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Afghanistan Echoes of Our Past in Vietnam

I have written several postings related to Various topics including the military, Voting, the economy, religion and etc in America. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional issues in these topics.

The following Notes below will be dealt with more thoroughly in seperate articles:

-The Pentagon papers exposed the culpability of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and LBJ in the Vietnam war. “What is Wrong With Our Country: The Pentagon Papers.”

-LBJ supported China in their agenda of “One China policy” which includes Taiwan. Please see “Was the Country Better off with LBJ than JFK?”

-Paris peace accords, allowed NV troops to remain in SV. We promised to help if NV did not live up their agreement. 1973 For further information please see the article etitled “How We Sold Our Soul: The Paris Peace Accords of 1973”.

-Congress made it illegal to help. Despite Pres Ford’s plees. In 1975 Hanoi took part of SV, and we did not intervene. The rest fell in under two months. A lot of our allies were killed and millions were interred in re-education camps. Millions more were killed in Cambodia. Several countries fell to communism after South Vietnam fell ie. the domino effect. “What is Wrong With Our Country: How Congress Sold South Vietnam Out and the Repercussions that Followed .”

The Top 10 Mistakes in the Vietnam War

# 10: Battle of Dien Bien Phu

We can start the mistakes as far back as 1954 during the Eisenhower administration. Our French allies were battling Communist forces and they set out to destroy the Viet Minh Communist revolutionaries. But, they had a difficult fight at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

If the United States would have come to the aid of the French during this Battle during the 1st Indochina War, the situation in Vietnam over 10-years later would most likely come to a different conclusion, if it would have happened at all. The French were defeated terribly leading to a sweeping Communist view in that part of the world.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was a climactic confrontation of the First Indochina War that took place between 13 March and 7 May 1954. It was fought between the French Union’s colonial Far East Expeditionary Corps and Viet Minh communist revolutionaries. The United States was officially not a party to the war, but it was secretly involved by providing financial and material aid to the French Union, which included CIA contracted American personnel participating in the battle. ~ Wikipedia

# 9: Treating Vietnam like the Korean War

We made terrible mistakes in strategies assuming we could use the same measures as the Korean War. The main problem here is the fact that Korea had water around it, so we could create barrier lines. Our strategy was the same in Vietnam, but since the country was land-locked, the enemy could use other countries such as Cambodia and Laos to sweep around the barriers and attack.

# 8: Cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Going right along with #8, it was imperative that we cut off and even destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail. North Vietnamese used it to gain access to the South, and yes, the South used it to access the North. If we would have cut off this line, it would have deeply cut the enemy’s ability to make the guerrilla tactics they used on our troops.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a military supply route running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. The route sent weapons, manpower, ammunition and other supplies from communist-led North Vietnam to their supporters in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. ~

# 7: Using conventional tactics to fight against guerrilla warfare

Hopefully the United States has learned from our Vietnam War mistakes. One lesson we learned is that guerrilla warfare needs to be fought on a similar level. We used guerrilla warfare during the Revolution and destroyed the convention tactics the British used. The North Vietnamese used the same system against us and it worked.

# 6: Sanctioning the Coup and assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem

When we look back, we realize that Diem was a highly competent leader for the South Vietnamese. At the time, the people were against him, but much of that was achieved through Communist propaganda. For many years it was denied, but the fact is: the CIA did back the Coup on Diem. After he was killed, the leadership of South Vietnam turned into a chaotic mess. If Diem would have been left in power, it is likely the North would never had gained the position they did.

# 5: Not forcing the South’s Army to take the lead role

There is a very old “proverb;” Give a man a fish and feed him a meal. Teach a man to fish and feed him for life. We made a huge mistake in not training more and putting the South’s troops in the lead of the battles. The dependency was astronomical. I do believe this mistake is intertwined with #6; it would have been much more of the South’s fight if Diem were left in power.

# 4: Using body count as a measure of success

When you fight a force that does not care how many of their troops die, how can you use any amount of statistics on death as a measure of success? The figures should have been measured on key points captured and held. Also, key leaders captured. Not body counts. Besides, how many of these stats were B.S.? Were simple peasants killed in the line of fire counted?

53,000 American troops died in the Vietnam War.

# 3: Allowing to much negative media

Yes, we have free speech, but when we allowed media sources from our own side to report sensationalist stories without telling both sides, we created an atmosphere of lies that carried to the mainland and antiwar groups. It would be like telling the population that our troops shot a woman carrying a baby in Afghanistan without also telling them that she had a suicide bomb strapped to her that would kill many more people.

The media is to blame for this. They should use a fashion of telling the whole story and not just a small part of it.

# 2: Supporting after troop withdrawal

We left and did not look back. This goes along somewhat with #5. We gave them weapons and ammo, but when we left, we gave no more support. The South held for a short time, but the North did finally stomp their way through. They did not have to worry about U.S. involvement anymore. You just cannot leave without some follow-up support.

Note: Cam’ron bay, we left our naval base intact there, Russia moved into it.

Have we reenacted this same mistake in Iraq? Many people believe so. 

# 1: Allowing politicians to fight the war from D.C.

Why in the hell did we take hills that meant nothing, but left a major ammo factory sitting unharmed? Because some politicians in Washington said so. After all, there may be some Soviet people there, and we don’t want them getting angry.

You just cannot fight a War from Washington D.C.!

The leaders needed to have the right to attack the most important sites, and it didn’t happen. If we would have been allowed to bomb the crap out of certain sites, the War would have been over much sooner and we could have notched it as a victory.

