The looming withdrawal of the last U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan is conjuring images of an American defeat a half century ago.
In April 1975, U.S. helicopters evacuated thousands of people from Saigon as 150,000 North Vietnamese troops closed in on the South Vietnamese capital, the final chapter of an agonizing war that claimed more than 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese lives.
Today, as the Taliban makes sweeping gains against Afghan security forces, critics of President Biden’s withdrawal decision are predicting a fate similar to Saigon for Kabul. And in further echoes of the Vietnam era, the withdrawal’s opponents argue the U.S. will lose credibility in the eyes of its allies by abandoning Afghanistan to the Afghans.
But these may be the wrong lessons to draw from the failure of the U.S. project in Afghanistan.
In this episode of History As It Happens, Harvard University historian Fredrik Logevall discussed what may be the most important unlearned lesson of the Vietnam War in Afghanistan: that the U.S. must avoid fighting guerilla wars in countries of minimal strategic importance, where victory cannot be coherently defined, and whose people and culture Americans do not understand.
“They’re different conflicts, different places, different circumstances,” said Mr. Logevall, who authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.” “But I do think there are important similarities.”
“Let’s look at this from an American perspective. Sanctuaries matter a great deal in terms of what the enemy is able to do,” said Mr. Logevall, referring to the Taliban’s use of Pakistan, an ostensible U.S. ally, to refit and recover. During the Vietnam War, enemy forces principally used Cambodia, a neutral country, for the same reasons.
“Corruption on the part of the local government is really important in both instances,” he added. “And an uncertainty on the part of U.S. officials in several administrations about what it is they ultimately want to achieve, how they want to achieve it, and what in the end will constitute victory.”
The U.S. mission started as a limited military campaign to disrupt al Qaeda and topple the Taliban before drifting into a two-decade-long nation-building experiment. In Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson sent in 2,000 Marines to guard an air base at Da Nang in 1965; within a few years, more than 500,000 American troops were in South Vietnam.
Despite (or because of) robust U.S. support, both economically and militarily, the governments in Saigon and Kabul failed to secure popular support. And in both wars existed an understanding that without U.S. backing the local government would collapse.
“There’s a strong connection between the two conflicts,” Mr. Logevall said. “I would argue with respect to Vietnam and ultimately Afghanistan, the war has to be won politically if it is going to be won at all.”
On the homefront, the Vietnam war bitterly divided Americans for a decade, especially as the number of U.S. troops killed in combat increased in the late 1960s. Johnson’s mishandling of the war ruined his presidency, and he dropped out of the 1968 presidential election in a stunning televised address on March 31.
As for Afghanistan, many Americans have hardly noted or noticed the U.S. military presence for the better part of the past decade. Far from provoking anti-war demonstrations, the fight against the Taliban has largely been fought by Afghan ground forces. Fewer than 100 Americans have died there since 2014.
For more of Harvard historian Fredrik Logevall’s insights about the similarities and differences between the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.
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