Home South Asia Afghanistan Vietnam and Afghanistan Wars: Does History Repeat itself or Rhyme?

Vietnam and Afghanistan Wars: Does History Repeat itself or Rhyme?

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Jamal Hussain |

History repeats itself,” the original adage was reportedly modified by Mark Twain to read “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”

 A case study and comparison of events of the American Vietnam War of the previous century and the current ongoing Afghanistan War should indicate which of the two statements is more accurate. 

The Background of the Two Conflicts

The background of the two conflicts has many similarities. Both Vietnam and Afghanistan were ravaged by foreign domination and interference much before the direct military intervention of USA. Vietnam was the playground of the colonial European states spearheaded by France and the Japanese Imperial Army until the end of WW II.

Similarly, Afghanistan pre-WW II was fought over and invaded by the British Indian Empire and the Russians/USSR, eventually the two agreeing to treat it as a buffer state. During the start of the Cold War era between USA and USSR, both were indirectly involved in attempting to shape and dominate Vietnam and Afghanistan to promote their respective interests. 

While USSR wanted Vietnam and Afghanistan to adopt Communism and operate as its satellite, USA wanted to promote capitalism in the two nations and establish regimes which would halt the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia and South Asia respectively.

In 1954, US President Eisenhower responding to the defeat of the French by the Vietminh outlined the Domino Theory: “You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.”

Vietminh was an anti-imperialist nationalist party under Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese communist leader. Both Vietnam and Afghanistan were considered as the dominoes in their region whose fall to the communist influence had to be resisted at all cost.” Vietnam by 1954 was bifurcated into two and the Geneva Accord registered the 17th parallel as the demarcation line dividing Vietnam into North and South Vietnam.

With the total withdrawal of the Soviet military from Afghanistan in 1989, the American military footprint also disappeared as Afghanistan descended into a murderous civil war

Ngo Dinh Diem, a South Vietnamese politician rejected conditions of the Geneva Accord and despite being urged to negotiate with the North by Britain, France and USA refused to do so and instead got himself elected as the President of the Republic of Vietnam (aka South Vietnam) in what was considered as rigged elections.

The stage was now set for direct rivalry between USSR and USA with the former throwing its full weight behind the North and the latter supporting the South. With the exit of French forces from Vietnam following the Geneva Accord, the US Military Assistance Group (MAAG) assumed responsibility from the French for training South Vietnamese forces. As the battle in the region heated the MAAG setup continued to expand in size and scope until the direct intervention by the US military in 1964.  

Afghanistan post WW II underwent a similar but slightly different experience. From 1933 until 1973 Afghanistan was ruled by King Zahir Shah under a democratic legislature. With the giant Soviet empire next door, the Communist influence was natural but the period was relatively peaceful and Afghanistan was once again the buffer state between USSR and South Asia.

The overthrow of King Zahir Shah by Mohammad Daud Khan set up a chain of events that eventually resulted in the invasion of the country by the Soviet military. An insurgency against the Soviet invaders led by the Afghan Mujahedeen started and USA got deeply involved in arming, training and supporting the group but resisted attempt to directly deploy their military might against the Soviets.

With the total withdrawal of the Soviet military from Afghanistan in 1989, the American military footprint also disappeared as Afghanistan descended into a murderous civil war eventually leading to the rise of the Taliban government in 1996 that lasted until 2001. The 9/11 incident triggered the current Afghan War which over a decade and a half later shows no sign of abating. 

Casus Belli for the Vietnam War

The casus bellis of the Vietnam and Afghanistan conflicts make an interesting case study. Despite the economic and military training support of USA, South Vietnamese government under Diem was gradually losing ground to the Vietminh aka Vietcong offensive. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield reported to US President Kennedy that in his opinion Diem had wasted the two billion dollars America had spent there.

The Vietcong defeat of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) in the Battle of Ap Bac made it clear that without direct intervention of the US military, South Vietnam would be soon overrun by the North. With the tacit approval of the United States, Diem was overthrown and killed by the South Vietnamese Military and General Nguyen Khanh seized power.

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorised Johnson to wage all-out war against North Vietnam without ever securing a formal declaration of war from the Congress.

