President Joe Biden has insisted that there are no parallels between our defeat in Afghanistan and our defeat in Vietnam almost fifty years ago. He could not be more wrong.
The similarities between those defeats are numerous and deep. They define the reasons we lost both wars.
A superficial comparison shows that both wars lasted almost twenty years. President Eisenhower sent the first military advisers to Vietnam in 1955. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sent tens of thousands of troops to Vietnam, took over the war’s burden, and tried to turn South Vietnam into a democracy. By 1970 there were about 336,000 troops there. Our defeat became final in 1975 when the last helicopter lifted off from the roof of our Saigon embassy. Over fifty-eight thousand Americans died in that war.
President George W. Bush launched the Afghanistan War in October 2001 in response to the 9-11 attacks. At its height, in 2011, under President Obama, our troops numbered about 98,000. Almost twenty-five hundred US troops were killed there as well as over thirty-five hundred Coalition troops.
As the Taliban insisted, Mr. Biden remains committed to ending our involvement in Afghanistan – and our evacuation of Americans and Afghans – on August 31. How many is he willing to leave behind for the Taliban to hold hostage or murder?
The similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam go far deeper than the wars’ lengths. In both, we fought “limited wars” and failed at nation-building. In both, our political will first became divided and then dissolved entirely. In both, we supported corrupt regimes that were overwhelmed by enemies propelled by nationalistic or religious ideologies and supported by third-party nations.
The concept of limited war means that we do not dedicate all our resources to the conflict while the enemy may be doing just that. That concept dominated our thinking in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Unlimited wars – those of national survival – are a binary function. You win, or you lose. In limited wars, leaders try to find a middle ground where none exists. Our presidents were more concerned with not escalating these wars – thus risking war with the enemy’s allies – than in winning.
Politicians and pundits have already begun debating the lessons we should learn from the Afghanistan War. The place to begin that debate is with the lessons we should have learned from the Vietnam War but didn’t.
American political unity doesn’t last as long as some wars demand because our politics are so quickly polarized. During the Vietnam conflict, presidents and generals always spoke about progress and body counts, of “Vietnamization” of the war, and examples of supposed success in nation-building. By the late 1960s, our nation was divided by the draft, and anti-war that protests swept the nation. Popular songs had lyrics asking, “what are we fighting for?” Actress Jane Fonda visited North Vietnam while American POWs were being tortured in the “Hanoi Hilton.” The anti-war movement was so strong that President Johnson was forced not to run for reelection.
We were united behind President George W. Bush after 9-11 and in the first two years of war in Afghanistan. There was no draft, but our new adversaries were adept at disinformation, and the media quickly and often republished their messages. New generals spoke of the progress their predecessors had in Vietnam and advised their presidents badly. A Vietnam-era sort of anti-war sentiment consumed us after the Iraq invasion of 2003 and has dominated the media and much of American politics ever since.
The principal lesson we should have learned from Vietnam is one we clearly didn’t. That lesson is, if you don’t fight a war in a manner calculated to win it decisively, you will lose it inevitably. We lost in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan for that exact reason.
Neither Mr. Biden nor Messrs. Obama and Trump were able or willing to stop Pakistan, Russia, China, and Iran from supplying the Taliban with funds and arms. There again, the fear of escalation caused them to not even try.
The second lesson is the same from both wars. Nation-building only works when the enemy accepts defeat, as in Japan and Germany at the end of World War Two. Unless the enemy is defeated kinetically and its ideology destroyed, nation-building cannot succeed. Neither North Vietnam nor the Taliban was defeated and in neither case was their ideology destroyed.
The third lesson of Afghanistan is not one we could have learned from Vietnam. Because Islam cannot separate religion from state authority, nation-building cannot succeed in Islamic nations. The Islamist ideology is far stronger and more attractive than any semblance of democracy.
Mr. Biden is not entirely responsible for our defeat in Afghanistan. His responsibility must be shared by his two predecessors and the generals who promised, as their predecessors did in Vietnam, that nation-building was working. Mr. Biden is, however, entirely responsible for the debacle he created in our withdrawal.
At this moment in history, it is not at all clear that America can win any war. Our leaders, and most of the electorate, have no will to win. If heaven forbid, we suffer another 9-11 attack, or if our allies are attacked, we will find out quickly if we can ever win again.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”
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