Will Obama Fall Into Vietnam Trap in Afghanistan?

08/01/2010 12:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Vietnam was America's most unpopular and most controversial war of the 20th century. When the last combat troops left in 1973, nearly 60,000 Americans had made the ultimate sacrifice along with an estimated two million Vietnamese.

How is that possible for a conflict that, according to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, was known by 1965 as not winnable militarily?

The lion's share of blame historically lies at the feet of President Lyndon Johnson.

In 1963, at the end of the Kennedy administration, there were roughly 16,000 troops in-country. By the end of the Johnson administration in 1968, there were 537,000 troops.

But Johnson was hardly alone in terms of presidential culpability.

Between 1961 and 1963, the Kennedy administration consistently increased the levels of its military aid to Vietnam. But Vietnam as an issue did not have Kennedy's primary focus, not with the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, and the struggle for civil rights demanding the White House's attention.

In June 1954, foreign ministers representing the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and the United States met in Geneva, seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict in Korea as well as an end to France's involvement in Vietnam.

These negotiations resulted in a multifaceted agreement:

Vietnam would be divided between North and South. Ho Chi Minh would rule North Vietnam and Ngo Dinh Diem would rule South Vietnam. The French would withdraw their troops from Vietnam; the Vietnamese could freely choose to live in the North or the South; and a general election for the whole of Vietnam would be held before July 1956, under the supervision of an international commission.

Ho Chi Minh agreed to these terms because he believed the election would produce communist leadership. It was a position shared by then-President Dwight Eisenhower.

In a letter to his brother, Edgar, Eisenhower wrote: "I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held at the time of the fighting, possibly 80 percent of the population would have voted for the communist Ho Chi Minh."

The prospect of a free election resulting in Vietnam falling under Communist leadership during the Cold War was not an outcome the U.S. wanted when it participated in a peaceful solution in Geneva.

Not only did this dampen the possibility of elections for the whole of Vietnam, it strengthened U.S. support of Diem, who also had no intention of actually committing to free elections.

It would be nearly nine years and two presidents before U.S. policy came to the conclusion that Diem was not only the wrong person to back, but such support aligned the U.S. with a corrupt government and against the majority of Vietnamese.

Meanwhile, the U.S. commitment grew deeper, digging its way into an untenable quagmire.

I raise this now because President Barack Obama stands in Afghanistan very close to the position where Johnson stood in Vietnam. Moreover, it remains unclear whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai is the 21st-century version of Diem.

Like Johnson, the president is heading toward making a bad situation worse by doubling down militarily on a region that has already proven to be the place to which empires go to die.

One of the key elements to becoming a quagmire is to lose sight of the fact that the reason the U.S invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 2001 is not the same reason it remains there today.

Al-Qaeda is no longer the reason. CIA Director Leon Panetta issued a report in June stating that there were no more than 50-100 members of al-Qaeda within Afghanistan.

Like Vietnam, Afghanistan is not winnable militarily. If Obama is to avoid any historical comparisons to Johnson he should consider the following suggestions that have been offered by several foreign policy experts:

• End all rhetoric about a U.S. victory; the best one can hope for are preferred outcomes.

• Engage the Taliban; there is no way around it.

• Place more emphasis on local self-defense.

• Concede that Karzai is the best option available.

• Include regional neighbors, whose self-interest is at stake, including Iran.

• Create a clear and achievable role for Pakistan, or at least find out if that is possible.

Like Johnson, Obama inherited this mess, but as of Jan. 20, 2009, it was his mess to clean up. What's really at stake is whether historians will view BHO in Afghanistan as synonymous with LBJ in Vietnam.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at or visit his Web site