For formal declaration of war against North Vietnam US Lyndon President Johnson needed the approval of the US Congress. The incidents of August 2 and August 4 of 1964 where first the USS Maddox a destroyer was allegedly attacked by three North Vietnamese Patrol Boats on August 2 and a second highly disputed attack on the very ship was reported to have taken place on August 4.

Branded together as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the alleged attacks were used by the US Congress to authorize President Johnson to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against forces of the United States to prevent further aggression.” Titled Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, it authorised Johnson to wage all-out war against North Vietnam without ever securing a formal declaration of war from the Congress.

Robert McNamara, the then US Defense Secretary and one of the key architects of the US policy in Vietnam admitted grave mistakes were made in that policy in his 1995 memoirs. He was apparently referring to the dubious Gulf of Tonkin incidents which were used as the casus belli for the direct intervention of the US military in Vietnam.  

Casus Belli for the Afghanistan War

The casus belli for the Afghan War of 2001 was on much firmer ground. The 9/11 attack was real, despite the doubting Thomas approach by many in the Muslim world and even some in USA who challenge the veracity of the perpetrators of the crime as indicated by the US 9/11 Commission Report.

Although the Taliban government in Afghanistan or any Afghan for that matter were not a part of the syndicate that carried out the attacks, the plan mastermind, and financier Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader was operating from the Afghanistan soil. After the Taliban refused to hand over Osama to the Americans, Operation Enduring Freedom was unleashed to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Gulf of Tonkin incidents were highly exaggerated if not patently false while the 9/11 attack was real, the truth that any alleged or actual military attack on US interest is likely to unleash major and disproportionate military reprisal comes out very clearly. To be honest, superpowers throughout human history have adopted this policy and USA is no exception.          

Phase one: Vietnam War (1964-68)

With the induction of the American military might particularly its lethal air power, the security threat from the North to South Vietnam was contained temporarily. With the arrival of the US Marines the combined US and South Vietnam forces achieved its first conventional battle victory at Ia Drang Valley, with heavy casualties reported on both sides.

A massive aerial bombing operation codenamed Rolling Thunder was initiated against targets in North Vietnam. Despite enjoying air and technological superiority decisive battlefield victories against the Vietminh forces eluded the Americans while their casualty figures continued to mount.

..from a military point of view it was a defeat for the Communists

The employment of B-52 strategic bombers for the first time in 1966 to engage targets in North Vietnam provided some dividends but the level of devastation caused inflamed the anti-war factions in the United States. Besides, Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara appearing before a Senate subcommittee admitted that “US bombing raids against North Vietnam have not achieved their objective,” maintaining that “movement of supplies to South Vietnam has not been reduced, and neither the economy nor the morale of the North Vietnamese has been broken.”

The North Vietnamese Tet offensive caught the US military off guard and several key cities in South Vietnam including its capital Saigon came under severe attack. Eventually the offensive was beaten back and the lost territories recovered by the American counteroffensive.

Strictly from a military point of view it was a defeat for the Communists, however, it turned out to be a political and psychological victory for them. The US military’s assessment of the war came under question by the American public and academia.

With the “end of tunnel” appearing very far off, the domestic opposition to the American involvement in Vietnam mounted, forcing Lyndon Johnson to announce he would not run for reelection in 1968. 

Phase one: Afghanistan War (2001-2008)

Unlike Vietnam Operation Enduring Freedom was able to achieve its principal military objective of overthrowing the Taliban government in Afghanistan within three weeks of a swift military campaign banking primarily on aerial assaults.

Barring a scattering of Special Forces units, the deployment of US foot soldiers was conspicuously absent in the campaign. Instead, the Northern Alliance forces, a conglomerate of anti-Taliban Afghans were employed for the purpose. As the Taliban were routed under a barrage of intense aerial bombardment, the Northern Alliance marched in practically unimpeded and took over the reign of Afghanistan.

Their greed and lack of professionalism allowed the majority of Taliban leadership and foot soldiers to slip away and take refuge in the unruly Tribal Agencies of neighbouring Pakistan. The failure of the military campaign to destroy the Taliban forces was to cost the American dearly.

