With the announcement of President Obama’s Afghan strategy, I am hearing people comparing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today with the war in Vietnam. In this comparison, Afghanistan is more similar to Vietnam than Iraq. In some ways, they are all similar. In others, they are not.
Iraq: Because the desert is such an ideal environment for mechanized forces, the US can and did isolate each battlefield. The enemy could not disengage. This is a MAJOR difference between Iraq and Vietnam. At the time, politically, both the ‘Tet’ offensive and the ‘surge’ in Iraq were defeats for the United States. Militarily, during ‘Tet’ the VC and NVA were hammered, but it was not apparent to those in the United States at the time. In Iraq, the drop in resistance was much more obvious proof of how the war was going. Even those who did not believe the war was winnable could not miss how our enemy was beaten up in Iraq. This was not apparent regarding ‘Tet’ in Vietnam.
Afghanistan – The irregular enemy units can ‘melt away’ into the countryside far more readily in Afghanistan than Iraq. The U.S. is forced to patrol in a way that is more similar to Vietnam than the set piece battles fought in Iraq. The enemy can refuse battle. This was not possible in Iraq. The enemy could only operate within the cities; they were dead meat in the open desert. Each city, town or village could be surrounded and taken one by one.
In Vietnam, the enemy was being supplied across a border with a neighboring country. This is also true in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq, the entire country could be isolated simply because the environment is so well suited to our forces. Supply and reinforcement from neighboring countries was limited by our interdiction. The United States controlled the countryside (Desert) in Iraq whereas we could not in Vietnam. We will be unable to control the countryside in anything like the same effectiveness in Afghanistan, even if we toss in 100,000 more soldiers.
The US aggression in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the direct result of 9/11. Even if you see them both as being unjustified, the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were a reaction to 9/11 and the ideology behind it. Vietnam was never able to even threaten to hit us. Even if you believe that Iraq and Afghanistan had nothing to do with 9/11, it cannot be denied that the U.S. initiated the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because the enemy actually struck the mainland. The minor action in the Gulf of Tonkin was the excuse for large-scale involvement in Vietnam. Not much of a comparison.
The Soviet Union (Which held and supported the ideology of the enemy in Vietnam) was not stupid enough to attack the United States directly. Repeated suicide attack is a major difference. Our current enemies have demonstrated that they possibly can be crazy enough to use weapons of mass destruction. The Soviet Union proved that they were not when they turned their ships around in October 1962.
The strategy in Vietnam was fundamentally altered when President Kennedy took office. (Please read post of evolution of United States involvement in Vietnam 10/20/08 for details) We went from a small scale, tactical approach to a large-scale reorganization of the Vietnamese army. The driving force behind this was the political deadline of January 1, 1964 that was set by President Kennedy one week after he took office. The objective was for the end of all United States military involvement in Vietnam by that date. This move escalated the war.
President Obama has placed a political deadline for our involvement in Afghanistan. He is fundamentally altering the strategies for both Iraq and Afghanistan. A full withdrawal in Iraq will most likely take place, instead of a more drawn out ‘downsizing’. The change is coming after a defeat of our enemies in Iraq, so any enemy recovery will take more time than otherwise would have been the case. In Afghanistan, the strategy change is just a repeat of our ‘surge’ in Iraq with the political deadline of July 2011 as being the date of beginning the withdrawal. I am certain that President Obama intends to be out of both Iraq and Afghanistan before the election cycle of 2012. The end of the war in Vietnam prior to the election of 1964 was President Kennedy’s political objective. Both President Kennedy and President Obama wanted to end the war before the next presidential election cycle. One minor difference is that President Kennedy set his political deadline only a week after taking office. President Obama took 10 months to set his deadline, at least publicly.
The war in Vietnam ended (As far as the United States was concerned) when we withdrew our troops from South Vietnam. I suspect that President Obama (and many others) believes that this will be the case today concerning withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. If you believe that both countries had nothing to do with 9/11, it makes sense that you would believe that they would leave us alone after we leave. I disagree. I believe this is another fundamental difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan-Iraq. Time will tell on this one.
Both in Vietnam and Afghanistan today the major support for our enemy came across a border with a nuclear-armed country. One difference between Pakistan and China is that the United States is launching attacks into Pakistan, whereas we made great efforts to avoid hitting any part of China. Besides, most of the fighting was in South Vietnam, which did NOT share a border with China. In other words, the war was being fought away from the actual border with the nuclear-armed country. In Afghanistan, we are actually driving the enemy forces toward and across the border. Iraq had no such similarity in nuclear-armed neighbors who were directly involved.
As can be seen from this brief overview, many differences are present between Vietnam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today. As all wars are unique, this can be expected. This is why it is so dangerous to ‘fight the last war again’ as is so common.
While many do not hold the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq accountable for the attacks on 9/11, this covers the overall problem of no governmental accountability for political Islam. While the idea that the government of Iraq had nothing directly to do with 9/11 may be accurate, political Islam is alive and well in Iraq as well as throughout the Muslim world. Political Islam is what attacked the United States on 9/11. WMD was a good excuse to hold the government of Iraq responsible for the personal armies that political Islam has been fielding, despite the fact that Iraq had no WMD. A number of other governments meet this qualification as well.