Vietnam and Afghanistan

September 17th, 2009

In late 1965, I was in Kontum, Vietnam as a pilot in a helicopter crew sent there for a few days to support U.S. Special Forces operations.  I was quartered in a Vietnamese Army compound, a fairly nice facility left over from French military days.  There were rooms in a wing of the compound, each with an outside door opening on a walkway and facing an interior area that included an officers’ club.

When a Vietnamese soldier showed me to my room, there were suitcases already there, a sign of some confusion in room assignments.  I told the soldier to put the suitcases outside the door, figuring whoever had left them could find his own room. There were few people around, and the place was mostly empty.  Then I went to the officers’ club bar, which was deserted.  Using the normal honor system, I went behind the bar, got something to drink, and left money to pay for it.

About then, a man came in and asked if it had been my room where he mistakenly left his bags.  Obviously, he’d found his stuff on the sidewalk.  I apologized for evicting him, and he apologized for taking the wrong room. 

fallWe introduced ourselves, and I learned that the person I had been less than polite to was Bernard Fall.  I knew who he was, that he had written Street Without Joy, an important book on the French military experience in Vietnam, and other books.  I hadn’t read any of his books, although eventually I read almost all of them.  I also learned later that he had been a member of the French resistance and had fought with a Moroccan army division in Europe during World War II.  He had been studying French and American involvement in Vietnam since the early 1950s.  Unlike most journalists and scholars, he spent most of his time in Vietnam on the ground with combat troops, which eventually cost him his life.  He died in a landmine explosion while on patrol with U.S. Marines in 1967.

We talked for almost an hour, just the two of us in the large old French officers’ club.  I asserted my conviction that the U.S. war in Vietnam would be much more successful than the French experience had been, primarily because of our new air mobility doctrine and our ability to find and fix the enemy using heliborne tactical operations.  He patiently explained that there really wasn’t much difference in the way we were operating and the way the French operated against essentially the same foe, concluding that we would also fail.  It was a friendly conversation as I remember, he patiently explaining what was and what would be based on years of experience and study, I disagreeing with all the wisdom typical of 22-year-old ignoramuses.  He was right, of course, and I was very wrong.

Which brings me to Afghanistan.  When I think about that war, I remember the things Bernard Fall tried to explain to me more than 40 years ago.  His point was that we must remember history and try to learn from those who came before us.  One thing we should have learned from Fall and others was that our adventure in Vietnam was doomed from the start, for reasons ranging from lack of a good understanding of the region and its people to practical restraints on the amount of power we could apply.  The same is true in Afghanistan.

When I look at the U.S. Campaign Plan for Afghanistan, I can’t help thinking that by changing some words this could be a plan written years ago for Vietnam.  We’re going to try everything we tried before, dressed in different terms — search and destroy, winning hearts and minds, supporting a weak and corrupt government, building schools and health clinics, and Afghanistanization.  We don’t even have a clear, simple, and practical understanding of what victory is.  After probably 10 years, we’ll go home, and Afghanistan will revert to, well, Afghanistan.

Unlike Vietnam, we don’t even know for certain who the enemy is in Afghanistan.  First we went there to hunt down and kill Al-Qaeda and it’s leadership, specifically including Osama bin Laden.  What we mainly accomplished was driving them into the border regions and into Pakistan.  We’ve killed or captured a large number of Al-Qaeda terrorists and some of their senior leaders, but bin Laden himself remains holed-up somewhere, issuing statements and threats and undoubtedly planning future attacks with seeming impunity. 

We threw the Taliban out of power and set up a shaky central government in Kabul.  Who is the enemy in Afghanistan now?  Is it the Taliban, who oppose the foreign-supported central government and aim to bring it down, reimposing their primitive form of Islamic rule?  That’s what we’re told, but the reality is far more slippery.  For one thing, there isn’t a unitary Taliban out there wearing identifiable uniforms and marching under flags everyone recognizes.  The reality is a crazy-quilt of clans and tribes with their own squabbles and differences.  The Taliban, essentially ideological Muslim extremists, are out there among the people and generally indistinguishable from everyone else.  So whom do we attack and defeat in order to achieve some sort of victory? 

