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Comparison between US War in Afghanistan and Vietnam War



Saleem Qamar Butt

An error. Another error. Yet, in his experience, refusal to acknowledge an error did not reset circumstance to an error-free state.” ―Sharon Lee, Dragon Ship

Since invasion of Afghanistan by US and allies in October 2001 till to date, one is often reminded of its similarities with US dreadful War in Vietnam and one wonders as to why lessons learnt (if at all) have not been applied to the ongoing conflict. Since I have had a chance to interact with outstanding historians teaching in US military institutions and right in Washington DC, visited war memorials and largest cemetery of young soldiers who sacrificed their lives in World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, I found it bewildering that the American policy makers, military planners and commanders on ground in Afghanistan seemed to have either totally missed the opportunity to learn from the experience past conflicts, or else they were simply intoxicated by the over estimation of their military might and under estimation of the foes they were going to confront.

The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, and in Vietnam as the Resistance War Against America, was a conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, with U.S. involvement ending in 1973. The troops involved in the conflict were South Vietnam: 850,000, United States: 540,000, South Korea: 50,000 and others: 80,000 plus. By the end of 1967, there were 540,000 American troops in Vietnam, and the military draft was set to call up 302,000 young men in the coming year, an increase of 72,000 over 1967. Financial costs had risen to $30 billion a year. On January 30, 1968, during Vietnam’s celebration of Tet, the lunar New Year, VC and NVA units launched a massive attack in every province of South Vietnam. They struck at least 30 provincial capitals and the major cities of Saigon and Hue. The Tet Offensive shocked Americans at home, who thought the war was nearing victory. Initially, however, home front support for the war effort grew, but by March Americans, perceiving no change in strategy that would bring the war to a conclusion, became increasingly disillusioned. Adding to Americans’ disillusionment was the race issue. Tensions between blacks and whites had been intensifying for years as African Americans sought to change centuries-old racial policies. The Civil Rights Movement had produced significant victories, but many blacks had come to describe Vietnam as “a white man’s war, a black man’s fight.” Between 1961 and 1966, black males accounted for about 13 percent of the U.S. population and less than 10 percent of military personnel but almost 20 percent of all combat-related deaths. That disparity would decline before the war ended, but the racial tensions at home began to insert themselves into the military in Vietnam, damaging unit morale. The killing of President JF Kennedy, followed by Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King added fuel to the fire on the internal front. Consequently, Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency in the fall elections and emphasis switched to “Vietnamization,” preparing South Vietnam’s military to take over responsibility for continuing the war. General Westmoreland had been promoted to Army Chief of Staff and replaced in Vietnam by Gen. Creighton Abrams. For the first time, MACV worked with South Vietnam’s government to create annual plans. Security was improving even as American forces were in the process of withdrawing. Then, on March 30, 1972, the North Vietnamese attacked across the 17th parallel with 14 divisions and additional individual regiments. Better armed than ever before, thanks to increased aid from the Soviet Union, they employed tanks for the first time. Frustrated, Nixon ordered the big bombers—B-52s—to strike Hanoi, beginning December 16 (Operation LINEBACKER). In less than two weeks, these strategic bombers had shattered the north’s defenses. On January 27, 1973, peace accords were signed between North Vietnam and the U.S. The ceasefire allowed Nixon to declare “peace with honour,” but no provisions existed for enforcing the terms of the accords. North Vietnam spent two years rebuilding its military; South Vietnam was hamstrung in its responses by a fear the U.S. Congress would cut off all aid if it took military action against communist build-up. Its army lacked reserves, while the NVA was growing. On March 5, 1975, the NVA invaded again. ARVN divisions in the north were surrounded and routed. No American air strikes came to aid the overstretched South Vietnamese, despite Nixon’s earlier assurances to Thieu. To its own surprise, Hanoi found its forces advancing rapidly toward Saigon, realized victory was at hand, and renamed the operation the Ho Chi Minh Offensive. On April 30, their tanks entered Saigon. American helicopters rescued members of its embassy and flew some South Vietnamese to safety, but most were left behind. North and South Vietnam were combined into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976. The domino fell but did not take down any of those around it. Although America’s war in Vietnam failed to salvage the Republic of South Vietnam, it bought time in which neighbouring countries improved their economies and defensive capabilities, and it may have discouraged greater communist activism in places like the Philippines.

