To brush up the memories as to how and when the US got involved in Vietnam: in 1945 the Viet Minh, a national independence coalition under the leadership of H Chí Minh began an insurgency against the French rule (France had colonised Vietnam in the mid-19th century). Hostilities escalated and in January 1950, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union recognised Viet Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam, based in Hanoi in the north, as the legitimate government. The following month, the United States and Great Britain recognised the French-backed State of Vietnam in Saigon, led by former Emperor Bo i, as the legitimate Vietnamese government. The US government viewed its involvement in the war as a way to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam.
During World War II, as an ally the US provided financial and military assistance to the French forces fighting in Vietnam. From the spring of 1950, their involvement increased from just assisting French troops to providing direct military assistance. Eventually, the US began sending out increased military assistance at a constant rate and the US forces became involved in ground combat operations in 1965. At their peak, they numbered more than 500,000 and were also engaged in a sustained aerial bombing campaign.
In 1968 came a turning point for the Vietnam War. It was the year when, despite having more than half-a-million of its forces on the ground and massive fire power, the US agreed to launch peace talks in Paris. This step was taken after failing to defeat the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, also known as the Viet Cong (a mass political organisation in South Vietnam that fought against the US and the South Vietnamese governments during the war).
At the beginning of 1968, the Viet Cong, in coordination with the North Vietnamese Army, launched the famous Tt offensive and occupied Hue, a South Vietnamese town. The Tt offensive was a campaign of surprise attacks against the forces of the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the US armed forces and their allies throughout South Vietnam. The name of the offensive comes from the Tt holiday, the Vietnamese New Year, when the first major attack took place.
The American embassy in Saigon was attacked during that offensive, as a result of which the US was forced to stop bombing North Vietnam for some time and to start the Paris peace talks with the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese government. It was this chain of reverses for the US military in Vietnam in 1968 which compelled Washington to accentuate its efforts for a safe exit from the conflict zone.
From 1965, when the US directly entered the Vietnam War, till 1975 when it withdrew, it lost more than 58,000 personnel and 10,000 war planes and helicopters, yet failed to defeat what they called the ‘communist menace’ in Indo-China. Never before in the annals of military history had a major power faced such devastating physical and material losses outside of the world wars as witnessed during the Vietnam War.
In 2018, the situation in Afghanistan is no better for the US. Similar to the Vietnam War, in Afghanistan too, the US is sinking deeper into a quagmire with little chance for a safe exit. Afghanistan, too, is a constant source of financial drain of resources for the US with no better results to ensure its success on military grounds. According to a Foreign Policy magazine report of May 2018, the US Department of Defence gives a pessimistic account of American military engagements in Afghanistan in terms of the prospects of winning a war in the volatile country.
More than four decades have passed yet the term ‘Vietnam syndrome’ is still used to refer to the psychological nightmare for the Americans.
However, while comparing Vietnam and Afghanistan one has to look into certain factors which led to the US failure in Vietnam, and the resistance against the US in both countries.
There are three major reasons that contributed to the US failure in Vietnam.
First, the high morale and courage of the resistance forces in Vietnam against foreign intervention. Although it was asymmetrical warfare in which the US had a clear military edge vis-à-vis the Viet Cong and North Vietnam, it was nationalistic zeal and patriotism that enabled anti-American forces to launch an effective national liberation movement by inflicting maximum damage on American troops and their South Vietnamese allies in active guerrilla warfare.
Confronting back-to-back debacles in June 1968, Washington replaced General William Westmoreland, the US military commander in Vietnam, with General Creighton Adams. But the change in command only had a marginal impact on ground. During 1968, the surge in American casualties and the intensification of guerrilla warfare by the Viet Cong led to widespread popular demonstrations throughout the US.
Second, the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations got an impetus during 1968 and spread worldwide, particularly in Europe and Asia. American bombing in various North Vietnamese cities and towns enraged people causing an outbreak of popular demonstrations demanding the withdrawal of the American military from Vietnam. Images of the March 16, 1968 massacre by American troops in the village of My Lai, in which several hundred civilians, including 56 babies were killed, was a turning point in the worldwide perception of the Vietnam War as global condemnation of that massacre put Washington in an embarrassing position and triggered anti-American sentiments all over the world.
Third, the US had lost popular support in Vietnam and its puppet regime in Saigon was unable to sustain its hold on power without American military presence.
To a large extent, the three reasons which prompted American withdrawal from Vietnam are absent in Afghanistan, although an argument could be made about some similarities in the third case.
From the beginning of 1968, the US had begun to experience failures in Vietnam despite the surge of American forces to 540,000 by December 1968. On 16 January 1968 the North Vietnamese government made it clear that it would not participate in peace talks unless the US stopped bombing on its soil. Consequently, in order to create favourable environment for peace talks scheduled to be held in Paris, Washington announced on 31 March that partial bombing would be halted over North Vietnam. Earlier on 1 March, the US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara was replaced by Clark Clifford.