The politicians are to blame for the mistakes in the Vietnam War. The Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors fought bravely. They accomplished the mission. The fact that Congress never FORMALLY declared war or had 100% support of the troops still bothers me. Between the lack of commitment with the politicians and the sensationalism with the media, it was a recipe for disaster from the get go. There isn’t aa bigger betrayal to our military than being in a war your politicians and fellow citizens don’t 100% support or believe in. War is death, but the mistakes in the Vietnam War (mostly by politicians) created many more deaths.

The Top 10 Mistakes Made in the Afghan War

From Tora Bora to wartime fatigue, the U.S. legacy in Afghanistan was just one failed endeavor after another.

America’s long war in Afghanistan isn’t likely to end well, and the American people seem to know it. Despite a wholly predictable effort to portray the war as an American victory, the United States isn’t going to defeat the Taliban between now and the scheduled departure of most U.S. troops later this year. Meanwhile, relations between the United States and the Karzai government are going from bad to worse. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not only refusing to sign a security agreement that would allow the United States to leave a residual force in country, he is also making increasingly strident accusations that the United States is to blame for recent civilian deaths.

This depressing outcome is not what most Americans expected following the rapid toppling of the Taliban back in 2001. It is therefore important that we draw the right lessons from the experience, if only to partly redeem the sacrifices made by the soldiers who fought there. In that spirit, here is a list of the top 10 mistakes made in America’s Afghan War.

1. Trying to Go It Alone

After 9/11, America’s NATO allies invoked the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty and offered to help the United States go after the Taliban and al Qaeda. Convinced that the job would be easy and that allies would simply make things harder, the Rumsfeld Pentagon responded with a brusque “No, thanks.” Instead of making Afghanistan a collective project from the start, the Bush administration wanted to show it could do the job all by itself, with an assist from the Afghan Northern Alliance. That decision seemed justified when the Taliban fell quickly, but when Bush & Co. marched off to Iraq (see below), there was hardly anybody left to keep the Taliban from coming back. By the time NATO got involved big-time, a new civil war was underway and the best opportunity to build a stable Afghanistan had been squandered.

2. Blowing It at Tora Bora

The United States invaded Afghanistan for one reason: to get Osama bin Laden and as many of his followers as possible. Unfortunately, poor coordination with local Afghan forces and a reluctance to commit sufficient U.S. troops at the Battle of Tora Bora allowed bin Laden to escape into Pakistan, where he remained at large for another eight years. Had we caught him then and there, al Qaeda might have been dealt a fatal blow and the United States could have declared victory in the “war on terror” instead of watching al Qaeda morph into a global franchise. Yet despite this costly failure, the U.S. commander at Tora Bora — Army Gen. Tommy Franks — was later chosen to command the invasion of Iraq.

3. The Afghan Constitution

The Bonn Agreement in December 2001 established an interim government for post-Taliban Afghanistan and was, in many ways, an impressive diplomatic achievement. Unfortunately, the Constitution adopted in 2004 was an ill-conceived misstep. It created a highly centralized state that ignored Afghan traditions of local autonomy and gave the president too much formal power. The new government was supposed to run the entire country from Kabul and appoint all the key local officials, but the Karzai regime lacked enough competent civil servants and the new structure created irresistible opportunities for patronage and corruption. Moreover, the Afghan economy could not support an elaborate governmental structure or large security forces, which made the fledgling Afghan state permanently dependent on outside support from the start.

4. The Detour Into Iraq

The Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq was not just a disaster for Iraq and for the United States, it also diverted military and intelligence resources from Afghanistan and allowed the Taliban to regroup and resume the war. Sadly, we will never know what might have happened had the United States and NATO kept their eyes on the ball back in 2003.

Sadly, we will never know what might have happened had the United States and NATO kept their eyes on the ball back in 2003.

5. The 2009 Surge

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama burnished his national security street cred by declaring that he was going to end the war in Iraq so that he could focus on the “real war” in Afghanistan. He then succumbed to military pressure and sent additional U.S. troops, starting with 17,000 shortly after taking office and adding another 30,000 in the fall of 2009. But the decision to escalate was fatally flawed, because the Taliban still had sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan and were never going to be defeated by military force alone. To succeed, the surge would have had to be far larger and much longer in duration, and Afghanistan simply wasn’t worth that level of effort. The surge also led to a sharp uptick in Afghan and American casualties, which gradually undermined support for the war back home.

6. Setting a Time Limit

The mistaken decision to escalate was compounded by a second error: Obama made it clear from the start that the surge would be a temporary measure and gave the Taliban a pretty good idea when the United States would begin to get out. As critics noted at the time, telling your adversary exactly when you were going to quit was hardly the best way to persuade them to give up the fight. Instead, it told the enemy exactly how long they needed to hang on in order to wait us out.

7. Downgrading Diplomacy

Ending the war and building a functioning Afghan government required a reconciliation process that would integrate the more moderate elements of the Taliban back into the Afghan political community. Unfortunately, the United States didn’t get serious about a peace process until it was too late. As U.S. special envoy James Dobbins acknowledged last year, “it was probably a mistake to delay a serious effort at reconciliation until 2011.” Washington should have pushed hard for serious discussions while the surge was at its peak, instead of waiting until its role (and therefore its leverage) was declining. The United States also failed to engage regional powers that might have helped put together a stabilization deal, in part because it wasn’t even talking to some of them (e.g., Iran).

