The Taliban's recent 20-hour siege of Kabul featured an RPG barrage against the U.S. embassy, prompting some analysts to draw parallels to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Reason being, in 1968, despite the presence of 500,000 American troops, the Vietcong were able to launch audacious attacks throughout South Vietnam, including an assault on the redoubtable U.S. embassy in Saigon. Today, despite ten years of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, it appears the U.S. has been unable to secure the host nation's capital city (once again). In fact, the U.S. also appears to be suffering from institutional amnesia, forgotten is the abject humiliation experienced in Indochina forty years ago, the last time it tried to apply an external military "solution" to a situation that required an indigenous political one.
Some scoff at the notion the two wars are comparable, considering over 58,000 U.S. troops were killed in Vietnam while, thus far, less than 2,000 have lost their lives in Afghanistan. However, going beyond a surface-level reading one finds a number of eerie similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam in terms of military, political and strategic blunders committed by the U.S.
Just as they did in Vietnam, U.S. troops in Afghanistan must face an enemy adept at asymmetric warfare in a primarily rural country with harsh terrain, few roads and other topographical elements that tend to neutralize the mobility and firepower of advanced modern armies. Not unlike the Vietcong, the Taliban easily blend in with the local populace and have been able to find sanctuary in a neighboring country (in Vietnam it was Cambodia, in Afghanistan it's Pakistan). The North Vietnamese received money, weapons and support from the Soviets while the Taliban are aided and funded by the ISI and wealthy Saudis. In both cases the U.S. continuously and insidiously escalated troop levels while it tried to establish an indigenous national army modeled in its own image.
An even deeper parallel is the extent to which the U.S. misunderstood the nature and objectives of its adversary and the culture, anthropology and history of the country it was occupying. In Vietnam the U.S. was fighting a war against communism while the enemy was fighting a war of national reunification. In Afghanistan the U.S. is fighting a "war on terror" while the splinters of a multifarious insurgency are fighting for a plethora of reasons. Some groups and individuals are fighting to expel the foreign invader while others are fighting a jihad to reinstall an Islamic emirate. Some less ideological insurgents are fighting against the corrupt government in Kabul while others simply want to avenge NATO raids gone awry.
Both countries fought and expelled imperial aggressors and subsequently experienced a decade of civil war, producing generations of highly-skilled fighters. One would think, in the case of Afghanistan, the U.S. would be well aware of its enemy's proficiency at guerrilla warfare, considering the CIA helped to inveigle the Soviets into invading Afghanistan, which President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski saw as an opportunity for "giving the USSR its Vietnam War." The U.S. then funded the mujaheddin resistance via Pakistan's ISI to defeat the Soviets and now, ironically, Afghan insurgents are in the process of returning Vietnam to sender.
U.S. military leadership seems bent on repeating history in Afghanistan themselves by dusting off and recycling the same counterinsurgency doctrine that failed in Vietnam. According to Andrew Bacevich, this is primarily due to revisionists insisting that Vietnam could have been won if General Westmoreland's heavy-handed search-and-destroy strategy was abandoned earlier on to concentrate instead on winning Vietnamese "hearts and minds" by protecting population centers in combination with nation-building and social engineering initiatives.
General David Petraeus repackaged the Vietnam strategy, called it COIN and sold it to the administration as the remedy for Afghanistan. The approach looks good in Petraeus's manual but in practice the strategy has devolved into the same old war of attrition. It's now a war of airstrikes, night raids and body counts that is supposed to force the Taliban to the negotiating table, similar to the aerial bombardment of North Vietnam that was designed to bring the Vietcong to their knees.
The core of the problem in Vietnam and Afghanistan was and is political legitimacy. In both countries the U.S. undermined native self-determination by propping up Western-friendly puppet regimes. Although the U.S. installed Ngo Dinh Diem as president of South Vietnam in 1955, they found him to be an impediment to their efforts to defeat the communist insurgency. So, in 1963, the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, and the CIA overthrew and murdered Diem. This move backfired, however, because successive regimes ended up being even more corrupt and dysfunctional.
The U.S. and CIA orchestrated the installment of the reprobate Hamid Karzai as president of the post-9/11 Afghan government. They strong-armed aside the last King of Afghanistan, disregarding the importance of consanguineal dynastic loyalty, which is a crucial element in establishing a unified and legitimate Afghan state. Unfortunately for the Afghans, "our man in Kabul" ended up being just as corrupt and nefarious as "our man in Saigon".
The U.S. learned at least one lesson from Vietnam, which is not to overthrow your puppet without a feasible alternative. The number two to Karzai, Mohammad Fahim, is an illiterate warlord whose hands are dripping with Pashtun blood and whose ascendance would guarantee perpetual civil war. But the mortal sin has already been committed by the U.S., as Thomas Johnson and M. Chris Mason argue in Foreign Policy: "The fatal blunder of the United States in eliminating a ceremonial Afghan monarchy was Afghanistan's Diem Coup: afterwards, there was little possibility of establishing a legitimate, secular national government."
The over-centralized government of the Karzai regime flies in the face of centuries of Afghan tradition and has served to alienate the rural population. The U.S. has worked with Karzai to supplant proven indigenous tribal structures with modern Western mechanisms. Anthropologist M. Nazif Shahrani underlines the resilience and strength of traditional local governance:
It has survived despite the efforts of successive rulers and bureaucracies in Kabul to bring it within the strait-jacket of a modern nation-state, on the questionable assumption that the European construct of the nation-state was a summum bonum, a kind of political form of organization that is self-evident, a 'natural' culmination of all societies.
Mason and Johnson concur: "The lessons of Vietnam are again written on the wall: pacification programs like Operation Sunrise (the "strategic hamlets" program) failed largely because of centrally directed bureaucratic incompetence and insensitivity to local considerations."
Finally, on a strategic level, in both instances false underlying assumptions and broken paradigms were never challenged. "Flexible response" to halt communist expansion was the prevailing catechism during the Cold War era. Military force as the answer was never questioned -- the discussion always centered on the degree to which it should be applied.
Obama's escalation of the Afghanistan war was a decision he arrived at after reviewing a number of options -- none of which was wholesale extraction. The answer was always military intensification, and the only issue that plagued the Nobel peace prize-winning President was determining exactly how many troops to send.