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What's Obama's exit strategy for the Afghanistan war?

Like LBJ decades ago, Obama is escalating a war in a poor Asian nation.

By Dan Reiter / December 1, 2009


A new Democratic president must decide whether to increase US military support of a corrupt government in a poor Asian nation. That government is fighting a distressingly persistent, foreign-supported, ideologically motivated insurgency.

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Not even pro-escalation hawks believe that victory will be quick or assured. US allies are reluctant to assist. Complicating matters, the president is simultaneously trying to pass major healthcare legislation. Opting against a troop surge could undermine his domestic political power and send a message of weakness abroad. Opting for it could run up a huge federal tab, jeopardizing domestic initiatives.

This is the conundrum that President Johnson faced in 1965 – and which President Obama faces today. Johnson chose to escalate the war in Vietnam. Obama is escalating the war in Afghanistan. He formally outlines his new war strategy to the nation today.

Forty-four years later, Johnson's decision remains relevant for the next chapter of Obama's war leadership in Afghanistan: knowing when to end it.

LBJ at a crossroads

In 1965, the Vietcong insurgency – directed by North Vietnamese communists – was destabilizing the South Vietnamese government. Matters came to a head when American troops were killed in a Viet Cong attack in February. Johnson had to decide whether to send more troops to South Vietnam, knowing that America's chances of victory were not promising.

Even a hawk like Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze guessed that escalation would provide only a 60 percent chance of success. Johnson feared that hesitating on a decision might undermine support for his Great Society initiatives like Medicare. He chose to escalate, eventually increasing US troop levels to more than a half million.

By the time the US withdrew from Saigon 10 years later, more than 58,000 Americans had died.

The good news

We are not likely to revisit such high casualty rates in Afghanistan. American troop levels there won't go much above 100,000. US casualties – now nearing 1,000 after eight years of war – will at worst reach the thousands, but will not reach the scale of Vietnam.

More good news is that Washington seems (we hope) to know better what it's doing in Afghanistan in 2009 than it did in Vietnam in 1965.

At that point in the Vietnam War, the military leadership was at the bottom end of the learning curve, and did not (yet) understand the true nature of the insurgency-based conflict it was entering.

Today, Gen. Stanley McChrystal seems to be laser-focused on not repeating mistakes of the past eight years – or the mistakes of Vietnam, such as the Pentagon's reliance on body-count figures to show progress. He has stressed the importance of avoiding civilian deaths, and he knows that Afghans must be genuinely persuaded to welcome American help, and to take responsibility for their own country.

The bad news

The likelihood of long-term peace and stability in a non-Taliban Afghanistan is low, probably lower than it was in South Vietnam.