8. Losing Public Support

When the Taliban refused to give up bin Laden, the United States had no choice but to go after the man who had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. The American public signed up for that war with enthusiasm, but not to an open-ended effort to transform an impoverished, land-locked, and ethnically divided Muslim country that had never been a vital U.S. strategic interest before. And neither Bush nor Obama ever managed to persuade them that the war was worth the cost, mostly because the American people aren’t completely gullible. By 2008, the war was costing the American taxpayers an amount several times larger than Afghanistan’s entire GDP, and neither Bush nor Obama could come up with a convincing rationale for continuing to pour money and lives into distant strategic backwater.

To be sure, Obama tried to justify the war as necessary to prevent al Qaeda from establishing a “safe haven” again, but al Qaeda already had better havens by 2009 and was barely in Afghanistan by that point. Moreover, a long and costly war against the Taliban was increasingly a distraction from the broader campaign against al Qaeda itself.

Bottom line: the American people will support a war when vital interests are at stake and there is a plausible theory of victory, but by 2009, neither of those conditions had been met.

9. Failure to Manage Unruly Allies

Winning the war in Afghanistan depended on getting at least two foreign governments to play ball. The first was the Afghan government itself, which was corrupt, inefficient, and increasingly unwilling to listen to well-intentioned U.S. advice. The second was Pakistan, which continued to play footsie with the Taliban and sometimes put roadblocks (literal ones) in the way of the U.S. military. Unfortunately, U.S. leaders never fully appreciated that the war could not be won if we didn’t get more cooperation from these supposed allies, and that we wouldn’t get that support as long as they were convinced that Washington would never call their bluff. It’s a sad but familiar story: a once-powerful patron becomes too strongly committed to a weak client with its own agenda, that client extracts many concessions by threatening to collapse or by telling us one thing while doing another.

10. Strategic Contradictions

Finally, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan was bedeviled by strategic contradictions that were never fully recognized or resolved. Although many American soldiers fought with skill and heroism, achieving our stated war aims was an uphill battle from the get-go.

For starters, the United States and NATO couldn’t win without a much larger investment of resources over a much longer period, but it just wasn’t worth that level of investment. And for all the talk about COIN, Army Field Manual 3-24, and supposedly brilliant commanders like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. Army was never designed for or adept at this kind of operation and isn’t likely to get much better at it with practice. And finally, building a new Afghan state and fighting a counterinsurgency war required outsiders to pour billions of dollars into an impoverished country, but the flood of poorly managed money merely fueled corruption and ensured that much of the aid money was wasted.

No one should take any pleasure in contemplating these (and other) mistakes, especially when one considers how long the United States fought there and how shallow its learning curve was. One at least hopes that some larger lessons have been learned, and that U.S. presidents will be a lot warier of this sort of quagmire in the future. Or as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2011: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have ‘his head examined.’”

Scholar compares exits in Vietnam, Afghanistan

There are lessons for Afghanistan in Vietnam’s eventual prosperity, expert says

For students of history and those old enough to remember, the rapidity with which the Taliban captured the Afghan capital of Kabul evoked memories of the April 1975 fall of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital.

The 20-year American presence in Afghanistan ended this week with the mass evacuation of 120,000 Americans and Afghan citizens in only 17 days. Similarly, the capture of Saigon was preceded by the evacuation of almost all American civilian and military personnel in Saigon, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians who had been associated with the Republic of Vietnam.

We asked UC Riverside history professor, award-winning author, and Vietnam scholar David Biggs to reflect on the recent, troubled exodus from Kabul, and what lessons Vietnam may hold for post-occupation Afghanistan. Biggs’ most recent book is 2018’s “Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam.”

Is it accurate to compare the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in Afghanistan to the fall of Saigon in Vietnam? 

The images of helicopters over Kabul remind us of similar scenes from Saigon in 1975, but that is about where the similarities end. North Vietnam’s People’s Army closed Saigon’s airport by bombing it while thousands of communist troops with several hundred tanks made a violent advance on the city.

South Vietnam’s pilots flew the country’s fighter and cargo planes to Thailand while helicopter pilots flew out to sea and made emergency landings on U.S. Navy ships. The evacuation from Saigon marked a violent and chaotic end to one of history’s most violent wars. Despite recent violence from ISIS-K extremists, the evacuation from Kabul did not approach the same level of violence or chaos. 

Some historians characterize Operation Frequent Wind — the evacuation of Americans and South Vietnamese loyal to Americans from Saigon — as successful, given its large scale. Others said the airlift was too slow, and didn’t remove enough Vietnamese citizens connected to Americans. How does the evacuation in Afghanistan so far compare, and how is it likely to be viewed by history?  

With Operation Frequent Wind, there were some high-ranking officials who opposed evacuating Vietnamese nationals; then there were others who ultimately prevailed and succeeded in getting approval from President Ford to accept more refugees. We know from declassified documents that CIA, military, and State Department officials argued for weeks about how many Vietnamese refugees to accept, and we’ll most likely find the same thing happening in Kabul. More than 100,000 Afghan refugees were evacuated by the U.S. before the last plane departed Kabul, so the figures are about equal.

Did the North Vietnamese contend with radical factions while asserting its rule of Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) after the war? 

We know very little about internal Communist Party factionalism in Vietnam after 1975, but the general view is that the winning side remained remarkably centralized after reunification due in large part to the communists’ success in promoting political and military talent from southern provinces. This began with early party activists and continued into the 1980s with the reform-minded prime minister, Vo Van Kiet, who advanced liberalization reforms.

What can the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan learn from Vietnam’s postwar history?

