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New Atlanticist

October 5, 2021

How a misguided Vietnam analogy sealed the Afghanistan disaster

By Paul D. Miller

The scenes of a helicopter evacuating diplomats from the US embassy in Kabul and of Afghan civilians desperately clinging to a US Air Force C-17 as it took off from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in August triggered irresistible comparisons to the US evacuation from Saigon in 1975.

It wasn’t the first time those kinds of flashbacks emerged. Long before the Taliban’s recent takeover, some policymakers, scholars, and journalists have looked at Afghanistan and seen Vietnam. Given how the war ended, were those analogies prescient? In fact, a review of the analogy’s influence on decision-making suggests the opposite. Policymakers wielding the analogy failed to recognize the dangers it posed to their strategy-building: Not only was it historically inaccurate, but it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that helped bring about, rather than avoid, a catastrophic end to the war in Afghanistan.

How the analogy landed on Biden’s desk

The Vietnam analogy said less about the similarities and differences between the wars and more about the state of mind of those using it—a state of mind that ultimately led policymakers to make decisions based on a faulty view of the war.

In 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell worried as war plans shaped up that they looked too much like war plans from Vietnam. Bob Woodward later wrote in his 2002 book Bush at War that as the National Security Council met eighteen days after September 11, “they were developing a response, an action, but not a strategy. It was Powell’s worst nightmare—bomb and hope. Vietnam kept flooding back.” Later, they debated pausing the bombing to invite the Taliban to negotiate. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld adamantly refused. Woodward wrote that Rumsfeld thought the “bombing pauses smacked of Vietnam. No way.” The Vietnam analogy ultimately colored President George W. Bush’s approach to his duties as commander in chief. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice later recounted in her book No Higher Honor that Bush “had read many histories of Vietnam, and he did not want to be Lyndon Johnson, picking targets from the basement of the White House.”

The media also picked up on the complex situation and the Vietnam analogy. In September 2001, the Associated Press reported: “Now it may be the United States’ turn to try a foray into the Afghan quagmire.” On October 14 of that year, Newsweek headlined a story “The Quagmire that Awaits.” On October 31, weeks into the US bombing campaign, the New York Times ran a prominent news analysis by R.W. Apple Jr. entitled “A Military Quagmire Remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam.” In it, Apple asked “Could Afghanistan become another Vietnam? Is the United States facing another stalemate on the other side of the world? Premature the questions may be, three weeks after the fighting began. Unreasonable they are not… For all the differences between the two conflicts, and there are many, echoes of Vietnam are unavoidable.”

The Vietnam analogy said less about the similarities and differences between the wars and more about the state of mind of those using it—a state of mind that ultimately led policymakers to make decisions based on a faulty view of the war.

The Vietnam analogy returned in 2009 with the change of administrations and a review of US policy and strategy in Afghanistan. Woodward wrote in his 2010 book Obama’s Wars that as the Obama administration debated options, then Vice President Joe Biden was “more convinced than ever that Afghanistan was a version of Vietnam,” and as President Barack Obama was about to order more troops, Biden warned that the United States might get “locked into Vietnam.” Woodward also wrote that, similarly, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that “he was worried they were on the path to another Vietnam.” Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the president that forty-four years earlier, Johnson debated the same issues surrounding troop deployment for Vietnam with his advisers. “History should not be forgotten,” Woodward quoted Holbrooke as saying. When Holbrooke warned that the United States had a moral responsibility to the Afghans who had worked with US troops as translators and spies and that the United States could not abandon them, Biden disagreed. Holbrooke, in George Packer’s 2019 book Our Man, reported that Biden said “F— that, we don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam, [President Richard] Nixon and [National Security Advisor Henry] Kissinger got away with it,” illustrating again that Biden saw the war in Afghanistan through the lens of Vietnam.

