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The lessons of history

Many foreign correspondents will have seen it before - President Obama's next move in Afghanistan bares some uncomfortable parallels with America's 1960s invovlement in Vietnam.

Last modified: 1 Dec 2009 13:12
Photo by GALLO/GETTY

Biting into another Oreo made in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I cannot escape that uncomfortable feeling I’ve lived through this moment before.

I'm sitting in much more comfortable circumstances than usual: a room in the 5-star Serena Hotel in the centre of Kabul, watching the outpourings of the cable channels across the world as President Obama’s moment of history approaches.

I began my career in journalism just as the war in Vietnam was ending. The images of that debacle - which only with hindsight now seems inevitable - did much to propel me into a career as a television correspondent and a check-in to the world’s conflict zones.

In the opening stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka I was staying in the Hotel Oberoi as the bloody pogroms against the Tamils were underway on the streets of Colombo.

Fast forward a few years and I was sitting under the flickering neon lights of the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, sharing a meagre meal with the city’s hard-pressed doctors and nurses under the guns of the Serbian forces.

A few painful months before it had been a hotel in Belgrade where for reasons beyond my control I never checked out ... shot by a  Croatian sniper in the final days of the battle for Vukovar, the next room I woke up in was an intensive care unit minus a kidney.

What was the name of that hotel in Tel Aviv? I only remember a great pizza delivery service ...  and the sound of the air raid sirens, the mad scramble for the balcony and the gas masks as another Scud from Iraq glowed in the night sky.

In Chechnya it was a frozen one-storey house on the edge of Freedom Square in the capital of Grozny as the Russian tank shells and mortars gradually demolished the Presidential Palace at the end of our garden.

In Afghanistan I found hotels in equally short supply as we followed the Northern Alliance Forces in their final push against the Taliban in 2001. It was a case of crowding together in mud huts to be woken in the morning by the ground shaking from the B-52 carpet-bombing the frontlines.

Most memorable though was the Palestine Hotel, in the centre of Baghdad on the night of shock and awe,  sheltering behind a sofa trying to describe the mayhem being caused by cruise missiles as my Iraqi minder attempted to wrestle the microphone out of my hands.

But it's not my present hotel room which is giving me that sense of déjà vu, it’s the parade of statesmen and statements issuing from the White House.

I  heard it all before as a schoolboy:

1962:  President Kennedy is told the American-backed leader of South Vietnam, President Diem, the winner of a rigged election, has wasted the two billion dollars America had spent on backing him.

1965: The United States deploys its first combat troops, the Ninth Marine Expeditionary Force. The Democrat President, Lyndon Johnson is in the White House.

1966: LBJ says he'll be monitoring South Vietnam’s efforts to expand democracy and improve the economic conditions of its people. Troop levels top 200,000 and are still climbing.

1967: Martin Luther King calls the United States the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world".

1968: A surprise mass attack by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops catches the Americans off-guard. The Generals ask for 200,000 more soldiers.

1969: President Nixon is now in the White House. Policy of "Vietnamization"
announced to shift the burden of the war to their troops.

1970: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger begins secret talks with the North Vietnamese. American troop numbers start to fall.

Five years later Kissinger had a Nobel Peace Prize and Saigon had fallen.

President Obama picks up his laurels in Oslo next week.