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.
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.
The fundamental problem in South Vietnam was that a small, basically governable if poor country was run by a corrupt, illegitimate, repressive regime.
In Afghanistan, the prospects are worse. The country lacks many of the fundamentals a modern state needs to function. Afghans cannot be trained as police if they cannot read instructional materials or write out arrest reports. Extensive mountains in a geographic area only slightly smaller than Texas coupled with nonexistent transportation infrastructure thwarts central governance. And, of course, opium is an enduring source of financial support for insurgents and criminals.
So where does this leave us?
Devise an exit strategy
Though we must try to stabilize Afghanistan, we must not forget the most important lesson from the Vietnam War's escalation: Devise an exit strategy.
Our Afghanistan exit strategy must be tied to helping the local government's legitimacy grow and building its capacity to combat the insurgency and govern with popular consent. Elections must be held regularly, and they must meet international standards of fairness and legality. Corruption must be reduced. The Karzai government must demonstrate its ability to govern outside Kabul.
But what if the Afghan government fails to meet these benchmarks in a reasonable amount of time? This certainly could happen, even with more American troops. Some are doubtful that Afghanistan is anywhere close to being able to govern itself.
If the government does not make sufficient progress, then we must be prepared to leave. That is the other half of exit strategy: not only knowing when you've won, but knowing when you've lost and it's time to cut your losses.
We should try to support a non-Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but there are limits on how much blood and treasure we should spend to accomplish this goal. Domestic public opinion will force withdrawal if American casualties grow without signs of mission success. Even now, support for escalation is tepid. A recent Gallup poll found that only 47 percent supported troop increases, while 39 percent supported troop reductions.
Learn to live with losing
If the worst does happen, we will live. America has "lost" – either militarily or diplomatically – other countries before: China in 1949, Cuba in 1960, South Vietnam in 1975, and Iran in 1979. In the case of Korea, we've committed tens of thousands of troops for a half-century just to maintain a stalemate.
Each time, America picked itself up, dusted itself off, and moved on. Each time, we adjusted our foreign policy to a new world and, despite the setback, managed to protect and advance US interests.
If years from now we must resign ourselves to the reality that little progress has been or will be made in Afghanistan, then we must bring our troops home. We would of course have to address problems such as the possible destabilization of a nuclear Pakistan. But we have adapted to such problems in the past, and we can again. We are the most powerful nation in the world. We survived after South Vietnam fell. We would survive if Afghanistan fell.
Dan Reiter is chair of the department of political science at Emory University, and the author of "How Wars End."