- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 6, 2001

In the weeks after the start of the bombing in Afghanistan, the specter of another Vietnam quagmire seemed to hang over U.S. military campaign like Banquo's ghost at Macbeth's king-in-the making banquet. Armchair strategists recalled that the Vietnam War also pulled the United States into a conflict halfway around the world. To skeptics, the fanatical Taliban resembled the fierceness of the Viet Cong. Mistakenly, the Washington pundits concluded that America seemed bent on an indecisive campaign against an elusive foe after just a month of bombing and stealth operations on the ground.

To be sure, there were other eerie reminders of the Vietnam nightmare, which has loomed over every U.S. military enterprise since. Just as the Vietnamese were inured to deprivations and conflict from their independence struggle with France, the Afghan population prevailed over the Soviet invaders after 10 years of guerrilla warfare. Like Vietnam, Afghanistan's customs, beliefs and abject poverty are remote from a 21st-century techno-superpower. It was a reprise of this asymmetry that gave rise to false fears.

The pundits concluded that Washington, once more, was relying on massive air bombardments, special forces, local allies, and self-serving political figures. As with Southeast Asia, the pall of drugs and fast cash hung over the tangled politics of Central Asia. Taking the similarities at face value, they predicted a replay of the Vietnam War.

Despite the echoes from Vietnam, the dissimilarities proved greater. In the earlier conflict, Washington, using a conscript army, incrementally intervened into a Vietnamese civil war between communist-led forces and a corrupt, ineffective government in South Vietnam to halt the fall of "dominoes" in East Asia. In contrast, the swift counterattack on the Afghanistan terrorist nest arose from a vicious assault on American soil that killed thousands. America stood united. National resolve matched our military power, something lacking in Vietnam.

As the Vietnam conflict played out, the Viet Cong, or Vietnamese National Liberation Front, benefited from a rising tide of anti-colonial sentiment in the West. Aside from a societal fringe here and in Europe, no similar feelings surfaced for Osama bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind. He is feared in moderate Middle Eastern regimes as well as in the West. His apocalyptic nihilism resonants in some Arab-Muslim quarters, but not in the world beyond.

Whereas the former Soviet Union and People's Republic of China provided indispensable support for North Vietnam's war effort, neither Moscow nor Beijing played a similar role toward the Taliban regime. In fact, both have opposed the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. While bin Laden received financial and other backing from individuals in the Muslim world, no country publicly endorsed his methods. Even Iraq, which evidence suggests secretly helped bin Laden, disavows an open embrace of al Qaeda, the international terrorist network.

Operationally, America's post-Vietnam political and military leadership absorbed the lessons of the nation's failed policies in Southeast Asia. In the current hostilities, Washington coordinated its aerial bombardment with a U.S.-guided ground campaign of the Northern Alliance, a tactical order of battle vital for success. U.S. technical capabilities unmanned aerial vehicles, heat-sensing weapons, GPS-guided bombs transformed America's response and attained a level of air superiority not present in Vietnam. Foolishly, the Taliban concentrated its forces in WWI-type trenches, where they were pulverized. Unlike the Viet Cong, they lacked the cover of the jungle canopy, the organizational techniques and widespread collaboration from the population for a protracted war. Afghan hearts and minds, in short, were not with the Taliban rulers, who offered little more than martyrdom.

So as not to precipitate China's intervention, the United States never launched a determined land invasion into North Vietnam and even its infrequent commando raids were ineffectual. No similar inhibitions or serious missteps marked the Afghanistan campaign, where clandestine special forces operations stiffened and readied the Northern Alliance for battle as well as disrupted Taliban defenses.

In Afghanistan, America sealed one victory in the battle of asymmetrical warfare (a type of fighting in which adversaries take advantage of unconventional means) by seizing the initiative and waging its own version of unconventional warfare. Incongruous as it may seem, American forces successfully combined information-age technology with horse cavalry charges against Taliban positions.

To paraphrase Churchill, the clearing of the Taliban from much of Afghanistan is not the end of the war on terrorism, not even the beginning of the end; but it may mark the end of the beginning. Instead of foreboding, we should find strength in this initial Afghan victory and fresh opportunity in the different circumstances that confront us. Our all-volunteer forces, morale at home and support abroad are a far cry from what they were during the Vietnam War. In this first conflict of the new century, it is time to banish the Vietnam ghost, once and for all.

Thomas H. Henriksen is a senior fellow and associate director of the Hoover Institution and author of "Foreign Policy for America in the Twenty-first Century."

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