Is Afghanistan Another Vietnam?

Military historian Max Boot cautions against drawing "knee-jerk" parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam. (3 min., 5 sec.)

NEW YORK, February 24, 2010 - Is America's involvement in Afghanistan doomed to become another Vietnam? That depends on whom you ask.

In a panel discussion at the Asia Society titled Afghanistan and the Specter of Vietnam, moderator George Packer posed two key questions: what are the grounds for comparison between these two wars, and what is the use of such an analogy? What lessons can be learned from Vietnam, and can and should they be applied in developing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan? Panelists included Max Boot, military historian (The Savage Wars of Peace) and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; Gordon Goldstein (Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam), international security advisor to the UN Secretary General, and Rufus Phillips, whose book Why Vietnam Matters explores "lessons not learned" in Vietnam from the perspective of a key U.S. advisor from the earliest days of our involvement.

The panel conceded that there are undeniable similarities between the two conflicts, as well as differences.  Both wars involved the challenge of adapting a U.S. military strategy based on massive force to the asymmetric conditions of counter-insurgency warfare against a much smaller, indigenous army relying on covert support across a porous border. Both required the projection of power across great distances into inhospitable conditions.  On the other hand, there are many differences, most notably the absence in Vietnam—at least as seen with the benefit of hindsight—of a vital U.S. interest. By contrast, in the context of 9/11 even opponents of America's Afghan strategy acknowledged a key U.S. interest.  The North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies were vastly more numerous than the Taliban. So was the comparison valid? 

Boot found the comparison unhelpful. Vietnam was unique, he argued, since no other American military intervention had been a comparable failure, with the mission abandoned after 14 years, half a million troops committed, and 58,000 U.S. deaths. In Boot's view, the Vietnam analogy tends to be a way of disapproving of any present-day U.S. intervention.  Goldstein countered that there are very few original problems in international politics, and thought that we should look to Vietnam to see what not do to in Afghanistan. There were some striking parallels.  Both countries have strong histories of perennial resistance to larger, hegemonic powers, for instance, and both have been the setting for proxy wars between great powers.

Phillips and Boot both commented on vastly improved U.S. expertise in counter-insurgency, though in both wars the U.S. had been very late to adjust strategy to an appropriate emphasis on providing safe civilian havens. Both men also emphasized the unacceptability of failure.  Goldstein was skeptical of American ability to minimize civilian casualties, but his prime objection was to what he saw as a still undefined metric for success. He and Boot clashed on a number of questions, most particularly on the historical odds of defeating an armed insurgency. Both Boot and Phillips challenged Goldstein's assertion that only about a quarter of 20th-century counter-insurgencies had succeeded. 

The discussion found greatest common ground on the importance of the Karzai government's doing a much better job of convincing Afghans of its legitimacy and ability to provide basic safety as well as a better life. As Phillips pointed out, the U.S. had made the fatal error in Vietnam of thinking that it could win the war for the South Vietnamese. Ultimately, the Afghans will have to win their own war for themselves.

Reported by Suzanna Finley