For the new state in Afghanistan, the challenges have just begun and there are important lessons from Vietnam’s postwar history. The first 16 years, 1975-91, were dark. The new Vietnamese state imprisoned almost any people who had ties, any ties, to the old government. Immediately after the war, the new government was quick to identify and imprison some 100,000 former government and South Vietnamese military fighters. They called these camps reeducation camps, and families of former regime officials and soldiers faced a sort of black-listing that prevented them from entering colleges and taking certain jobs. Those polices lasted for more than 20 years after the fall of Saigon. In the decade after Saigon’s fall, a million more people fled Vietnam by foot or by boats and about a quarter to a half of them died at sea. Vietnam’s economy plummeted into a devastating economic depression as it tried to rebuild shattered infrastructure, re-green defoliated forests, and replace aging industries.

But Vietnam’s recent postwar history may offer more hopeful lessons. The 30 years since 1991 have been, in contrast to the early period, like an almost-Hollywood ending to a century of colonialism and war. There may be lessons there for the Taliban. This turnaround in Vietnam has been based on reestablishing ties with the West, allowing people to migrate, and allowing more liberal reforms. If Afghanistan’s government can somehow leapfrog its immediate economic and political troubles into this more worldly, friendly, and liberal future, then maybe there is hope for a kind of Vietnam-like ending.

The news of direct talks between senior American and Taliban officials signals that neither side, the U.S. or Afghanistan’s new government, want to repeat the diplomatic isolation that followed the fall of Saigon. It will be especially interesting to witness what happens in Kabul, for Kabul like Saigon seems to symbolize the promise of a more liberal Afghanistan.

“If Afghanistan’s government can somehow leapfrog its immediate economic and political troubles into this more worldly, friendly, and liberal future, then maybe there is hope for a kind of Vietnam-like ending.”

Afghanistan’s new rulers may also emulate the Vietnamese government’s policy on overseas diasporas. For years, overseas Vietnamese were treated as suspects or “traitors” by the communist government in Vietnam, but as the government relaxed rules on remittances — the funds overseas immigrants send to family back home — they witnessed an incredible influx of foreign currency and investment. Remittances were a trickle in 1990, $21 million, but now they top $15 billion with almost half of the funds going to Ho Chi Minh City. The Taliban economists are very much aware of Vietnam’s case, and it is hoped that the government will allow Afghans to migrate overseas with the knowledge that this overseas diaspora will eventually be an important driver for economic growth.

What was key to Vietnam normalizing economic relations with the West, and what are some first steps for Afghanistan/the Taliban?

For Vietnam, the biggest key was the Soviet Union’s collapse. The U.S. maintained its trade embargo on Vietnam until 1994, choking off much-needed Western currency. Vietnamese leaders repeatedly attempted to normalize ties after 1975, even welcoming American banks and oil companies to talks, but the Cold War prevented a fast normalization as Soviet advisors and military units moved into Vietnam after 1975. Vietnam’s Renovation Policy in 1986 followed reforms in the Soviet Union called perestroika (reconstruction), so that was the beginning of talks; then things began to proceed more quickly with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1989 and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“The competitive presence of other powers — China, Russia, Pakistan, the Emirates, India, and the U.S. — means that we may see the possibility for a quicker reconciliation process between Afghanistan’s new government and the international community.”

The world today, especially in the Middle East, is very different geopolitically, and I think the competitive presence of other powers — China, Russia, Pakistan, the Emirates, India, and the U.S. — means that we may see the possibility for a quicker reconciliation process between Afghanistan’s new government and the international community. 

It’s likely the authoritarian, fundamentalist Taliban regime will continue to rule Afghanistan. Is single-party, authoritarian rule incongruous with economic prosperity? 

Vietnam’s rebound didn’t mean ending single-party rule. Vietnam remains a single-party state, and while there are continuing complaints about repression of free speech and imprisonment of dissidents, the Party is the major force in Vietnam. However, Vietnam’s Party has become less hardline in its ideology, like China, and it has made many concessions with economic reforms and also greater freedoms for religious organizations and a more cosmopolitan social environment. Vietnam has rebranded itself as a “friendly” nation for tourism and regional diplomacy.

Also, a common refrain heard by people on the street in Vietnam is this: “Which form of Southeast Asian democracy is preferable to our government? Thailand? Philippines? Indonesia?” So long as the country’s economy is booming and people are better off than in the “dark days” after 1975, I don’t see much significant interest in democratization.  

So, one-party rule doesn’t preclude economic stability. But does it preclude social justice reform?

It’s the case the world over, but then multiparty states have their problems, too. We read about the detention of journalists in EU countries that have multiple parties. Countries like Poland and Hungary have passed anti-LGBTQ laws, and in Southeast Asia, the rule of Rodrigo Duterte in the multiparty Philippines has coincided with thousands of extrajudicial killings by police and paramilitaries. Vietnam by contrast has legalized gay marriage, and it is one of the safest countries in the world with a murder/homicide rate just one-fifth that of the United States.  

Is the Taliban’s pledge not to prosecute former enemies a good step in this direction? Does history provide good reason to be skeptical of such a pledge?

There is a strong tendency for victorious governments to identify those who worked with former governments and at least discover whether those individuals were responsible for any perceived crimes, like corruption or police killings, and to prosecute them. There are international laws for processing prisoners of war (especially those who surrender), and the big issue for the Taliban today is whether they can effect an orderly, legal and nonarbitrary means to address these issues with individuals in the former regime. There are no known cases where victor governments didn’t proceed with some form of war crimes trials.