As before, scholars, pundits, and the media echoed policymakers’ concerns. In April 2009, Andrew Bacevich—a retired US Army colonel, Vietnam War veteran, and prominent scholar of US military history—testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He argued that the central lesson of the Vietnam War was that the United States should never “embark on an open-ended war lacking clearly defined and achievable objectives.” Nonetheless, he claimed, that is exactly what the United States had done. Quoting General Bruce Palmer’s 1984 book The 25 Year War, Bacevich said that “we once again find ourselves mired in a ‘protracted war of an indeterminate nature with no foreseeable end to the US commitment,’” later adding, “We are in our own day repeating [Johnson]’s errors.” Bacevich concluded: “Just as in the 1960s we possessed neither the wisdom nor the means needed to determine the fate of Southeast Asia, so too today we possess neither the wisdom nor the means necessary to determine the fate of the Greater Middle East.”

Similarly, in 2010, Neil Sheehan, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author and former Vietnam War correspondent, wrote in a review of Woodward’s Obama’s Wars that “a new president may well have embroiled himself in a war that could poison his presidency—just as his predecessor, George W. Bush, destroyed his with a foolhardy war in Iraq and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were ruined by the war in Vietnam.” In 2012, Sheehan drew the parallel again, arguing “what the Obama administration is attempting to do in Afghanistan bears a striking resemblance to what the United States attempted in Vietnam.”

Why the analogy can’t stand up—and why it lets policymakers down

Was the war in Afghanistan similar to the one in Vietnam? There is a superficial similarity: In both cases, the United States waged a counterinsurgency campaign against a foreign nonstate actor on behalf of a corrupt and incompetent local government. Both wars involved foreign internal defense and security assistance alongside reconstruction and development to support US war efforts. The similarities might suggest that the United States could learn useful lessons about how to wage counterinsurgency and conduct state-building in Afghanistan by examining its performance in Vietnam (and also in Iraq, which shared those similarities). Some scholars and policymakers, especially in the Department of Defense, attempted that comparison.

But saying Afghanistan is like Vietnam because both involved counterinsurgency is as insightful as saying the US Civil War was like Rome’s Second Punic War because both were conventional wars. Almost nothing else about the two wars was similar. In 2004, a Strategic Studies Institute report employed the Vietnam analogy in the case of Iraq: “There is simply no comparison between the strategic environment, the scale of military operations, the scale of losses incurred, the quality of enemy resistance, the role of enemy allies, and the duration of combat.” The same could be said of Afghanistan and Vietnam.

The wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam were fought in different strategic environments. Like the Soviet-Afghan War, Vietnam was a proxy war between two superpowers overlaid on top of a national liberation movement. As a consequence, the North Vietnamese had the almost limitless resources and public support of the Soviet Union and China behind them, and the risk of escalation was a very real danger. US intervention in Vietnam was unilateral and lacked broad international legitimacy. In contrast, the conflict in Afghanistan was an international counterterrorism operation mixed up in a tribal civil war. The Taliban had comparatively few resources and there was no risk of escalation with a sponsoring superpower.

The wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam also took place in different operational and tactical environments. The North Vietnamese fielded a conventional army with tanks, artillery, and air power as their main effort. The unconventional Viet Cong insurgency was a supporting effort that faded away or was defeated after 1968; Saigon fell in 1975 to the North Vietnamese Army, not the Viet Cong. In Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency never fielded a conventional force and won through bribery, intimidation, and negotiations with local Afghan commanders who refused to fight after the withdrawal of US and international assistance, not through combat.

The wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam took place in different ideological environments. The Vietnam War was a civil war between two rival nationalist visions (a communist version and a nationalist version), both seeking unity and independence. Both claims were marred by autocracy. The communists’ claim was also marred by their brutality, while the South Vietnamese’s claim was also marred by their corruption. The Taliban, in contrast, was a minority sect that was unpopular and scarcely perceived to be legitimate, even when it governed Afghanistan, because of the group’s extremism and incompetence. It advocated Deobandi Islamism—which differs from the Hanafi school of Islam prevalent across Afghanistan—persecuted and excluded all non-Pashtun ethnic groups, and presided over the complete collapse of most state institutions. The various anti-Taliban factions, parties, and militias included almost all of Afghanistan’s major ethnic, religious, and regional groups, including Pashtuns and political Islamist groups. The government in Kabul had a much stronger claim to legitimacy and broad-based representation than did the military government in Saigon.

