The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Afghanistan… Vietnman??

The American situation has dramatically changed in Iraq. The US miltiary is effectively finished with the war in Iraq. Given that, attention is shifting to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is dramatically different than Iraq. A quick look at geography, history, and demographics, not to mention the nature of the adversary and the geopolitical setting all describe a completely different operating environment. Also, with the change of political parties in the U.S. and with the U.S. facing significant economic challenges, the domestic U.S. scene is completely different. Some analysts believe that these circumstances make Afghanistan a more significant challenge than Iraq ever was. Commentators Ralph Peters and French MacLean have described their views on the strategic situation. Is Afghanistan more like Vietnam than Iraq?

February 17, 2012 - Posted by | Current Events, H300, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Afghanistan is not a more challenging environment, but it is significantly different to such an extent that they cannot be compared. Afghanistan is more analagous to Vietnam, but only on the surface. Both possess complicated relationships with neighboring countries, an experienced and determined insurgent population which the US doesn’t understand, and a long history of war with various countries. However, Afghanistan is distinct in religion, endstate, and the fact that it is a wholly different nation instead of a fractured nation with different ideologies. I think that while Afghanistan may have been the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, it will never really be another Vietnam for us. The political and popular situation in the US will likely not support a more protracted engagement in Afghanistan for the very reason that for it to be perceived as another Vietnam is political suicide and the War on Terrorism has advanced far enough to allow a withdrawal.

    Comment by Matthew Wilder 17D | February 21, 2012

  2. The war in Afghanistan maybe more like Vietnam than Iraq but that does not make them similar. Afghanistan was a war in which the US eliminated the government and faced no formidable conventional forces and an insurgency evolved and continues. Both, North and South Vietnam, had governments in place and the US opposition in Vietnam consisted of trained conventional forces and insurgent forces. The economic situation in the US and the fact that there is no driving force behind the political scene as it was during the Cold War Era (the fight to stop the spread of communism) will not allow this war to continue as long as the Vietnam war did.

    Comment by MAJ Johnson 17B | February 21, 2012

  3. I agree largely with MAJ Wilder and MAJ Johnson comments. The conflicts Iraq and Afghanistan each bear similarities to the Vietnam War but neither is more similar than the other. I do disagree with MAJ Wilder’s contention that Afghanistan is not a fractured nation with different ideologies. Afghanistan is a tribal society and the Afghans more loyal to their tribes than Afghanistan as a nation. Many of those tribes have warred with each other for hundreds of years. MAJ Johnson has made the point that both North and South Vietnam had established governments and the US faced both trained conventional and insurgent forces. I would also add that in Vietnam the US had to largely limit its involvement to South Vietnam in order to avoid provoking a significant Soviet response. The US in Afghanistan is under no such constraints.

    Comment by MAJ Reginald Jamo 7A | February 21, 2012

  4. I largely agree that the war in Afghanistan is similar to the Vietnam than Iraq. However, there government of all three differ. Vietnam had a feasible government whereas Afghanistan and Iraq lacked that feasibility. Their government need assistance in terms of it economic stability, trained conventional forces and trained political leadership. All three countries had significant problems with counterinsurgency, which significantly contributed to the growing need of support from U. S. military forces.

    Comment by MAJ LaShaunda Jackson 17A | February 27, 2012

  5. I agree with MAJ Jamo’s and Johnson’s that America’s efforts in Afghanistan does not, as a whole, pose stronger correlation with either Vietnam or Iraq but do believe that it has presented the greatest challenge of the three. There are significant similarities amongst all three conflicts but equally distinct differences as well. We can analyze, compare, contrast and draw various important lessons from each conflict, but as leaders must remain cognizant of the hidden traps that present themselves when trying to use any one experience in viewing the other. I think the biggest lesson to be drawn from all three experiences is the importance of policy, and political commitment necessary in warfare of today. The tactical and operational success of our nation’s military force can only achieve lasting results if our adversaries are convinced that our resolve is unwavering. As radical extremists demonstrate their commitment to a long fight, so must America. We failed to do this in Vietnam, we should not make this error in Afghanistan, nor should we turn our eyes completely away from Iraq.

