Billions of dollars, years of occupation, hundreds of thousands of victims, and a humiliating defeat. Can we draw any parallels between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam?
Regardless of culture, the human brain is constantly looking for similar structures and patterns. Whether we like it or not, it is on this basis that we find certain phenomena convincing and attractive, and reject others. In his book “Analogies at War,” political expert Yuen Foong Khong shows how the Johnson administration’s decision to intervene in Vietnam was strongly influenced by historical analogies such as the Munich Agreement (1938), the Korean War (1950-1953) or the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954). Khong proves that political decision-makers not only consciously use convenient analogies to justify their actions; the temptation to look for structures and patterns is so strong that they do it completely unconsciously.
Evacuation, Migrant Crisis and a Surprise
The images of recent days, especially the ones showing a helicopter evacuating people from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, have triggered a debate on the analogies between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam, and brought back memories of the fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975 to North Vietnamese forces. Naturally, there are more similarities: the fall of Saigon precipitated a migration and humanitarian crisis, and the history is likely to repeat itself in Afghanistan. According to data supplied by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, since 1975 more than three million people have fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, including 800,000 who tried to reach other countries on makeshift boats (of whom 200,000 to 300,000 died at sea).
Another thing that Saigon and Kabul have in common is the rapid collapse of both pro-American governments in 1975 and 2021, and the complete surprise for Americans in both instances. According to information published years later by the CIA, the U.S. intelligence agency predicted in the spring of 1975 that South Vietnam could resist the northern forces for at least 12 months. In reality, fewer than seven weeks passed from the beginning of the communist offensive in early March to the fall of Saigon. Still, it is a pretty impressive number, compared to Ashraf Ghani’s government, which collapsed in just 11 days, especially considering that the last U.S. troops left Vietnam two years before Saigon fell.
Charts, Numbers and Nation-Building
In Afghanistan, just like in Vietnam, the U.S. decided that the road to victory should lead through the costly process of nation-building, as only an efficient society can form a foundation of peace. In both cases, the strategy began with creating a government credible in the public eye, supposed to convince the nation that ahead of them lay a future much more promising than under the communists or the Taliban. Unfortunately, in both cases the strategy proved disastrous. The U.S. allies in Kabul and Saigon were corrupt to the core and unable to gain wider support.
The wars also show significant similarities at the strategic level: In Afghanistan, just like in Vietnam, the empire, which had an undisputed technological advantage, lost to a theoretically weaker opponent who used guerrilla tactics. In both cases, frustrated by the failures at the front, politicians and the military would publicly overuse the word “progress.”
The similarity with which the generals tried to warp reality with overoptimistic statistics is also striking. Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander-in-chief in Vietnam, enjoyed figures which showed that for every U.S. soldier killed there were several enemy casualties (the so-called fair-loss proportion), while the “indicators for measuring pacification progress” were supposed to show how the army was gaining control over more and more areas of South Vietnam. In Afghanistan, the Pentagon would also regularly feed the public statistics showing that the percentage of Kabul-controlled districts was growing month after month, and how many dead Taliban soldiers there were to every killed coalition soldier.
But all of that did not matter. The truth about who was winning the war was known to all the soldiers who went on patrols every day or received orders to occupy the “strategic” hill for the price of significant losses, only to leave it a few weeks later without a fight. Perhaps no one has grasped the dissonance between the projections of decision-makers and the brutal reality better than legendary New York Post columnist Pete Hamill. In one of his articles about Vietnam, he wrote: “In every war there are those who die and those who count the dead. An ordinary infantryman is stuck in a reeking rice field and his feet rot in his shoes. Officials, in turn, portray the horror in numbers, trying to blur its brutal image.”** It is hard not to get the impression that these words might as well describe the situation in Afghanistan.
The War that Changed Everything
If those two wars seem so similar, what are their differences and how not to fall into the trap of drawing an analogy? First of all, the scale was vastly different: In almost 10 years, 2.7 million American troops went to Vietnam and fewer than 700,000 went to Afghanistan. There is also a disproportion in the number of victims: 58,000 versus 2,400. The number of injured Vietnam veterans who returned to the U.S. is estimated at more than 300,000, while the number from Afghanistan is less than 20,000.
Comparing the numbers of the dead and the wounded is insensitive, but in this case, it leads to a more general conclusion. Due to its scale, the Vietnam War had a significant impact on the United States. It penetrated homes through the draft, dominated dinner conversations, divided families, dragged hundreds of thousands of people into the streets and triggered riots during which the police opened fire at students. It was a formative experience; a whole generation had redefined what it means to be a citizen and where loyalty to the state ends. Vietnam changed America and its culture, and consequently influenced the entire world. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has always been a peripheral conflict — an intervention, not a war. It has not caught the average American’s attention and imagination to the extent that Vietnam has.
When discussing the similarities and differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan, it is worth remembering one fundamental analogy. It connects not only both wars, but all the conflicts that empires wage beyond their borders — the highest price for the wars, in a purely human sense, was paid by generations of ordinary Afghans and Vietnamese.
*Editor’s Note: The original article is available only to digital subscribers.
**Editor’s Note: This quotation, though accurately translated, could not be verified.