Did we “lose” the war in Vietnam and is it fair to brand the American effort a failure? Did we fail in our mission in Afghanistan?

That’s a tough question. The U.S. failed in its mission (in Vietnam) to contain communism and prop up a noncommunist regime, and any campaign that cost 50,000 American lives and more than 4 million Vietnamese lives a failure in humanitarian, economic, and political terms. Some would say the Vietnam War wasn’t ours to lose. American forces stepped in first to support a French-backed government in 1950 and then sent forces in 1965. But at its heart, the war in Vietnam was a war between Vietnamese people. That may be hard to grasp given the overwhelming technological presence of American (and other foreign) forces, but everyone knew the foreign troops would eventually leave and all that would be left were Vietnamese combatants and their families to pick up the pieces amid the ruins.

“In the long run, those ties that Americans formed with Afghans may ultimately prove most useful in helping achieve lasting peace.”

What is remarkable about the United States’ presence in South Vietnam, and possibly in Afghanistan, was what happened off the battlefield — the commitment to improving civilian life through public works projects, building schools and hospitals, and generally exposing large numbers of people to everyday American life. To the extent that leaders were not corrupt and military actions didn’t destroy that civilian infrastructure, those contributions and people-to-people ties went a long way towards effecting positive, nonviolent change in Vietnam. Similar thing might happen in Afghanistan.

Historians are skeptical about the effectiveness of American military power to achieve peace, but the generosity and compassion of the American people is boundless. Those ties that Americans formed with Afghans may ultimately prove most useful in helping achieve lasting peace.

Afghanistan: Echoes of Vietnam?

The U.S. military has completed the withdrawal of nearly all combat forces from Afghanistan — quickly, almost secretly, and ahead of schedule. After twenty years of high-intensity conflict, America’s longest war is suddenly over. A few hundred soldiers will stay behind to help guard the U.S. Embassy, the diplomats will remain, and a small number of contractors are expected to continue assistance to Afghan military units, particularly the air force. The United States has pledged to continue to aid the Afghan government and military with money, equipment and advice. But to the surprise of no one, the position of Afghan government forces is already starting to unravel in the face of Taliban attacks in some parts of the country.

For those of a certain age, including President Biden, all of this is eerily reminiscent of how America’s previous longest war — the Vietnam War — evolved and ultimately ended in 1975. The parallels, as well as the differences, are illuminating. First, the parallels:

-In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, Washington effectively intervened in an ongoing civil war because it saw one of the protagonists as a threat to important American security interests. The communist regime in North Vietnam and its proxies in South Vietnam were seen as instruments of communist global ambitions orchestrated by Moscow and Beijing. The Taliban regime in Kabul was seen as deeply complicit in the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, and the willing handmaiden of an international Islamist terrorist movement. In both cases, the United States intervened on the side of the weaker protagonist (South Vietnam’s Diem regime in Vietnam and the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban resistance forces in Afghanistan). In both cases, U.S. expectation was that American resources and firepower would decisively shift the balance in favor of pro-western forces. In both cases, it did not happen.

-In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the United States became trapped in an increasingly lengthy and expensive effort to transform local partners into American analogs. It is called “nation building.” In both cases, this effort left the adversary (the Vietnamese communists and the Taliban) effectively untouched. The net effect was that local U.S. partners became dependent on American assistance whereas their adversaries sustained themselves with indigenous resources and support.

-In both wars, the United States ended up negotiating a supposed peace settlement directly with their battlefield adversaries and the U.S. partner governments were left out of the process. In both Saigon and Kabul, the sense of betrayal was palpable. In both cases the signed agreements did not require either the Vietnamese communists or the Taliban to withdraw or disarm. Both remained ready to resume hostilities the moment the last U.S. soldier departed.

-In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the U.S. government promised continued economic and military support even as the United States moved offshore.In Vietnam, those pledges quickly proved hollow as the Congress, following public opinion, refused the necessary legislative authority. Within weeks the North Vietnamese flag was flying over Saigon.

It is too early to say whether a similar dire scenario will play out over Kabul, but the signs are already there. That said, there are some significant differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan. Perhaps most important, Vietnam is a highly homogenous country with one dominant ethnic group, the Vietnamese. North Vietnam was a tightly organized, highly disciplined actor. Its proxy forces in the south (the National Liberation Front) took and followed orders from Hanoi. Afghanistan is the opposite. It is comprised of quite distinct ethnic populations with their own identities and loyalties. The largest group, the Pashtuns, comprise about forty percent of the total population. The Taliban are largely Pashtun. That leaves Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmens and myriad others outside the tent. In its long and tumultuous history, Afghanistan has never had a central government with effective control over the entire country.

As one former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan recently observed, the U.S. withdrawal won’t end the civil war; it will continue in a new form.

When the North Vietnamese army occupied Saigon, and Hanoi imposed its rule, the results were not pretty, but it was orderly and the fighting stopped. Afghanistan will look very different. As one former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan recently observed, the U.S. withdrawal won’t end the civil war; it will continue in a new form. Already, the government in Kabul has resorted to a desperate stratagem of shipping weapons to regions and towns (many non-Pashtun) to enable them to create local anti-Taliban militias. Grizzled war lords have been reassembling their former fighting units. And other governments in the broader region will be tempted to intervene on behalf of co-ethnics and co-religionists.