And finally, the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam were fought on vastly different scales. Vietnam was one of the largest wars in American history, after the world wars and the Civil War. The United States deployed over a half-million troops; over 58,000 were killed, and over 300,000 were wounded. The North and South Vietnamese fielded armies of several hundred thousand each, and more than two million Vietnamese were killed. Compared to Vietnam, Afghanistan was a minor conflict. Taliban fighters, according to some estimates, numbered in the tens of thousands. And even at its peak, the US military deployment was only one-fifth the size of the deployment in Vietnam. About 3,500 coalition troops perished, which is one of the smallest figures of any major war in US history—that is not to make light of the loss of life but to highlight that there is no comparison to Vietnam. From December 2014 until the evacuation from Kabul, just seventy-nine US service members were killed in action; fewer troops were killed over the final six-and-a-half years in Afghanistan than were lost every two days in Vietnam in 1968, on average.

Some of the most important factors that led to the United States’ defeat in Vietnam—the scale of US casualties, the presence of a large and vocal anti-war movement in the United States, the existence of a well-armed conventional opponent, and the Cold War dynamic—were not present in Afghanistan. Likewise, some of the causes of the United States’ loss in Afghanistan—the Taliban’s access to money from the drug trade and the support from a global network of jihadist groups—were largely unique to that conflict and not shared with the one in Vietnam. Afghanistan did not resemble Vietnam in its strategic, operational, tactical, or ideological environments. It did not resemble Vietnam in why or how the war was fought, the type and number of enemies, or even the role of US allies and rivals. Frankly, it did not resemble Vietnam in any other respect. That means reflecting on Vietnam yields little insight applicable to the conflict in Afghanistan—aside from highlighting counterinsurgency best practices.

Invoking the shadow of Vietnam to inform the debate over Afghanistan is a sure way of paying more attention to the image of the war than the reality of it. Policymakers who reason by historical analogy are almost always wrong in doing so. Jeffrey Record’s study of the use of Vietnam as a historical analogy in US foreign policy decisions concluded that it has rarely served policymakers well. Using the Vietnam experience as a warning against replicating its errors is redundant: As Record noted (years before the fall of Kabul), “The very experience of the Vietnam War remains the greatest obstacle to its repetition.” Moreover, the international environment has changed. The end of the Cold War has diminished the stakes for US national-security interests in peripheral theaters around the world, and at the same time, it deprived would-be US adversaries of the funding and armaments they would need to mount a challenge of the scale of the North Vietnamese. US involvement in another foreign war that combines conventional warfare against a superpower-backed enemy state with counterinsurgency warfare against a resilient rural insurgency is extremely unlikely. “There are probably no more Vietnams… lying in wait for the United States,” Record wrote. Using Vietnam as a cautionary tale, therefore, only cautions against something that is unlikely to happen anyway.

Invoking the shadow of Vietnam to inform the debate over Afghanistan is a sure way of paying more attention to the image of the war than the reality of it.

Indeed, the Vietnam metaphor can be outright harmful to sound military planning. It can encourage excessive, even unrealistic, concern for minimizing casualties. It can create an unrealistic expectation that policymakers determine beforehand what their exit strategy will be (for a war whose course they cannot, in reality, predict or control). It can artificially separate force from diplomacy and even prompt calls for deploying overwhelming force in every situation, even when small, tailored deployments might be more appropriate. Record further warned that the “Vietnam War analogy is an unreliable, even dangerous, guide to using force in the post-Cold War era.” While it might have served a useful purpose in helping military planners learn best practices for counterinsurgency, it seems more often to have served as a largely groundless cautionary tale about the perils of unconventional warfare.

