There have been many compelling comparisons of Afghanistan with Vietnam over these past couple heart-wrenching days as the world has watched the capitulation of the Afghani government to the Taliban.
First, let’s deal with the differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan. The origin of the conflicts and the histories and cultures of the countries offer many significant differences which make the conflicts, and even this precipitous ending difficult to compare. One was fought on the premise of stopping the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. The other to root out the terrorist Al-Qaeda training camps which were used to perpetrate 9-11. The latter’s mission then morphed into keeping the Taliban at bay while helping the fledgling government of Afghanistan to build it’s institutions: government, military, education, societal reforms, etc… No one anticipated the US staying in the country for twenty years, and the fact that it was necessary says a lot about the long-term problems of the country and very much calls into question whether outside intervention would ever have actually succeeded.
I don’t want to dismiss what was achieved though. Because these changes, even if now coming to an end, made a difference in many people’s lives. Google Afghani women’s orchestra if you want to see a little slice of joy which these ladies could never have experienced without American intervention. Who’s to say if the costs outweighed the benefits? I suppose it would depend on who you ask.
But as the Taliban have taken over Kabul, the comparisons of Vietnam have become vivid. The dramatic airplane lifts. The shot of the helicopter taking off from the embassy reminiscent of that dramatic lift-off from the Saigon embassy in April 1975. No matter how vivid these images are, I believe the biggest comparison between the two is related to the American-trained military that each time period left behind.
The Nixon administration in 1973 negotiated a peace deal with the communists from North Vietnam which would enable the Americans to pull out “with dignity” and allow the war between the two sides to cease. We know now that the north never intended to keep their word on this deal. They would simply wait out the Americans. In some ways, I suppose the Americans knew this, but did it matter? No. Because, they left behind over a million well-trained South Vietnamese troops and all the American equipment and fire power to defend the south if the north went back on the agreement. This was a massive army. Surely it would be able to handle the north.
Fast forward to a July 2021 press conference with President Joe Biden when he was asked about the likelihood that the Taliban would be able to take over the country with the Americans pulling out. He was emphatic in his answers. In what may become one of the most eye-blackening presidential press conference in history, he confirmed that the Afghani army has 300,000 well-trained soldiers, better equipped than most countries in the world. (Note: most other estimates say the 300,000 figure is incorrect stating that the Afghani troops numbered closer to 170,000) The Taliban had only 75,000. He assured everyone that the Taliban would not be able to re-take the country.
Unfortunately, Biden’s prediction failed miserably. What went wrong? And I think here is where the real comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam comes to a head. In the spring of 1975, the North Vietnamese army started marching southward. Remember, the south had a million well-trained troops. What happened? The north just walked right over them. The south’s troops had no will to fight. They fled. They left their positions. In a manner of a very short time, all that equipment and all those men just evaporated and the North Vietnamese commander was sitting in the presidential palace in Saigon, which would soon after that be renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Likewise, where were those 300,000 Afghani troops? I can only assume that they had no will to fight. The motives behind the Taliban were resolute. Those behind the Afghani army were … what … unclear? But clearly, the will to win, the will to survive, the will to defend the ideals that the US was trying to establish was not important.
Massive armies. Well-trained. Best equipped armies in the world. Fell apart just like that.
Whatever lessons can be learned or blame can be offered must take a backseat to the human elements and suffering now being played out. Its people need help. I hope the world is up to the challenge.