The result of the US military focus shifting from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003 led to the resurgence of the Taliban. Asymmetric guerilla warfare against the Northern Alliance led Afghan government and ISAF deployed to protect it was initiated in 2004 and it has continued to grow and expand since then. Pakistan was threatened and warned to remove the Taliban sanctuary from its Tribal Belt.

The Pakistani military campaign in South Waziristan to evict the Taliban in 2004 ended in failure and led to the resurgence of a new Taliban faction, the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who turned their guns towards Pakistan.

USA still believe the Haqqanis are still ensconced in North Waziristan.

Subsequent military campaigns Rah e Rast and Rah e Nijat in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan has cleared the areas of the Taliban who shifted their base to North Waziristan, another Tribal Agency abetting Afghanistan. Operational and economic constraints prevented Pakistan from opening a new front in North Waziristan that provided the USA the ammunition to accuse the country of supporting and harboring the Haqqani faction of the Taliban.

The military operation against North Waziristan codenamed Zarb e Azb was finally unleashed in 2014. Pakistan maintains the Haqqanis have been routed from North Waziristan and they have shifted their base in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan that are not under control of ANA and ISAF. The USA, however, still believe the Haqqanis are still ensconced in North Waziristan.  

US President George Bush initiated a drone attack campaign against the Taliban operating in Afghanistan and in the tribal agencies of Pakistan. Keeping the sensitiveness of the country which was considered an ally in the war, the drone attacks in the tribal belts were very infrequent and in most cases, it was carried out with the tacit approval of Pakistan, although officially it vehemently denied any such arrangements. With the inauguration of Barack Obama as the US President in 2009, the Afghan war entered its second phase which continues to date.

Phase two of the Vietnam War (the Final Phase: 1968-75)

Richard Nixon took over as the president of USA in 1969. Facing intense pressure from a war-weary public he sought a way to disengage American combat forces from Vietnam without appearing to abandon South Vietnam. A weakening of the North Vietnamese resolve to take over South Vietnam militarily was considered essential before a US troop withdrawal could be initiated.

Blaming neighboring Cambodia for allowing supply routes and base camps to the Vietcong, Nixon began a secret bombing of Cambodia and an invasion of Laos, similarly charged with supporting the North Vietnamese military. He also began a troop reduction process and in 1970 the US troops fell to 286,000 from a high of 536,100 in 1968.

As an aftermath of Linebacker operations, North Vietnam agreed to peace talk in 1973

To interdict the supply line of North Vietnam massive air bombardment operations codenamed Linebacker was initiated by the Nixon administration in 1972. This was the first continuous bombing effort against North Vietnam since the end of Operation Rolling Thunder in November 1968. 

The US troop level was brought further down by 70,000 in 1972. As an aftermath of Linebacker operations, North Vietnam agreed to peace talk and in 1973, a ceasefire was signed in Paris and last American combat troops left Vietnam.

In 1974 Nguyen Van Thieu, the elected President of South Vietnam announced renewal of war. By late April 1975 the communist forces took Saigon the capital of South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese government capitulated. Duang Van Minh who had ousted Nguyen Van Thieu on April 28, 1975 and had taken over as the last President of South Vietnam delivered an unconditional surrender to the Communists as the last Americans evacuated Saigon. The Vietnam War came to an end.

Phase two Afghanistan; (2008 and ongoing)

Candidate Barack Obama had described Afghanistan as a war of necessity that had to be pursued to its logical conclusion. On taking over as the President he realised a conventional war strategy against the Taliban was not achieving much success. He opted for the Drone warfare and enhanced drone attacks to about ten times more than the number conducted under George Bush, his predecessor.

His Generals in the meanwhile were exhorting him to approve a troop surge similar to the one that had earlier achieved positive results in Iraq. Obama was hesitant but on the insistence of his Generals eventually agreed to a 30,000 increase instead of 40,000 that was requested by General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Astonishingly he simultaneously announced a date after which the troop withdrawal would begin.

You have the watches but we have the time,

-a line attributed to the Taliban

Announcing a timeframe for an offensive to the adversary is unthinkable and would never be a part of any playbook on military strategy. Obama not wanting to give Carte Blanche timeframe to the Generals is understandable but he could have conveyed this message in strict confidence rather than announcing it publicly. “You have the watches but we have the time,” a line attributed to the Taliban by Steven Pressfield succinctly described the strategy adopted by the Taliban.