Fighting irregular forces mixed in with and hiding among civilian noncombatants is extremely difficult and unlikely to win many hearts and minds.  Every time the U.S. attacks and kills several Taliban leaders along with a larger number of innocents, we lose.  That’s going to keep happening, no matter how hard we try to avoid it.  It turns the population against us and generates strong international opposition.  Right now, we operate under the umbrella of NATO, but the forces of other nations aren’t going to be in Afghanistan for long.  Once they leave, it’s all U.S., with perhaps a few token elements from our closest allies.  And we’re back to Vietnam.

Right now we’re debating sending more troops to Afghanistan.  That’s wrong.  We should be withdrawing major combat units as quickly as possible.  We can support the Kabul government diplomatically and with development assistance, with a small military presence designed solely to protect U.S. personnel and facilities.  What would the result be?  The central government may or may not survive; primitive Islamic extremists may or may not resume control of the country; or the region may be ruled by tribes and their warlords with a powerless titular government of kleptocrats sitting in Kabul.  The key point is this:  The possible outcomes will be the same whether we withdraw our military forces now or in 10 years.  How much American blood is that worth?

So if we withdraw from Afghanistan, how do we protect ourselves from future terrorist attacks, assuming that’s why we’re there?  The same way we’ve been doing it successfully since September 11, 2001.  Good intelligence, effective homeland security, and striking at terrorists when and were we can find them.  We don’t have to be on the ground and engaged in a war in Afghanistan or anywhere else to do that.  We have the precision weapons to put conventional fire on any target anywhere in the world.  Any nation that harbors terrorists will quickly learn that there’s a price to pay, and that will include Afghanistan.

We need someone like Bernard Fall to teach us that invasions of Afghanistan don’t work out well.  Would-be conquerors from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union have learned that lesson the hard way.  We don’t have to learn it again.  But we didn’t listen to Fall in the 1960s, and we probably wouldn’t now.

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7 Responses to “Vietnam and Afghanistan”

  1. Lisa |

    Tom, A great story and meaningful analogy.

  2. Jan |

    Excellent story about Bernard Fall and how little seems to have been learned by our military leadership re applying the sobering lessons of Vietnam to the realities in Afghanistan.

  3. Tom |

    Here’s an interesting look at the war in Afghanistan from the Cato Institute. Excerpts:

    Such an undertaking, amounting to a large-scale social-engineering project, is unwarranted. The cost in blood and treasure that we would have to incur — coming on top of what we have already paid — far outweighs any possible benefits, even accepting the most optimistic estimates for the likelihood of success.

    The essential question now is not whether the war is winnable, but whether the mission is vital to U.S. national security interests. …

    The United States does not have the patience, cultural knowledge or legitimacy to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, non-corrupt, and stable electoral democracy. And even if Americans did commit several hundred thousand troops and decades of armed nation-building, success would hardly be guaranteed, especially in a country notoriously suspicious of outsiders and largely devoid of central authority.

  4. Harvey |


    Personally, I think the same logic can be applied to Iraq. The time and effort we expended in Iraq, including locating and killing terrorists, was wasted effort. Terrorism is in the blood in the Middle East and, more pointedly, in the religion — new members of the next generation terrorists are born every day over there.

    You summed it up beautifully: “how do we protect ourselves from future terrorist attacks . . . The same way we’ve been doing it successfully since September 11, 2001. Good intelligence, effective homeland security, and striking at terrorists when and were we can find them. We don’t have to be on the ground and engaged in a war in Afghanistan or anywhere else to do that.”

    Can’t improve on that logic.

  5. Tom |

    Harvey, I think the chances for a positive outcome in Afghanistan are much worse than in Iraq. I don’t have great hopes for the future in Iraq, but Afghanistan is far more primitive and fractured.

    I thought invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do, and I still think so. The problem came after that mission was quickly accomplished in such an outstanding manner. Then we started trying to do nation-building with military force, without having planned or prepared to do it. Where has that ever really worked, except in Germany and Japan, which were advanced societies to begin with?

  6. David Schantz |

    I noticed you had mentioned Vietnam and wondered if you remembered today September 18, 2009 is POW/MIA Recognition Day. We most never forget those that were left behind.

    God Bless America, God Save The Republic.

  7. Tom |

    David, thanks for the reminder. I have to admit that POW/MIA Recognition Day slipped past me this year. It’s important for all of us to remember them and continue hoping that someday all will be accounted for.

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