There is another interesting contrast. After a decade of bitter fighting, the United States and Vietnam were deeply estranged. After Vietnam’s 1979 invasion of Cambodia, the United States applied sanctions and supported Cambodian resistance fighters who bloodied Vietnamese forces for another ten years. But, by the early 1990s, Hanoi and Washington had begun a wary rapprochement. That has blossomed into a robust and even cordial economic, diplomatic, and military partnership. There is a reason for this — fear and anger regarding China’s aggressive behavior, particularly in the South China Sea. And the Vietnamese have not forgotten myriad Chinese invasions of Vietnam over millennia, the most recent in 1979.Ties between Hanoi and Washington are both strengthened and complicated by the presence of over two million Vietnamese refugees and their descendants living in the United States.

It is nearly impossible to imagine a postwar relationship between the United States and a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that will look anything like this. More likely, for America, Afghanistan will be out of sight and out of mind.

How a misguided Vietnam analogy sealed the Afghanistan disaster

The scenes of a helicopter evacuating diplomats from the US embassy in Kabul and of Afghan civilians desperately clinging to a US Air Force C-17 as it took off from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in August triggered irresistible comparisons to the US evacuation from Saigon in 1975.

It wasn’t the first time those kinds of flashbacks emerged. Long before the Taliban’s recent takeover, some policymakers, scholars, and journalists have looked at Afghanistan and seen Vietnam. Given how the war ended, were those analogies prescient? In fact, a review of the analogy’s influence on decision-making suggests the opposite. Policymakers wielding the analogy failed to recognize the dangers it posed to their strategy-building: Not only was it historically inaccurate, but it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that helped bring about, rather than avoid, a catastrophic end to the war in Afghanistan.

How the analogy landed on Biden’s desk

The Vietnam analogy said less about the similarities and differences between the wars and more about the state of mind of those using it—a state of mind that ultimately led policymakers to make decisions based on a faulty view of the war.

In 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell worried as war plans shaped up that they looked too much like war plans from Vietnam. Bob Woodward later wrote in his 2002 book Bush at War that as the National Security Council met eighteen days after September 11, “they were developing a response, an action, but not a strategy. It was Powell’s worst nightmare—bomb and hope. Vietnam kept flooding back.” Later, they debated pausing the bombing to invite the Taliban to negotiate. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld adamantly refused. Woodward wrote that Rumsfeld thought the “bombing pauses smacked of Vietnam. No way.” The Vietnam analogy ultimately colored President George W. Bush’s approach to his duties as commander in chief. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice later recounted in her book No Higher Honor that Bush “had read many histories of Vietnam, and he did not want to be Lyndon Johnson, picking targets from the basement of the White House.”

The media also picked up on the complex situation and the Vietnam analogy. In September 2001, the Associated Press reported: “Now it may be the United States’ turn to try a foray into the Afghan quagmire.” On October 14 of that year, Newsweek headlined a story “The Quagmire that Awaits.” On October 31, weeks into the US bombing campaign, the New York Times ran a prominent news analysis by R.W. Apple Jr. entitled “A Military Quagmire Remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam.” In it, Apple asked “Could Afghanistan become another Vietnam? Is the United States facing another stalemate on the other side of the world? Premature the questions may be, three weeks after the fighting began. Unreasonable they are not… For all the differences between the two conflicts, and there are many, echoes of Vietnam are unavoidable.”

The Vietnam analogy said less about the similarities and differences between the wars and more about the state of mind of those using it—a state of mind that ultimately led policymakers to make decisions based on a faulty view of the war.

The Vietnam analogy returned in 2009 with the change of administrations and a review of US policy and strategy in Afghanistan. Woodward wrote in his 2010 book Obama’s Wars that as the Obama administration debated options, then Vice President Joe Biden was “more convinced than ever that Afghanistan was a version of Vietnam,” and as President Barack Obama was about to order more troops, Biden warned that the United States might get “locked into Vietnam.” Woodward also wrote that, similarly, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that “he was worried they were on the path to another Vietnam.” Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the president that forty-four years earlier, Johnson debated the same issues surrounding troop deployment for Vietnam with his advisers. “History should not be forgotten,” Woodward quoted Holbrooke as saying. When Holbrooke warned that the United States had a moral responsibility to the Afghans who had worked with US troops as translators and spies and that the United States could not abandon them, Biden disagreed. Holbrooke, in George Packer’s 2019 book Our Man, reported that Biden said “F— that, we don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam, [President Richard] Nixon and [National Security Advisor Henry] Kissinger got away with it,” illustrating again that Biden saw the war in Afghanistan through the lens of Vietnam.

As before, scholars, pundits, and the media echoed policymakers’ concerns. In April 2009, Andrew Bacevich—a retired US Army colonel, Vietnam War veteran, and prominent scholar of US military history—testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He argued that the central lesson of the Vietnam War was that the United States should never “embark on an open-ended war lacking clearly defined and achievable objectives.” Nonetheless, he claimed, that is exactly what the United States had done. Quoting General Bruce Palmer’s 1984 book The 25 Year War, Bacevich said that “we once again find ourselves mired in a ‘protracted war of an indeterminate nature with no foreseeable end to the US commitment,’” later adding, “We are in our own day repeating [Johnson]’s errors.” Bacevich concluded: “Just as in the 1960s we possessed neither the wisdom nor the means needed to determine the fate of Southeast Asia, so too today we possess neither the wisdom nor the means necessary to determine the fate of the Greater Middle East.”

