America’s Afghanistan Strategy Proves That the Vietnam Analogy Does Not Apply
America’s War in Vietnam remains a signpost signifying a moment when America’s own exceptionalist myth of invincibility began to falter in open sight. The watershed moment of the last helicopter leaving Saigon in 1975 became emblematic of a lumbering, highly equipped by deeply demoralised American armed forces that ultimately could not win a war against revolutionary fighters defending their home soil against the second foreign force they had to contend with in a matter of decades. The lessons that a declining French imperial-republic learned in 1954 were learned by the United States in 1975 in spite of the fact that by then, France was reduced to a medium sized western European power while the US remained a superpower.
The US War in Vietnam saw 3,403,000 men deployed to the region while over 58,000 perished. The amount of lives lost, and both years and money spent in Vietnam led to a gradual rethinking in US military strategy throughout the developing world.
After Afghanistan’s Saur Revolution in 1978, US National Security Adviser and anti-Soviet hawk Zbigniew Brzezinski argued for a military approach to the events unfolding in Afghanistan which saw a Soviet allied government in Kabul fight rebel forces in what would grow into a long civil war whose effects are felt in the region to this day.
But rather than deploy thousands of American enlistees let alone conscripts to Afghanistan, the US instead decided to arm and fund Mujaheddin jihadists as proxies. This meant that while the US contributed arms and money to the Mujaheddin – fewer Americans in the 1980s knew what the Mujaheddin of Afghanistan actually was, while almost all Americans in the 1960s and 1970s knew what the Viet Cong was for the simple reason that Viet Cong fighters killed Americans while no ordinary US soldiers were in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
In 1982 Ronald Reagan’s deployed of a small contingent of US Marines to Beirut during the most heated phase of the Lebanese Civil War. The following year, a crude set of truck bombs which killed 241 Americans and 58 French troops was enough to motivate Reagan to fully withdraw from Lebanon. On the tip of many American tongues at the time was “we must avoid another Vietnam”.
With the rise of the neocons on the American right in the 1990s, many of whom infamously dodged the draft during the War in Vietnam, a new method of thinking developed that was a hybrid of the large scale traditional Vietnam style war and the 1980s Ronald Reagan style of warfare which tended to involve minimal if any troop deployment and an increased reliance on air power. Reagan’s strategy was perhaps best exemplified by the Operation El Dorado Canyon bombing campaign against Libya in 1986 which lasted just a single day.
The neocon hybrid strategy which continues to play out in Afghanistan in spite of Donald Trump’s apparent dislike for the neocon faction can be described as follows: Use traditional air-power and other technologies (including drones) as much as possible while maintaining a manned presence that never gets to large to result in Vietnam levels of casualties.
In this sense, while the US is “losing” in Afghanistan based on traditional indicators of what a victory might look like – in actual fact, according to the present strategy in Afghanistan, the US is actually “winning”. In spite of the fact that the Taliban now control upwards of 50% of Afghan territory while no ceasefires have yet to hold in a meaningful way, the US is fully aware that an Afghan insurgency is ultimately as difficult to defeat in the 21st century as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were in the 20th century.
To understand why something that looks like “losing” is actually “winning” in the eyes of contemporaneity US policy makers in Afghanistan, one must understand that at present the US is not so much trying to win a traditional war as it is trying to make sure that no other nation is able to reap the benefits of a stable, peaceful and united Afghanistan.
America’s main goals in Afghanistan are as follows:
1. Facilitate the inflow of terrorists from Afghanistan to Pakistan in order to destabilise Pakistan’s pivot towards multipolarity
2. Create an Afghan base of operations in order to foment future chaos in Iran’s geographically vulnerable Sistan and Baluchestan Province
3. Prevent Afghanistan’s integration into the One Belt–One Road network
4. Prevent Afghanistan’s poppy cash cow from entering into the hands of anyone except for the CIA
5. Disrupt and/or retard the burgeoning pan-Asian partnership in south Asia involving China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran.
In this sense, the US war on Afghanistan is in the words of Orwell “not meant to be won but to be endless”. So long as the US can minimise its own loses, the public will remain unaffected by the apparent quagmire in Afghanistan which is at this point a quagmire by design with the ultimate goal of creating a long-term regional problem for all of Afghanistan’s neighbours as well as Russia.