President Barack Obama's West Point speech provided a clear policy road map for the United States and our allies in Afghanistan. The increase of 30,000 troops is closely linked to renewed efforts to persuade NATO allies to expand their own contributions. In 18 months, we will begin to bring our combat troops home. Beyond this immediate debate, the approach of setting a limit to our combat involvement is directly reminiscent of the Vietnam War.
This strategy addresses the virulent expansion in strength of Taliban insurgents, while also making explicit that the American commitment is not open-ended, and the regime of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul must demonstrate progress in combating corruption as well as the enemy in the field.
Given criticism of the lengthy three-month review of this policy, and not just from partisan political circles, the president was careful to note publicly for the record that none of the options from the military for expanded troop levels had anticipated implementation before next year.
On earlier occasions, he has rightly underscored the gravity of this literally life-and-death decision.
In reaction to the speech, Republicans and some Democrats have criticized indicating when our withdrawal will begin, arguing this provides the enemy with an incentive simply to "lie low" and outwait us. In response, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has emerged as a central figure in this administration, has sensibly testified before Congress that we hope the Taliban will do just that as we train Afghan forces.
Obama understandably emphasized in his address the significant differences between the current challenges in Afghanistan and the still very painful — and very bloody — American experience in Vietnam.
In Afghanistan, we have the support of both the United Nations and NATO. In Vietnam, Americans and South Vietnamese fought beside allied troops from South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, but the effort was not supported by the United Nations or our most important regional security alliance.
Additionally, the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Vietnam enjoyed sustained broad support, rooted in the colonial struggle with France that began almost as soon as World War II in the Pacific concluded.
By contrast, the Taliban is notably unpopular. This is hardly surprising, given the particularly primitive brutality with which this fanatical fundamentalist movement governed.
Finally, Obama has noted that the NLF and the North Vietnamese did not directly threaten the United States or launch terrorist strikes against our soil. This is technically true, but an oversimplification.
The intensity of American anti-communism during the Cold War may be dismissed as excessive, but the "domino theory" was defining in domestic politics as well as foreign policy.
When Richard Nixon became president in early 1969, controversy over the Vietnam War was tearing the country apart literally as well as figuratively. Intense anti-war demonstrations dominated the media and political debate.
Following a detailed policy review, Nixon began a gradual but steady withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Vietnam, accompanied by a very drastic shift to emphasize population security and small-scale military operations, somewhat akin to what Gen. Stanley McChrystal is implementing in Afghanistan.
Nixon simultaneously accomplished several objectives.
The South Vietnamese regime, chronically complacent, was put on notice to shape up.
Manpower pressures on the U.S. military were steadily reduced.
Incentives to join the anti-war movement were significantly undercut.
Understandably, Obama has not been highlighting parallels with Nixon, but the policy precedent is apparent.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at [email protected]