In an interview given to the Washington Post the other day, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi warned that, “Afghanistan could become another Vietnam for the United States if it tried to resolve the Afghan dispute through military means.”
It is not for the first time in the last 39 years that a parallel has been drawn between Afghanistan and Vietnam by shifting players and roles. In December 1979 when the then Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with 100,000 forces and its military engagement in that country deepened during early and mid-1980s, it was predicted that Afghanistan will be Vietnam for the Soviets because of the guerrilla warfare launched by the Mujahideen groups and the growing Soviet casualties.
Following the Geneva accords of April 1988, the Soviet forces left Afghanistan in February 1989 and the country plunged into a phase of bloody civil war between rival Mujahideen groups. Yet, Afghanistan failed to be Vietnam for the Soviets because unlike the United States which lost more than 50,000 military personal and thousands of war planes/helicopters during its decade long military presence in Vietnam (1965-75), Moscow’s physical and material casualties in Afghanistan were much less than the US. Furthermore, in April 1975 when Saigon fell to the Communist Viet Cong supported by North Vietnam, South Vietnam was taken over by the Communists which was not the case with the Soviet Union as its decade long military presence ended in February 1989 but its supported regime in Kabul remained in power till 1992.
With minimum losses, lack of international support for the Taliban and the use of modern technology, Washington plans to stay in Afghanistan for long because a foothold in that country provides it an opportunity to establish its influence in Central, West and South Asia
While one can draw some parallels vis-à-vis Soviet and American military interventions and the local resistance, yet, by and large there is no such major similarity between Vietnam and Afghanistan because of four major reasons.
First, unlike the Vietnam war which continued from 1965-75, the war in Afghanistan is in two phases: first from December 1979 till February 1989 when the Soviet forces were in Afghanistan and second from October 2001 till now when the country is experiencing the US led military intervention and presence. Therefore, the duration of war in Afghanistan is longer than in Vietnam. Second, in terms of physical casualties and destruction of military arsenal, Vietnam still surpasses than Afghanistan because as stated earlier, the US physical losses in Vietnam were 50,000 whereas it lost thousands of war planes and helicopters. More bombs were dropped on Vietnam by the US air force than were dropped during the Second World War against Nazi Germany. Certainly, Soviet and American bombings in Afghanistan cannot match with the US bombings in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Physical destruction caused by American bombings in North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia definitely surpass if Soviet and US bombings in Afghanistan are taken into account.
Third, there is no parallel between Vietnam and Afghanistan in terms of the spirit and motivation of national liberation movement launched by Viet Cong in South Vietnam which was under the US military occupation with a puppet government in Saigon, the then capital of South Vietnam. Viet Cong had launched guerrilla movement against the superior American forces by not carrying out suicide attacks or targeting innocent people as is done in case of Afghanistan by the Taliban because Viet Cong’s war had the popular backing.
From no account, the Taliban led resistance against the pro-American government in Kabul is popular in nature because thousands of innocent Afghans have been killed by the Taliban attacks since 2001. Viet Cong targeted the US and pro-American South Vietnamese regime and never carried out suicide attacks killing civilians. There were civilian uprisings in South Vietnam led by the Viet Cong against the US forces and pro-American puppet regime. Therefore, the war in Vietnam against the United States led by the Viet Cong and supported by North Vietnam had popular support at the grassroots level which is not the case with Taliban who have not staged a single popular uprising against the US and pro-US Afghan government in any part of Afghanistan since 2001. Taliban’s strategy is to cause fear among people by carrying out suicide attacks targeting innocent people.
Finally, Vietnam’s national liberation movement had an international support which is not the case with Taliban as they are not perceived as freedom fighters but a force to occupy Afghanistan by causing fear and terror. Taliban claim that now they control 70% of the territory of Afghanistan but in fact they lack popular support. It means Taliban’s territorial gain is not because of support of local people but because of the weaknesses of the Afghan Army and the fear which they have caused through suicide attacks and other terrorist activities. If the national liberation movement in South Vietnam led by Viet Cong was a source of inspiration, such is not the case with Taliban who are viewed by the international community with suspicion and contempt and in Afghanistan as a symbol of fear and tyranny. After most of the suicide attacks which killed non-combatants, Taliban proudly claim responsibility despite looking at the fact that the sufferers of such inhuman acts are the innocent people and not primarily the American or pro-American Kabul regime. Such was not the case in Vietnam where the Viet Cong had a pro and not anti-people approach.
If Afghanistan was not the Vietnam for Soviets who were militarily engaged in that country for 10 years, how it is possible now as far as the United States is concerned? During the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, the resistance was launched by all the ethnic communities of that country as war against Communist invasion was termed as a source of unity. Whereas, this time, the situation is different because insurgency or resistance against the foreign forces in Afghanistan is primarily concentrated in some of the pockets where there is Pashtun population living. Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras, the three major ethnic communities of Afghanistan, are not perceived as a part of Taliban fighting against the US and pro-American Kabul regime.
Given such realities, there is no parallel between Vietnam and Afghanistan. If American policy during the Soviet military intervention was to bleed Soviets and avenge the US humiliation in Vietnam, they were unsuccessful because the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan took place as a result of Geneva accords and was honourable as rose petals for the withdrawing Soviet troops were showered by Afghans which was contrary to the humiliating American withdrawal from the falling city of Saigon in April 1975.
It is true that Afghanistan has a history of foreign interventions and is the only country which experienced the attack and occupation of three major powers: British, Soviets and Americans. With minimum losses, lack of international support for the Taliban and the use of modern technology, Washington plans to stay in Afghanistan for long because a foothold in that country provides it an opportunity to establish its influence in Central, West and South Asia. And for how long Afghanistan will be used to bleed and settle old scores between Americans and the Russians?
The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations, University of Karachi and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Daily Times, February 9th 2018.