There are reasons why people compare Iraq and Afghanistan with Vietnam. The whole business of saying that Iraq and Afghanistan are different than Vietnam because one is a jungle is essentially the bureaucrat’s way of saying that the ordinary people are too stupid to understand these complicated situations.
Still, a lot of the parallels are inescapable. We went into all three countries for ideological reasons Yes, Al Qaeda had attacked us, but my memory of events in late 2001 is that the Taliban government knew trouble was coming and was grudgingly willing to help us by turning over Osama Bin Laden. I note that Bush never suggested that setting up democracy in Afghanistan would be an example to anyone.
Anyway, once we went into all three countries, we found that the civilian population might not like the ideology we opposed, but the local civilians quickly realized that first, we were just as or more brutal in our clumsy but oblivious way and second, that at least the Vietcong/Taliban/AL Qaeda are from their respective countries. So inevitably we end up supporting a local leader who tells us what we want to hear even as the local leader advances his own agenda. And because that agenda is not popular with at least some of the population, the local leader turns into a brutal dictator. The difference is, of course, that the guys we support are “democratic” dictators, not communist or Islamic extremist dictators.
Meanwhile, civilian casualties mount as ordinary people stubbornly refuse to become western style voters (of the sort Washington insiders have contempt for anyway). It becomes clear that except among some fringe factions that were oppressed before we came in (Montagnards, Kurds) that we are making no real progress. We may be killing Viet Cong, Taliban or Al Qaeda and even winning most or all of the battles. But the collateral damage we do and our ham-fisted efforts at helping people we don’t want to understand are the best recruiting posters in the world for our enemies. As is the insistence of some in Washington on making the case for American exceptionalism.
As I understand it, American exceptionalsim is the notion that since we invented the best democracy in the world/history, we should and can do whatever we want where ever we want and everybody else should thank us for bombing them since it was obviously the right thing to do. I don’t believe there was American exceptionalism back in the Vietnam era, but only because we figured it was already understood.
We had and have smart leaders. As students of history they know all this and a lot more. They claim to be thinking about, to want ot learn form our past mistakes. But our own ideological rhetoric drives us to make weird and bad choices. We refuse to give our legal rights to human beings born outside our borders, yet we feel we can tell them what political system to live under (or we will kill them, although we might do that accidentally anyway). We did it in the 1960’s and we are still doing it. But there’s no parallel.