The U.S. suffered over 47,000 killed in action plus another 11,000 noncombat deaths; over 150,000 were wounded and 10,000 missing. Casualties for the Republic of South Vietnam will never be adequately resolved. Low estimates calculate 110,000 combat killed in action (KIA) and a half-million wounded. Civilian loss of life was also very heavy, with the lowest estimates around 415,000. Similarly, casualty totals among the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnam Army(NVA) and the number of dead and wounded civilians in North Vietnam cannot be determined exactly. In April 1995, Vietnam’s communist government said 1.1 million combatants had died between 1954 and 1975, and another 600,000 wounded. Civilian deaths during that time period were estimated at 2 million, but the U.S. estimates of civilians killed in the north were at 30,000. Among South Vietnam’s other allies, Australia had over 400 killed and 2,400 wounded; New Zealand, over 80 KIA; Republic of Korea, 4,400 KIA; and Thailand 350 killed. The Vietnam War was the longest in U.S. history until the Afghanistan War (2002-2019…). The war was extremely divisive in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. Because the U.S. failed to achieve a military victory and the Republic of South Vietnam was ultimately taken over by North Vietnam, the Vietnam experience became known as “the only war America ever lost.” It remains a very controversial topic that continues to affect political and military decisions today.

The U.S. War in Afghanistan), code named Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan (2001–14) and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (2015–present), followed the United States invasion of Afghanistan of 7 October 2001. The U.S. was initially supported by the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia and later by a coalition of over 40 countries, including all NATO members. The war’s public aims were to dismantle al-Qaeda and to deny it a safe base of operations in Afghanistan by removing the Talibanfrom power. The War in Afghanistan has become the longest war in United States history, after the Vietnam War.

Following the September 11 attacks in 2001 on the U.S., which President George W. Bush blamed on Osama bin Laden who was living or hiding in Afghanistan, President Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over bin Laden and expel al-Qaeda; bin Laden had already been wanted by the U.S. since 1998. The Taliban declined to extradite him unless they were provided clear evidence of his involvement in the September 11 attacks, and declined demands to extradite others on the same grounds. The U.S. dismissed the request for evidence as a delaying tactic, and on 7 October 2001 launched Operation Enduring Freedom with the United Kingdom. Routinely, the allies cited policy of “not negotiating with terrorists.” The two were later joined by other forces, including the Northern Alliance, which had been fighting the Taliban in the ongoing civil war since 1996. In December 2001, the United Nations Security Council established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to assist the Afghan interim authorities with securing Kabul. At the Bonn Conference the same month, Hamid Karzai was selected to head the Afghan Interim Administration, which after a 2002 loya jirga (grand assembly) in Kabul became the Afghan Transitional Administration. In the popular elections of 2004, Karzai was elected president of the country, and then named the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

NATO became involved in ISAF in August 2003, and later that year assumed leadership of it. At this stage, ISAF included troops from 43 countries with NATO members providing the majority of the force. One portion of U.S. forces in Afghanistan operated under NATO command; the rest remained under direct U.S. command. Following defeat in the initial invasion, the Taliban was reorganized by its leader Mullah Omar, and launched an insurgency against the government and ISAF in 2003. Though outgunned and outnumbered, insurgents from the Taliban, Haqqani NetworkHezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin and other groups waged asymmetric warfarewith guerrilla raids and ambushes in the countryside, suicide attacks against urban targets, and turncoat killings against coalition forces. The Taliban exploited weaknesses in the Afghan government, which is among the most corrupt in the world, to reassert influence across rural areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan. In the initial years there was little fighting, but from 2006 the Taliban made significant gains and showed an increased willingness to commit atrocities against civilians. ISAF responded in 2006 by increasing troops for counter-insurgency operations to “clear and hold” villages and “nation building” projects to “win hearts and minds“. Violence sharply escalated from 2007 to 2009. While ISAF continued to battle the Taliban insurgency, fighting crossed into neighboring North-West Pakistan. Troop numbers began to surge in 2009 continued to increase through 2011 when roughly 140,000 foreign troops operated under ISAF and U.S. command in Afghanistan. Of these 100,000 were from the U.S. On 1 May 2011,United States Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

In May 2012, NATO leaders commended an exit strategy for withdrawing their forces. UN-backed peace talks have since taken place between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In May 2014, the United States announced that its major combat operations would end in December 2014, and that it would leave a residual force in the country. In October 2014, British forces handed over the last bases in Helmand to the Afghan military, officially ending their combat operations in the war. On 28 December 2014, NATO formally ended ISAF combat operations in Afghanistan and officially transferred full security responsibility to the Afghan government. The NATO-led Operation Resolute Support was formed the same day as a successor to ISAF. As of Jan 2018, approximately 14000 foreign troops remain in Afghanistan with announcement by President Trump of phased withdrawal ( hopefully in next 18 months as being discussed and re-evaluated), and continue their fight against the Taliban, which remains by far the largest single group fighting against the Afghan government and foreign troops. On January 28, 2019 the U.S. government announced that negotiators for the US and Taliban have agreed in principle on key issues. U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan in return for Taliban promises that Afghan territory will not be used by terrorists. Nevertheless, there’s a slip between the cup and lips when it comes to peace negotiations in Afghanistan. Foreign Forces withdrawal, establishment of an interim government in Afghanistan, release of prisoners and removal of Taliban and its leadership from terrorist list and directly talking to the American instead of government in Afghanistan remain Taliban main demands; whereas ceasefire to allow holding presidential elections( or even interim government) and talks between Taliban and Afghan government remain USA main demands to allow them to exit smoothly much before next US presidential election become due in 2020. Pakistan has made tremendous efforts in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table, besides complimentary efforts by China, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia. However, the success of the reconciliation and peace process depends mainly on the three main actors i.e. USA, Afghan government and Taliban, besides positive support from all other stakeholders.