    Comment by MAJ Kevin clarke | March 2, 2012

  6. Sadly to say, the comparisons of OIF and OEF to Vietnam is another classic example of personnel trying to make a historical example fit a modern situation. Yes, all three wars have U.S. troops conducting COIN operations and that is where the similarities end. Except for the COIN relationship neither OIF or OEF are more comparable to Vietnam than they are to each other.

    For instance, Vietnam was a war fought to stem the flow of Communism. The Communist North Vietnamese Army, along with the Viet Cong insurgents, sought to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and establish a united Communist Vietnam. The U.S. forces supported the South Vietnamese government through resources, training, and a finally with a large commitment of troops. In both Iraq and Afghanistan U.S. forces were used to overthrow the standing governments and then to support the “pro-U.S.” regimes that are current in control of both nations.

    The “insurgencies” in both Iraq and Afghanistan are more akin to each other than to Vietnam. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong was the military arm of the communist party that sought to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. This presented the U.S. with one insurgent based foe to focus their COIN operations on (NVA were dealt with conventional operations). In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has split its COIN capabilities to “reconcile” a multitude of power brokers (mostly competing tribes, religions, and ethnic groups). U.S. forces have tried to use COIN operations to garner these power brokers’ support for the new national governments of Iraq and Afghanistan.

    While an unpopular war, the U.S. military leaders during Vietnam had a much larger personnel and resource pool to conduct their COIN campaign. At that time the U.S. was investing 9 – 9.1% of the GNP on Defense, compared to just 3.1% in 2007. Remember the “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan??? At the height of both conflicts the U.S. had roughly 180,000 troops in 2009, compared to the 553,000 troops in Vietnam in 1969… In other words, leaders in both Iraq and Afghanistan had to operate COIN campaigns in much larger and ethnically diverse nations with fewer resources than those during the Vietnam era.

    Without even delving into Middle Eastern or Muslim v/s Asian ideologies, does anyone here still think that either OIF or OEF are more like Vietnam than each other?

    Comment by MAJ Chris Moore, 17A | March 4, 2012

  7. Is Afghanistan more like Vietnam than Iraq? I would have to say yes. Vietnam was about containing communism, Afghanistan is about containing Islamic extremism (allegations of revenge notwithstanding). Afghanistan, as Vietnam, is more of a rural insurgency as opposed to Iraq which one can argue was more of an urban insurgency. The differences here go beyond terrain. Afghanistan has a less stable central government apparatus than Iraq. It is too early to tell, especially in the face of recent violence in Iraq, but the Afghan central government seems more likely to fail in the absence of US assistance as did the South Vietnamese government. In Afghanistan, the US has created an advisory corps, AfPak hands, that it did not do for Iraq (although both countries had Military Transition teams). Iraq and Afghanistan also had the same type of negative impact to domestic programs and the US economy as did Vietnam.

    This is not to say that there are no differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan. Vietnam had a conventional army component to it that Afghanistan does not. However, one can argue that at least in one respect, Afghanistan intervention has been worse. Our mishaps have created an even bigger amount of anti-American sentiment, a dangerous prospect, as one thing that both recent conflicts have shown is that the enemy does not have to be in control of a country or even occupy a large swath of land in order to be effective and do us harm.

    Comment by MAJ Ramos | March 5, 2012

  8. I would say that Afganistahn is more similar to Vietnam than Iraq due to some shared cultural and operational challenges. Operations in Afghanisatn and Vietnam were focused primarily on winning the hearts and minds in rural as opposed to operation in Iraq, which were mainly focused on urban areas. Its in the rural, agrarian, and tribal nature where other similarities fall between the two. Although Iraq has tribal influence throughout the country, it is not as prevelant as Afganisatahn. Both Afganistahn and Vietnam are primarily rural agrarian cultrues that provide a much greater safe haven for an insurgency to thrive off of and spread. That fact also provides the challenge for our forces in trying to cover much more ground in order to ensure are able to secure and influence the population.

    Comment by MAJ Christopher Church, SG17B | March 7, 2012

  9. In terms of the physical environment -specifically terrain, where restricted access and the high ground favors the defender– sure, Afghanistan is more like Vietnam than Iraq. Subtle Asian cultural similarities in Afghanistan offer congruent trends to Vietnam in the way the local populations tend to think and value social hierarchies, more so than in comparison with its Arab neighbors to the west. Due its strategic proximity to superpower neighbors -China and Russia- Afghanistan may see a prolonged NATO/US presence within its borders as a result of ever changing US geopolitical strategies. I agree with Chris Church’s approach, key is influencing rural communities to develop sustainable crops that in turn produce long-term socio-economic effects for the communities. I would go a step further and offer a tangent comparison, comparing the Korean Peninsula, pre-Korean War, with Afghanistan. Throughout the centuries, both have been invaded, conquered, and subsequently occupied. Both suffered from extreme poverty, battles of differing religious ideologies, and later failed monarchies.

    Comment by MAJ James Westgate, SG17D | March 10, 2012

  10. Afghanistan is significantly different than Iraq. Some of these differences include the degree of nationalism, the level of control of the central government, and the history. The sense of nationalism is much greater within the Iraqi people than the Afghans. The people of Afghanistan identify first and foremost with their individual tribes, i.e. Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, etc. Additionally, unlike the Afghan central government, the power and influence of the Iraqi government extends beyond the capital. Regarding history, for all the faults of the brutal dictatorship regime of Saddam Hussein, he was successful in providing a measure of stability to the country. In comparison, Afghanistan has experienced persistent, periodic conflict beginning with the conquest of Alexander the Great and extending through to present day. This conflict has resulted in years of turmoil as well as foreign presence and involvement in the region. These factors alone make Afghanistan a more significant challenge than Iraq ever was. Despite this fact, during the U.S. shift in focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, the U.S. attempted to some extent to draw comparisons and apply what “worked” in Iraq to Afghanistan, without fully appreciating the differences that make these two situations unique.

    In making the comparison between Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, some factors are similar amongst all three while others are not. This comparison does not attempt to address the political motivations for U.S. involvement in the regions at the onset. A significant difference is that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan compares to Vietnam from a government perspective. Vietnam had a government in place at the onset of U.S. involvement in the region, or at least one the U.S. was willing to work with. One significant similarity between all three countries is the lack of an integrated counterinsurgency (COIN) plan from the start that included the level of resources and/or coordination and integration necessary to ensure success. The level of resources allocated, both from a monetary and personnel perspective, was significantly greater for Vietnam than either Iraq or Afghanistan. Additionally, the U.S. was unable to either secure and maintain the support of the local populaces or effectively target the insurgents by undermining their base of support – the people – through efforts to win their hearts and minds.

    Any COIN effort needs to include establishing and maintaining security for the people as well as targeting the insurgent infrastructure…and the key to success is “integration of all efforts toward a single goal.”(1) The organizations tasked with the objectives of integrating and coordinating civilian and military efforts in both Iraq, via the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and Afghanistan, via the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT), struggled to achieve their goals. According to Andrade and Willbanks, the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program, implemented in May 1967, is a good example of a program that successfully focused the civilian-military effort.(2) Prior to the implementation of CORDS, the missions of the civilian and military agencies were not integrated.(3) What is uncertain is whether or not implementing CORDS earlier in Vietnam would have produced a more favorable outcome in the end.

    Ultimately, only time will tell whether Afghanistan proves to be more like Vietnam with regard to the ability of the central government to maintain “control” of the country once the U.S. military departs. Or, will the Afghan central government collapse and the country experiences yet another civil war.

    (1) Andrade, Dale, and James H. Willbanks. “CORDS/Phoenix: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Vietnam for the Future.” Military Review (March-April 2006): 9-23. Cited from H300 reader, page H306RB-281.
    (2) Andrade, Dale, and James H. Willbanks. “CORDS/Phoenix: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Vietnam for the Future.” Military Review (March-April 2006): 9-23. Cited from H300 reader, page H306RB-281.
    (2) Andrade, Dale, and James H. Willbanks. “CORDS/Phoenix: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Vietnam for the Future.” Military Review (March-April 2006): 9-23. Cited from H300 reader, page H306RB-282.

    Comment by LCDR Schryver | March 24, 2013

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