Afghanistan could turn into Vietnam. Let's hope so.

By Joshua Kurlantzick
Sunday, October 25, 2009

In a ceremony last week honoring a unit of Vietnam veterans for their heroism in a long-forgotten battle, President Obama offered a glimpse of how heavily the lessons of Vietnam weigh on him as he considers the way forward in Afghanistan.

"If that day in the jungle, if that war long ago, teaches us anything," Obama said in the White House Rose Garden, "then surely it is this: If we send our men and women in uniform into harm's way, then it must be only when it is absolutely necessary. And when we do, we must back them up with the strategy and the resources and the support they need to get the job done."

Vietnam is the nuclear option of historical analogies. Yet, rather than fear that Afghanistan will become another Vietnam, we should embrace the prospect. If the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan eventually resembles the one we now have with Vietnam, we should be overjoyed. Little more than a generation after a bloody, frustrating war, Vietnam and the United States have become close partners in Southeast Asia, exchanging official visits, building an important trading and strategic relationship and fostering goodwill between governments, businesses and people on both sides.

The lessons of the Vietnam War are clear and sobering, but history does not end in 1975, when the last American diplomats fled Saigon. Once large-scale fighting ends in Afghanistan, Washington should strive for the kind of reconciliation it has achieved with Vietnam. America did not win the war there, but over time it has won the peace. As unlikely as it seems today, the same outcome is possible in Afghanistan.

Thirty-plus years ago, few would have predicted that Vietnam and the United States would someday come together. The long war of attrition left government ties strained, to put it mildly, and forever scarred both populations. In the United States, the war damaged the reputation of the military, severely dented America's own image of its power and undermined U.S. standing in the world. And for the loved ones of the 58,000 American servicemen and women killed, the war was a tragedy from which they may never recover.

Much like the airstrikes in Afghanistan, U.S. tactics in Vietnam -- such as the spraying of Agent Orange and bombings that caused widespread civilian deaths -- alienated the civilian population there. And even after the war officially ended, Washington continued to punish Hanoi, refusing to recognize the Vietnamese-installed government in Cambodia that had ousted the genocidal Khmer Rouge and slapping a trade embargo on Vietnam.

Today, however, 76 percent of Vietnamese say U.S. influence in Asia is positive, according to a 2008 study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs -- a greater percentage than in Japan, China, South Korea or Indonesia. When President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam in 2000, citizens greeted him like a rock star, mobbing him whenever he stepped out in public. Two-way trade now surpasses $15 billion annually, compared with virtually nothing in 1995, the year the two countries normalized diplomatic ties. American companies have descended upon Vietnam, and last year foreign direct investment in the country tripled compared with 2007.

U.S. Navy ships now call at Vietnamese ports, and the two governments have institutionalized high-level exchanges, including a 2003 Pentagon visit by Vietnam's defense minister -- the highest-level Vietnamese military trip to Washington since the war. Following up on Clinton's visit, President George W. Bush traveled to Vietnam in 2006; the previous year, Bush welcomed Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai on a visit to America.

Why the dramatic reversal? Time helped, certainly: Just as Americans will forget Mohammad Omar, eventually the images of tortured American POWs and massive bombing of the Vietnamese countryside began to fade on both sides. But more important, American war veterans publicly made peace with their old adversaries. In the Senate, vets John Kerry and John McCain pushed for the normalization of ties between the nations in the 1990s. And on the ground in Vietnam, groups of veterans met with civilians from the areas where they had served. These meetings had a profound impact on Vietnamese public opinion.

Hanoi reciprocated American goodwill and allowed a U.S. investigative commission to scour the country for any remaining prisoners of war, a major concern of the U.S. veterans community. The commission reported in 1993 that it had found little evidence that any POWs remained. The report, more than any other gesture, helped bring the American public on board for reengaging with Hanoi.

The George W. Bush and Obama administrations have continued to grapple with some of the old differences. The Bush administration, prodded by Congress, began funding efforts to study the extent of chemical contamination and clean up pollution in areas near a former U.S. facility in Da Nang. And this month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted Vietnam's foreign minister and vowed to expand trade links between the two countries.

At the same time, the large Vietnamese American community, many of whom fled to the United States after the communist takeover of their homeland in 1975, gradually abandoned their fears and began pouring investment into Vietnam in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This trade has helped heal old wounds, crowding out memories of war with new commercial influence, as American products compete for space in the shops and open-air markets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Undoubtedly, Afghanistan would offer different postwar challenges than Vietnam. Of course, the campaign there is far from over -- it may even be escalated, if Obama agrees to Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for additional troops -- and how and when it ends will shape Washington's future relationship with Kabul. The eventual results of Afghanistan's presidential election notwithstanding, the lack of a strong central government could make it difficult to build postwar ties, since there may be no leaders or institutions powerful or legitimate enough to sway the public.

Still, the parallels should not be ignored. After the war in Indochina, the United States wanted to build a close relationship with Vietnam, an important player in a critical region; Afghanistan has even higher strategic value. And much like Vietnam after the war, Afghanistan would have its own reasons for seeking strong ties to the United States. While Hanoi feared being dominated by its giant neighbor China, Afghanistan could use an outside power's help to hedge against the influence of regional powers such as Iran, Pakistan, India and China.

In Vietnam, just as the battle for public opinion was critical to the fight against an enemy enmeshed in the civilian population, it was also important to postwar reconciliation. Similarly, after the Afghan war, one can imagine U.S. investigations into the lasting impact of the conflict on the population, perhaps a well-publicized government study on the effects of airstrikes and an acknowledgement of the damage done on the ground.

Congress, meanwhile, could steal a page from the Vietnam Education Foundation Act of 2000, which established a foundation to support exchanges between the old adversaries, such as bringing Vietnamese graduate students to the United States and paying for American academics to teach in Vietnam. Such a program could ensure that the next generation of Afghan leaders sees an image of the United States beyond that of the war.

American servicemen and women often return to the United States seeking to improve lives and conditions in the countries where they served, and new vets could be critical to rebuilding ties with Afghanistan after the war. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development or other aid agencies, veterans going back to Afghanistan to do nonprofit work could not only improve Afghans' standard of living but also promote the kind of healing that veterans groups fostered in Vietnam.

The stated goal of the Vietnam War was the defeat of communism. But three decades later, the United States has gotten much of what it really fought for: a stable friend who could prove an ally against China. After all, it was China, the expansionist giant, that terrified American policymakers and sparked U.S. interest in Indochina in the first place.

Of course, a close relationship with Vietnam will never erase the pain of the war, and the ability to forge closer links today does not mean that the United States was wise to escalate the conflict there decades ago. Still, once Washington decided to fight on in Vietnam, a postwar reconciliation made sense for both sides -- politically, strategically and economically. In Afghanistan, where the United States has been fighting for eight years, it makes sense to consider how to build a postwar relationship.

As in Vietnam, the stated aim of the Afghan war -- denying al-Qaeda a haven, thereby protecting the United States -- to some extent masks the larger goal: building a stable, pro-Washington nation that, in the long run, can provide enough political and economic success to dry up militant groups' recruiting pool. Reaching that goal will require as much savvy postwar planning as it does smart war-fighting.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company