Similarly, in 2010, Neil Sheehan, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author and former Vietnam War correspondent, wrote in a review of Woodward’s Obama’s Wars that “a new president may well have embroiled himself in a war that could poison his presidency—just as his predecessor, George W. Bush, destroyed his with a foolhardy war in Iraq and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were ruined by the war in Vietnam.” In 2012, Sheehan drew the parallel again, arguing “what the Obama administration is attempting to do in Afghanistan bears a striking resemblance to what the United States attempted in Vietnam.”

Why the analogy can’t stand up—and why it lets policymakers down

Was the war in Afghanistan similar to the one in Vietnam? There is a superficial similarity: In both cases, the United States waged a counterinsurgency campaign against a foreign nonstate actor on behalf of a corrupt and incompetent local government. Both wars involved foreign internal defense and security assistance alongside reconstruction and development to support US war efforts. The similarities might suggest that the United States could learn useful lessons about how to wage counterinsurgency and conduct state-building in Afghanistan by examining its performance in Vietnam (and also in Iraq, which shared those similarities). Some scholars and policymakers, especially in the Department of Defense, attempted that comparison.

But saying Afghanistan is like Vietnam because both involved counterinsurgency is as insightful as saying the US Civil War was like Rome’s Second Punic War because both were conventional wars. Almost nothing else about the two wars was similar. In 2004, a Strategic Studies Institute report employed the Vietnam analogy in the case of Iraq: “There is simply no comparison between the strategic environment, the scale of military operations, the scale of losses incurred, the quality of enemy resistance, the role of enemy allies, and the duration of combat.” The same could be said of Afghanistan and Vietnam.

The wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam were fought in different strategic environments. Like the Soviet-Afghan War, Vietnam was a proxy war between two superpowers overlaid on top of a national liberation movement. As a consequence, the North Vietnamese had the almost limitless resources and public support of the Soviet Union and China behind them, and the risk of escalation was a very real danger. US intervention in Vietnam was unilateral and lacked broad international legitimacy. In contrast, the conflict in Afghanistan was an international counterterrorism operation mixed up in a tribal civil war. The Taliban had comparatively few resources and there was no risk of escalation with a sponsoring superpower.

The wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam also took place in different operational and tactical environments. The North Vietnamese fielded a conventional army with tanks, artillery, and air power as their main effort. The unconventional Viet Cong insurgency was a supporting effort that faded away or was defeated after 1968; Saigon fell in 1975 to the North Vietnamese Army, not the Viet Cong. In Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency never fielded a conventional force and won through bribery, intimidation, and negotiations with local Afghan commanders who refused to fight after the withdrawal of US and international assistance, not through combat.

The wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam took place in different ideological environments. The Vietnam War was a civil war between two rival nationalist visions (a communist version and a nationalist version), both seeking unity and independence. Both claims were marred by autocracy. The communists’ claim was also marred by their brutality, while the South Vietnamese’s claim was also marred by their corruption. The Taliban, in contrast, was a minority sect that was unpopular and scarcely perceived to be legitimate, even when it governed Afghanistan, because of the group’s extremism and incompetence. It advocated Deobandi Islamism—which differs from the Hanafi school of Islam prevalent across Afghanistan—persecuted and excluded all non-Pashtun ethnic groups, and presided over the complete collapse of most state institutions. The various anti-Taliban factions, parties, and militias included almost all of Afghanistan’s major ethnic, religious, and regional groups, including Pashtuns and political Islamist groups. The government in Kabul had a much stronger claim to legitimacy and broad-based representation than did the military government in Saigon.

And finally, the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam were fought on vastly different scales. Vietnam was one of the largest wars in American history, after the world wars and the Civil War. The United States deployed over a half-million troops; over 58,000 were killed, and over 300,000 were wounded. The North and South Vietnamese fielded armies of several hundred thousand each, and more than two million Vietnamese were killed. Compared to Vietnam, Afghanistan was a minor conflict. Taliban fighters, according to some estimates, numbered in the tens of thousands. And even at its peak, the US military deployment was only one-fifth the size of the deployment in Vietnam. About 3,500 coalition troops perished, which is one of the smallest figures of any major war in US history—that is not to make light of the loss of life but to highlight that there is no comparison to Vietnam. From December 2014 until the evacuation from Kabul, just seventy-nine US service members were killed in action; fewer troops were killed over the final six-and-a-half years in Afghanistan than were lost every two days in Vietnam in 1968, on average.

Some of the most important factors that led to the United States’ defeat in Vietnam—the scale of US casualties, the presence of a large and vocal anti-war movement in the United States, the existence of a well-armed conventional opponent, and the Cold War dynamic—were not present in Afghanistan. Likewise, some of the causes of the United States’ loss in Afghanistan—the Taliban’s access to money from the drug trade and the support from a global network of jihadist groups—were largely unique to that conflict and not shared with the one in Vietnam. Afghanistan did not resemble Vietnam in its strategic, operational, tactical, or ideological environments. It did not resemble Vietnam in why or how the war was fought, the type and number of enemies, or even the role of US allies and rivals. Frankly, it did not resemble Vietnam in any other respect. That means reflecting on Vietnam yields little insight applicable to the conflict in Afghanistan—aside from highlighting counterinsurgency best practices.

