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To win in Afghanistan Obama must learn from Vietnam

A buildup of Afghan security forces is not easy.

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In debating the future of Afghanistan, Americans often overlook one crucial fact: It's not about us.

A prompt exit from the country – and attainment of many of America's more ambitious strategic goals there – ultimately depends on the viability of Afghan security forces, not on the US military's tactics or force levels. Unfortunately, building Afghan forces is likely to be much more difficult than often recognized.

To be sure, US choices during the next year will be critical. But US strategy is fundamentally predicated on the notion that the Afghan army and police will soon be able to secure their population and defend national borders. If they can't, then no matter what the United States does over the next 12 to 24 months – the window during which various metrics must show results – any gains will likely fall by the wayside once US forces inevitably draw down.

It is now common to hear that Afghanistan is "Obama's Vietnam." But such a claim usually focuses on US military performance in the two wars. And it misses the crucial lessons that Vietnam offers about trying to build the armed forces of other nations, especially those like Afghanistan with low levels of economic development, extensive corruption, and little tradition of centralized self-governance.

After all, just think how different the legacy of Vietnam would be if only the US had been able to build an effective South Vietnamese military, one that could turn back the North's final invasion of 1975. Whatever other mistakes the US made in the war (and there were plenty), it was this battlefield defeat – years after US combat forces had left – that made all the sacrifice of blood and treasure seem so tragically pointless.

What went wrong in the attempt to build an indigenous army that could defend an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam?


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