The real cost of the Afghanistan War is more than the $1.07 trillion added to the debt. First, and most important, is the cost borne by the 2,350 U.S. troops who died, the 20,092 who suffered injuries, and their families who have to live with the consequences (end  2017 estimates). Improvements in battlefield medicine meant that more than 90 percent of soldiers wounded in Afghanistan survived. That’s better than the Vietnam War’s 86.5 percent track record. Unfortunately, that also means these veterans and their families now must live with the effects of permanent and grave damage. More than 320,000 soldiers from Afghanistan andIraq have traumatic brain injury that causes disorientation and confusion. Of those, 8,237 suffered severe or invasive brain injury. In addition, 1,645 soldiers lost all or part of a limb. More than 138,000 have post-traumatic stress disorder. They experience flashbacks, hyper vigilance, and difficulty sleeping. On average, 20 veterans commit suicide each day according to a 2016 VA study. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that 47 percent of its members knew of someone who had attempted suicide after returning from active duty. The group considers veteran suicide to be its number one issue. The cost of veterans’ medical and disability payments over the next 40 years will be more than $1 trillion. That’s according to Linda Bilmes, a senior lecturer in public finance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “The cost of caring for war veterans typically peaks 30 to 40 years or more after a conflict,” Bilmes said. Reportedly, tens of thousands of people have been killed in the ongoing war in Afghanistan. According to sources, in addition to US/ Coalition casualties include over 4,000 + troops dead and 23000+ wounded, civilian contractors around 4000 dead and over 15000 wounded , over 62000+ Afghan security forces as well as over 38,000+ civilians killed;   and Afghan Taliban 65000+, Al Qaida 2000+ and IS(KP) 2400+ dead.

The comparison of above summarized US war in Vietnam (1955-1973) and US war in Afghanistan(2001-2019…) bring to fore many similarities with respect to the incessant Great Game between USA and Russia (including emerging China) with competing strategic interests in the region, reliance on military and economic alliance by both sides, strategic blunders by US and allies at policy, planning and executions levels for both civil and military domain, misguided and chaotic covert wars by intelligence services, greater disparity in the stated and implicit goals, US over reliance on military muscles and technology with its limitations exposed, tendency to bomb its way to victory, disregard to great human and financial losses resulting in decades long economic and social crises, arrogance leading to underestimation of direct and indirect foes, disrespect to own public sentiments/ internal fault lines and international opinion, changing goal posts and declared objectives, distraction by opening simultaneously new fronts causing over stretch, repeating the same experiments again and again and expecting different results, failure to comprehend the dichotomy inherent in killing with one hand and trying to win hearts and mind with the other, faulty assessment of “clear, hold and build concept” in the invaded country, disregard to limitation of allies and consequent disenchantment, letting down tested friends and allies for scapegoating, and finally abandoning the war torn region in utter chaos. The other great similarities in both conflicts include USA throughout betting on most corrupt governments in Saigon and Kabul, Langley and Pentagon’s tendency to exaggerate their claimed successes and continued sucking in more and more troops and allied resources without any improvement on ground, war fatigue and consequent demoralisation among troops, failure to factor in regional and extra regional stake holders’ sensitivities, interests and responses and both President Nixon and Trump faced with largely the same challenges at home and abroad, which necessitated abandoning  failed pursuits.

While US role and involvement in 2nd World War helped it become a great super power that stood on stated high moral grounds achieved by great sacrifices of its proud and brave soldiers; yet, the subsequent conflicts during the Cold War period and beyond that mostly added to anti Americanism, greater economic burden and heightened insecurity both at home and abroad. It is time for American wise men to join heads for undertaking greater introspection for the good of not only American people, but for the whole globe.

“The hardest lessons are the ones that from ourselves we don’t learn.
The everlasting ones are those we are not able to forget.”
― Lamine Pearlheart

  • Saleem Qamar Butt, SI (M) is a retired senior Army officer with rich experience in Military & Intelligence Diplomacy and is a consultant on Strategic Analysis for many Newspapers, magazines and PTV. (



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