They patiently hunkered down and waited for the time to expire before resuming their offensive with greater vigor. One wonders why nobody in the American military high command was able to tell their commander-in-chief not to indulge in such a bloomer—perhaps the American defense analysts are better placed to explain this grievous anomaly.

Read more: How the US destroyed Afghanistan

As was expected, the troop surge did not achieve much and by the end of his first term, Obama had to concede the longest military operations in American history would not end on his watch. The strategy about Afghanistan that went from a “good war” that had to be won to “Afghanistan good enough” reflected Obama’s coming to terms with what was possible in Afghanistan as he handed over power at the end of his second term to his successor Donald Trump.  

Donald Trump as a citizen had rallied against US troop engagement in Afghanistan calling it “a waste of money and American lives,” but as the Presidential candidate was less circumspect about the US involvement there.

In a CNN interview he conceded, “And at this point, you probably have to (stay) because that thing will collapse about two seconds after they leave.” Obama had already withdrawn the majority of ground combat troops from Afghanistan while leaving much of the air armada in place.

The American ground elements left behind were chiefly employed as training instructors while the onus of operational missions was shifted to the Afghan National Army under the guidance of the American tutors. Trump has decided to endorse a Pentagon plan to boost troop levels without specifying the exact number. A ballpark figure of more than 4,000 than the current level of 8,500 US service members is being quoted.

Trump has moved the goalpost and has given full authority to the local commanders to engage drone targets as they deem fit

Under Obama Drone targeting was vetted and scrutinized at the White House before engagement authority was given. Trump has moved the goalpost and has given full authority to the local commanders to engage drone targets as they deem fit, without getting clearance from the White House.

Read more: Deconstructing US South Asia & Afghanistan Strategy

In addition, he has put Pakistan on notice to do more against the terror outfits in their part or else be prepared to face serious consequences. As a first step, disbursement of the Coalition Support Fund has been stopped and drone strikes in Pakistan’s Tribal Agencies stepped up.

A covert threat to conduct cross-border raids into Pakistan is on the table but it has not been implemented to date. Remember the bombing of Cambodia and Laos by the Americans in the final stages of the Vietnam War—but for its nuclear deterrence, Pakistan very likely would have suffered a similar fate. One can only keep ones fingers crossed for the future.

The Nature of War in Vietnam and Afghanistan

North Vietnam had fought the war against the US coalition forces in South Vietnam through a combination of conventional and sub-conventional (asymmetric) warfare strategy where the asymmetric or guerilla warfare form was the much larger component.

Their success was based primarily on the high degree of support the political and military leadership enjoyed among the citizens who were ready for any amount of sacrifice to achieve the war objectives. The leadership was viewed as nationalistic, loyal, without the stigma of corruption.

By contrast, the government of South Vietnam did not enjoy a similar level of support from its citizens; corruption was rampant among the ruling and military elite which the American economic and military aid had exacerbated. An adversary engaged in asymmetric warfare with the backing of the people is a formidable opponent, very hard to defeat through sheer force. The Americans learned this hard lesson in Vietnam.  

43% of Afghanistan districts are either under Taliban control or are being contested

The Afghan Taliban are conducting a classical asymmetric/guerilla warfare strategy against the Afghan National Army and the ISAF. Their leadership despite their penchant for violence and archaic, orthodox interpretation and endorsement of religious edicts are viewed as loyal, brave, espousing the Pashtun ethics by their followers.

On the other hand, the Afghan government and military leaderships’ tales of corruption, nepotism, and inefficiencies have reached epic proportions. American sources report how the current Afghan government officials and top and middle-level military commanders indulge in open corruption to the detriment of the wards under them.

The moral of the Afghan National Army has sunk to a record low and desertions continue to hamper any effort to build up a force that can effectively tackle the Taliban on their own. Even with the massive American air power support the Taliban are gradually gaining grounds and according to SIGAR 43% of Afghanistan districts are either under Taliban control or are being contested (Idrees Ali) and according to Reuters (October 13, 2017) the Taliban has increased the amount of territory it has influence in or controls in the past six months.