Invoking the shadow of Vietnam to inform the debate over Afghanistan is a sure way of paying more attention to the image of the war than the reality of it. Policymakers who reason by historical analogy are almost always wrong in doing so. Jeffrey Record’s study of the use of Vietnam as a historical analogy in US foreign policy decisions concluded that it has rarely served policymakers well. Using the Vietnam experience as a warning against replicating its errors is redundant: As Record noted (years before the fall of Kabul), “The very experience of the Vietnam War remains the greatest obstacle to its repetition.” Moreover, the international environment has changed. The end of the Cold War has diminished the stakes for US national-security interests in peripheral theaters around the world, and at the same time, it deprived would-be US adversaries of the funding and armaments they would need to mount a challenge of the scale of the North Vietnamese. US involvement in another foreign war that combines conventional warfare against a superpower-backed enemy state with counterinsurgency warfare against a resilient rural insurgency is extremely unlikely. “There are probably no more Vietnams… lying in wait for the United States,” Record wrote. Using Vietnam as a cautionary tale, therefore, only cautions against something that is unlikely to happen anyway.

Invoking the shadow of Vietnam to inform the debate over Afghanistan is a sure way of paying more attention to the image of the war than the reality of it.

Indeed, the Vietnam metaphor can be outright harmful to sound military planning. It can encourage excessive, even unrealistic, concern for minimizing casualties. It can create an unrealistic expectation that policymakers determine beforehand what their exit strategy will be (for a war whose course they cannot, in reality, predict or control). It can artificially separate force from diplomacy and even prompt calls for deploying overwhelming force in every situation, even when small, tailored deployments might be more appropriate. Record further warned that the “Vietnam War analogy is an unreliable, even dangerous, guide to using force in the post-Cold War era.” While it might have served a useful purpose in helping military planners learn best practices for counterinsurgency, it seems more often to have served as a largely groundless cautionary tale about the perils of unconventional warfare.

Where the analogy had merit: The aftershocks

And yet, regardless of how inappropriate the analogy was in describing the course of the war, it seems to describe almost too perfectly how the wars ended. Does that suggest there was merit to the analogy all along?

The fall of Kabul seems likely to have similar political, diplomatic, and psychological effects as the fall of Saigon. Both evacuations were international public humiliations for the United States, regarded as demonstrative of the limits of American power and resolve. To use the language of chess, in Vietnam the United States lost a tempo to the Soviet Union; the latter gained the initiative and confidence to act with more stridency on the international stage for the several years that followed. In the twenty-first century, the free world is again in a contest with rising authoritarianism around the world and again lost a tempo. To that extent, the Saigon analogy, unfortunately, has merit.

But if so, it was merit created by the very policymakers who invoked the analogy as a cautionary tale. Earlier, the Obama administration tried to negotiate with the Taliban while unilaterally withdrawing US forces—motivated in part by their fear that Afghanistan would turn into another Vietnam. But in doing so, they replicated the dynamic of the Paris Peace talks with North Vietnam. In both cases, US adversaries understood that they would achieve their principal aims by waiting and thus had no need to concede anything through negotiation. Obama administration officials, who feared Afghanistan would turn into another Vietnam, ensured it would do so through their insistence on withdrawal timetables.

Later, invoking the analogy in 2021, Biden engineered the Vietnam-like scenario he had wanted to avoid as vice president by appealing to the past war in justifying his decision to withdraw all remaining US forces. “I wasn’t going to ask [US troops] to continue to risk their lives in a military action that should have ended long ago,” he said the day after Kabul fell. “Our leaders did that in Vietnam when I got here as a young man. I will not do it in Afghanistan.” Biden, fearing another Vietnam, withdrew US forces before the Afghan army was ready for independent operations—the decision most directly responsible for Kabul’s collapse and the ignominious, Vietnam-like end to the United States’ war in Afghanistan.

Biden believed that wars like Vietnam are unwinnable and, if the United States finds itself in a Vietnam-like war, the administration should end it as quickly as possible. Biden believed this despite the dramatic differences between the North Vietnamese Army and the Taliban, between the Cold War and the war against jihadist terrorism, and between a war that killed 2,500 Americans every two months at its peak and a war that killed 2,500 Americans in twenty years. Even more surprisingly, Biden believed the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable despite the military progress of Obama’s 2009-2010 surge, when Biden was vice president, and the slow progress building a new Afghan army.

It is clear that Biden concluded the United States never should have fought the war; rather, he thought the United States should have invaded to kill and capture as many al-Qaeda leaders as possible, but then it should have withdrawn to avoid getting bogged down in Vietnam-like counterinsurgency and reconstruction. He appears to have concluded this despite the obvious probability that al-Qaeda would return upon the United States’ departure if Afghanistan remained under Taliban control, as is happening now.

The Vietnam analogy is a tempting one, and in using it, Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops catalyzed the collapse of the Afghan army, the Taliban’s victory, and the Saigon-like images of evacuation at the US embassy and the Kabul airport. The Vietnam analogy proved to be the self-fulfilling prophecy the international community feared; it would be policymakers’ gravest mistake to allow the analogy to wield that power again. In the end, the Vietnam analogy was deeply unhelpful for assessing the war in Afghanistan on its own terms or charting a way toward victory, but it did vindicate itself as a roadmap to defeat.

Resources, “The Top 10 Mistakes in the Vietnam War.” By Chuck Holmes;, “Scholar compares exits in Vietnam, Afghanistan: There are lessons for Afghanistan in Vietnam’s eventual prosperity, expert says.” By J.D. Warren;, “Afghanistan: Echoes of Vietnam?” By Marvin Ott;, “How a misguided Vietnam analogy sealed the Afghanistan disaster.” By Paul D. Miller;, “The Top 10 Mistakes Made in the Afghan War: From Tora Bora to wartime fatigue, the U.S. legacy in Afghanistan was just one failed endeavor after another.” By Stephen M. Walt;

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