Vietnam and Afghanistan: A tale of two wars and the lessons learnt

Many want to know from the Biden administration if the US soldiers can just pack their bags and come home, leaving behind thousands of Afghans who had come to be associated with the war and reconstruction thereafter

United States, Afghanistan, American troops, US-Afghan declaration, Taliban, US-Taliban agreement
The official on Saturday said small groups of Americans and possibly other civilians will be given specific instructions on what to do, including movement to transit points where they can be gathered up by the military. Photo: File shot of US troops in Afghanistan

President Joseph Biden has said that by the time the US marks the 20th anniversary this year of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on twin towers in New York, all the remaining troops from Afghanistan would have come home, putting an end to the longest war the United States has been involved in overseas. The Vietnam War comes a close second with a formal involvement period of 18 years and 9 months.

The human and financial costs of the two foreign ‘mis’adventures have been phenomenal: in Vietnam close to 59,000 American soldiers lost their lives; in Afghanistan it is pushing close to 2,500 fatalities and more than 20,000 wounded. In terms of US dollar value in 2019, both Vietnam and Afghanistan have cost US tax payers more than one trillion dollars each; with some independent estimates putting the figure for Afghanistan adventure close to two trillion dollars.

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At the peak of the Vietnam War, in 1968, there were more than 500,000 US troops in that South East Asian country; and at the height of the Afghan operations between 2010 and 2012 there were 100,000 troops in that country with Washington spending an estimate US$ 100 billion a year. Vietnam and Afghanistan wars cannot be seen in just official numbers and that too only from an American perspective. At a time in the 1980s and 1990s when Washington was fixated with its 2,400 Missing-in-Action (MIA), the Vietnamese leadership was painfully looking at the hundreds of thousands of their own civilians who had not been accounted for in the war, the hostilities alone lasting for about a decade starting 1964-65.


In Afghanistan, it is said that since 2014 some 45,000 local security forces have lost their lives with another estimate pegging the casualty rate between 30 and 40 every day. The United Nations (UN) estimates have it that since 2009 some 100,000 or more civilians have died in that country. The American loss in Afghanistan—both human and monetary—needs to be seen in the context of what allies like NATO have done by way of sharing the burden; and also how much Washington has spent on a country like Pakistan that was used as a conduit for supplies.

There are a lot of similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan; and yet the differences could not have been starker—the war in Vietnam went through five Presidents: Harry Truman, Dwight Eishenhower, John F Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. The conflict in Afghanistan has seen four Presidents: two terms each of George W Bush and Barack Obama; Donald Trump and now seemingly Biden intend to put a full stop to the mayhem. But Biden, law makers and the Pentagon know full well that the last word on the total withdrawal cannot be said with any finality given that five months stand between now and the last American boots on the ground leaving. Trump had been huffing and puffing on bringing the boys home from all foreign wars; just the way President Obama wanted to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison that housed “terrorists” since 9/11 from very early on in his Presidency. That facility was just shuttered, or so they say. Intentions and ground realities many a time do not see eye-to-eye.

Conservatives in the US have long been hammering away at President Harry Truman (1945-53) for having “lost” Korea by needlessly roping in the United Nations as a way of finding a way out of the stalemate; and since then the notion of “losing” something quickly became embedded in American domestic politics. The Pentagon Papers – about 7,000 pages and analysis in 47 volumes stamped “Top Secret-Sensitive” – showed ample proof that presidents lied to the people for the simple reason that they did not want to go down in history as the person who “lost” Vietnam. For all his apprehension about the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin when supposedly the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy came under attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats, President Lyndon Johnson got a carte blanche from the Congress to carry out an unquestionable war through the Tonkin Gulf Resolution—all with a fixation that if South Vietnam fell to the Communists, it was the Domino Theory — or Nine Pins — after that for all of the Asia Pacific.

The problem with the political leadership in Washington DC was that they did not understand or fully appreciate what Ho Chi Minh was all about—that he was first a nationalist who wanted to see the reunification of his country and only after that could he be looked at as a Communist. The blurring of the distinction between nationalism and communism only pushed Ho Chi Minh closer into the hands of the Soviet Union and China. And Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia and the massive bombings of the Ho Chi Minh trail was under the misguided notion that the Vietnamese could be subdued and forced into peace talks.

In all the domestic debate in the US on “losing” Korea or for that matter Vietnam; one critical aspect was missed: when did the United States “have” Korea or Vietnam for it to lose?! When the French were humbled at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 they packed their bags; and President Charles De Gaulle had apparently told the leadership in Washington on more than one occasion that North Vietnam cannot be prevailed upon. General de Gaulle recalls in his memoirs as having told President Kennedy, “You will find that intervention in this area will be an endless entanglement. Once a nation has been aroused, no foreign power, however strong, can impose its will upon it.” But all sane advice fell on deaf ears. In fact, a rather pompous President Johnson told the media after the first American airstrikes against North Vietnam on August 5, 1964: “I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh. I cut his pecker off.”

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There is a world of difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan; for ideology was not a prime focus when the first American soldiers set foot in Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda and  most importantly the Taliban that were supposedly sheltering them. After all on 9/11 an unseen enemy by way of the al Qaeda had killed 3,000 Americans in one clip, something that cannot be compared even by any long shot to Vietnam. Afghanistan, in many ways, was the start of the war on terror that would soon lead the Bush administration to start a misadventure in Iraq, the price for which Washington is still paying.

In fact, many are asking the Biden administration if the US soldiers can just pack their bags and come home, leaving behind thousands of Afghans who had come to be associated in one way or the other with the war and reconstruction thereafter. Memories of the helicopter flights from the roof top of the American mission in Saigon in 1975 with people precariously clinging on are quite vivid just as the North Vietnamese soldiers came knocking on the doors of a frightened city.

Is the Biden administration ready for an enlightened refugee status for Afghans just as the Nixon and Ford administrations showed the way for the people of South Vietnam? All these questions will soon find light especially at a time Democrats and Republicans are fumbling around for answers on immigration.

A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations, the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.