Read more: Trump pressurizing East Asia to accept US policies in region?

Afghans of all ethnicity—Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras et al—are renowned warriors historically acknowledged for their bravery and tenacity in the battlefield. Have the American scholars wondered why their Afghans equipped with modern weaponry with the massive US airpower at their beck and call are faring so poorly against the other ragtag Afghans equipped with World War II vintage weaponry? The simple answer is the very poor top leadership in ANA and ANSF.

Conclusion

Even a cursory study of the two conflicts reveals remarkable similarities and some differences. Pre Cold War, both Vietnam and Afghanistan were victims of the colonial exploitation where America had practically no role.

Post-Cold War the two unfortunate nations fell prey to the superpower rivalries and were forced to becoming their proxies. The American involvement in Vietnam and Afghanistan initially was indirect, although in Afghanistan the American military aid economic support was a key factor in the expulsion of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Is history repeating itself in Vietnam and Afghanistan or does it rhyme? Based on the evidence put forward, you decide.

American direct involvement in Vietnam was facilitated by the highly exaggerated or even contrived Gulf of Tonkin incident involving the US naval Destroyer USS Maddox. The 9/11 attack that precipitated the US Afghanistan invasion was real. The US response to both, however, was extremely disproportionate.

The change of guards at the White House in the two cases resulted in upping of the war ante. Nixon on assuming charge as POTUS expanded the war by bombing Cambodia and invading Laos and authorized massive bombing campaign codenamed Linebacker.

Obama after taking over from Bush introduced a troop surge while expanding the Drone attacks by tenfold. His successor Trump has reportedly given his blessings for another mini surge and given full authority to his Generals to target the adversary through Drone warfare without the need for a clearance from the White House.

Interestingly, the Nixon and Obama strategies of expanding the scope of the conflicts ended up as failures. Is a similar Trump policy likely to meet the same fate?

Is history repeating itself in Vietnam and Afghanistan or does it rhyme? Based on the evidence put forward, you decide.

The Way Forward

The Vietnam War ended up as a major defeat for the Americans while the Afghanistan conflict has not yet reached its logical conclusion. A punter, given the similarities between the two wars, would very likely bet on an eventual American defeat.

While history tends to repeat itself or rhymes, human society has the capability to learn lessons and avoid repetition or rhyming. Should the American pay heed to the errors made in Vietnam and correct course, an ignominious exit from Afghanistan similar to the one from Vietnam can be avoided.

The nature of sub-conventional wars of the variety waged in Vietnam and the one being fought in Afghanistan the center of gravity as candidly observed by the French General of the Colonial administration Louis-Hubert-Gonzalve Lyautey lay in “winning the hearts and minds” of the local populace.

American General David Howell Petraeus taking a leaf out of the French General’s astute observation had formulated the famous Petraeus doctrine that emphasized judicious employment of both hard and soft power—termed as “smart power”—to succeed against opponents employing an asymmetric war-fighting strategy.

As the military commander in Iraq, he had successfully implemented his doctrine that created room for President Bush to initiate a pullout from Iraq without loss of face. General Petraeus was also the top military commander in Afghanistan under Obama and if he had ‘walked the talk’ after making necessary adjustments to the differing social and cultural values of the Arabs and Afghans, he might have succeeded. Unfortunately either he could not or did not implement his doctrine fully.

If the American administration changes course and follows the French General’s reflection in letter and spirit, a repeat of the Vietnam fiasco could be avoided. A deeper understanding of the Afghan society, an appreciation, and addressing of the concerns of the immediate neighbors of Afghanistan and the need to engage more in dialogues and less in rhetoric and threats is the only way to avoid another disaster. Will that happen? One can only hope it does.    

Air Commodore (retd) Jamal Hussain has served in Pakistan Air Force from 1966 to 1997. He was awarded Sitara-e-Basalat for his services in the year 1982. He regularly contributes articles on defense-related issues in the Defence Journal from Pakistan, Probe Magazine (Dhaka – Bangladesh) and Dawn, The News, and The Nation English Dailies from Pakistan. He is the author of two books on ‘Air Power in South Asia’ and ‘Dynamics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia’. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.


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