In 2018, the Trump administration does not feel that it will lose in Afghanistan nor are there any popular demonstrations in the US or around the world against American military engagements in Afghanistan. The two case studies of the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars are different but in some respects also carry a degree of semblance. In the case of Vietnam, the duration of American military intervention was 10 years and the maximum number of US forces in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were more than half a million.
In Afghanistan, the American military engagements have been underway since October 2001 when the Taliban regime was toppled following the events of 9/11. Yet the total number of American forces in Afghanistan has never crossed the 100,000 mark and that too was part of the ‘surge’ policy during President Obama’s administration in 2010.
Physical casualties and injuries of the US forces in Afghanistan have not exceeded 10,000 and it has lost not more than 100 fighter planes and helicopters in that country. But the material cost of the US in Afghanistan has exceeded its cost in the Vietnam War because of the duration of war in Afghanistan which is now almost two decades old.
The art of war in Afghanistan is more sophisticated because of technological factors, thus reducing American physical losses and injures in that tribal country. In 1968 the Nixon administration had reached the conclusion that it cannot win the Vietnam War and that what it should strive for was an ‘honourable’ exit from a war which was not only causing enormous physical and material losses but also worldwide condemnation. Unlike Nixon, President Donald Trump, while unveiling his Afghan policy in August 2017, resolved to win the war in Afghanistan.
The most interesting contrast in the Vietnam and Afghan wars is in the nature of the armed struggle. While in Vietnam the guerrilla warfare led by the Viet Cong was quite effective, this is not the case in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban — the main resistance group against the US military’s presence in Afghanistan — claim to have gained control over half of Afghanistan, they have not been able to cause significant losses to the US forces or to the US-backed regime in Kabul.
Furthermore, the National Liberation Movement in Vietnam was not attacking its own people except those who were affiliated with the pro-American government in Saigon. Throughout the course of the V ietnam War, there were no suicide attacks claiming the lives of non-combatants. But in Afghanistan, thousands of innocent people have been killed so far as a result of suicide attacks launched by the Taliban. A popular movement against foreign occupation will not target its own people as was the case in Vietnam and which is not the case as far as Afghanistan is concerned.
The Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies were getting overt military support from communist China and the Soviet Union, but this is not the case with the Taliban as they rely only on drug money and snatching weapons from the forces of the pro-American Kabul regime in order to sustain their armed struggle. Reports of Taliban getting military support from Iran or Pakistan are unsubstantiated and any assistance is certainly not overt.
Motivation, nationalism, courage and patriotic feelings formed the core of the struggle of the Viet Cong and North Vietnam against foreign occupation of their country, which is lacking in Afghanistan. During the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan (December 1979 to February 1989), resistance against the Soviet forces and their supported Kabul regime included all segments of society regardless of ethnic or sectarian divide. Today, the bulk of resistance against the US forces in Afghanistan is concentrated in Pakhtun-dominated south and eastern provinces, whereas Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, constituting around half of the Afghan population, are largely not a part of the Pakhtun-led Taliban groups.
In Vietnam, the national liberation movement was ideologically driven with nationalistic zeal which is not the case with the Taliban whose main focus is to re-establish an order which was in practice while they were in power from 1996 till 2001. That order was termed as anti-women, anti-minorities and based on their literalist interpretation of Islamic Sharia. Even today, 17 years after the dismantling of that regime, many Afghans resent the ruthless Taliban rule.
Revisiting the Vietnam War also brings into picture the shattering of the myth of American invincibility because, after 10 years of military involvement, the US had to leave Vietnam without winning the war.
In Afghanistan, unlike Vietnam, there is no possibility of American withdrawal in the near future because of the absence of a united national liberation movement led by the majority of Afghans. There is little likelihood that Washington is seriously pursuing an exit strategy in the future and plans to remain in Afghanistan for strategic, security, political and economic reasons.
It means that, unlike Vietnam, in Afghanistan, the resistance movement lacks proper strategy, motivation, popular support and unity. This tends to provide enormous space to foreign powers to maintain their foothold in the war-ravaged country.
Afghanistan is certainly different than Vietnam as far as the US and the world is concerned. Vietnam is certainly better off today, 43 years after the end of the war, because of massive economic growth and development, whereas Afghanistan remains poor, underdeveloped, in under a perpetual state of violence and armed conflict since the outbreak of the Saur Revolution in April 1978. That was that coup d’état led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan against the rule of President Mohammed Daoud Khan in which Daoud Khan and most of his family were killed. That ‘revolution’ resulted in the creation of a government with Nur Muhammad Taraki as president, and was the precursor to the 1979 intervention by the Soviets.
All revolutions are not the same.
The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi