pentagon official who courageously leaked the Pentagon Papers revealing the military's endemic deceit in the Vietnam War.