Where the analogy had merit: The aftershocks

And yet, regardless of how inappropriate the analogy was in describing the course of the war, it seems to describe almost too perfectly how the wars ended. Does that suggest there was merit to the analogy all along?

The fall of Kabul seems likely to have similar political, diplomatic, and psychological effects as the fall of Saigon. Both evacuations were international public humiliations for the United States, regarded as demonstrative of the limits of American power and resolve. To use the language of chess, in Vietnam the United States lost a tempo to the Soviet Union; the latter gained the initiative and confidence to act with more stridency on the international stage for the several years that followed. In the twenty-first century, the free world is again in a contest with rising authoritarianism around the world and again lost a tempo. To that extent, the Saigon analogy, unfortunately, has merit.

But if so, it was merit created by the very policymakers who invoked the analogy as a cautionary tale. Earlier, the Obama administration tried to negotiate with the Taliban while unilaterally withdrawing US forces—motivated in part by their fear that Afghanistan would turn into another Vietnam. But in doing so, they replicated the dynamic of the Paris Peace talks with North Vietnam. In both cases, US adversaries understood that they would achieve their principal aims by waiting and thus had no need to concede anything through negotiation. Obama administration officials, who feared Afghanistan would turn into another Vietnam, ensured it would do so through their insistence on withdrawal timetables.

Later, invoking the analogy in 2021, Biden engineered the Vietnam-like scenario he had wanted to avoid as vice president by appealing to the past war in justifying his decision to withdraw all remaining US forces. “I wasn’t going to ask [US troops] to continue to risk their lives in a military action that should have ended long ago,” he said the day after Kabul fell. “Our leaders did that in Vietnam when I got here as a young man. I will not do it in Afghanistan.” Biden, fearing another Vietnam, withdrew US forces before the Afghan army was ready for independent operations—the decision most directly responsible for Kabul’s collapse and the ignominious, Vietnam-like end to the United States’ war in Afghanistan.

Biden believed that wars like Vietnam are unwinnable and, if the United States finds itself in a Vietnam-like war, the administration should end it as quickly as possible. Biden believed this despite the dramatic differences between the North Vietnamese Army and the Taliban, between the Cold War and the war against jihadist terrorism, and between a war that killed 2,500 Americans every two months at its peak and a war that killed 2,500 Americans in twenty years. Even more surprisingly, Biden believed the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable despite the military progress of Obama’s 2009-2010 surge, when Biden was vice president, and the slow progress building a new Afghan army.

It is clear that Biden concluded the United States never should have fought the war; rather, he thought the United States should have invaded to kill and capture as many al-Qaeda leaders as possible, but then it should have withdrawn to avoid getting bogged down in Vietnam-like counterinsurgency and reconstruction. He appears to have concluded this despite the obvious probability that al-Qaeda would return upon the United States’ departure if Afghanistan remained under Taliban control, as is happening now.

The Vietnam analogy is a tempting one, and in using it, Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops catalyzed the collapse of the Afghan army, the Taliban’s victory, and the Saigon-like images of evacuation at the US embassy and the Kabul airport. The Vietnam analogy proved to be the self-fulfilling prophecy the international community feared; it would be policymakers’ gravest mistake to allow the analogy to wield that power again. In the end, the Vietnam analogy was deeply unhelpful for assessing the war in Afghanistan on its own terms or charting a way toward victory, but it did vindicate itself as a roadmap to defeat.

Paul D. Miller is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University. His most recent book is Just War and Ordered Liberty, from Cambridge University Press. Follow him on Twitter @PaulDMiller2.

Portions of this piece first appeared in the 2016 Journal of Strategic Studies article “Graveyard of Analogies: The Use and Abuse of History for the War in Afghanistan” by Paul D. Miller. Reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Further reading

Image: US Marines provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 20, 2021. Photo via Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara/US Marine Corps via REUTERS.