The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC


 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?  What are the parallels of Afghanistan to Vietnam?  Is Afghanistan doomed to end the same way Vietnam did, or are the situations different enough, and the US capabilities and strategies different enough, for Afghanistan to survive as a nation state unlike South Vietnam?


March 7, 2013 - Posted by | COIN, Current Events, H300, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Afghanistan is definitely more like Vietnam than Iraq. Having deployed to both country’s, I have seen very little similarities between how we fought OIF and how we are still fighting OEF. My experience in Afghanistan was a lot more lethal and kinetic when compared to operations in Iraq. As a field artilleryman, most of our days involved shooting fire missions and calling in CAS in order to support our ground forces. Stability operations were always a third priority to offensive and defensive ops. In iraq, it was quite different. Our guns were left on our FOB or in our COPs and we hit the streets in order to secure and control the population. Key leader engagements and advisory missions were just about all we did. Stability operations were the clear priority.
    The biggest parallel of Afghanistan to Vietnam was the insurgency. It was active in Iraq as well, but not nearly as strong as it is in Afghanistan. The war was started in good cause in order to rid the world of Bin Laden and his terrorist group. Similar to communism in Vietnam, we want to rid the world of terrorism and keep it at bay. Like our experience before, we began the war by underestimating the power and force of our enemy and have embarked on a now 12 year campaign. Countless amounts of resources have been used and lives taken. Now we are set to claim our victory over the insurgency and come back home. They are many personal opinions out there on whether or not we have even changed anything. It sometimes seems as though we are creating more insurgents than we are eliminating.
    Personally, I am not confident that the situation in Afghanistan will be any different from how we left Vietnam. It will still be extremely difficult for Afghanistan to survive as a nation state. There is so much corruption and lack of unity throughout the country and its people that it may do nothing but limp on for years to come.

    Comment by MAJ Kevin Gitkos, 11B | March 15, 2013

  2. 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.
    (3) 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

  3. Is Afghanistan more like Vietnam than Iraq? I will start by mentioning that Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam each involved a unique circumstances that triggered U.S. involvement. However, there are similarities shown in all three conflicts. Some examples include: counterinsurgency warfare, the U.S. training/advisory mission to host nation forces, and massive financial and equipment support for the host nation. I believe one could liken Afghanistan to Vietnam for a few reasons. The first is the extraordinary length of time the U.S. was involved in both conflicts. U.S involvement in Vietnam started in the mid 50’s when the U.S. assisted French forces, and lasted until 1975 when we evacuated Saigon (U.S. ground combat forces were withdrawn in 1973.) U.S. involvement in Afghanistan will span from 2001 until 2017, when we are scheduled to leave the country entirely. (U.S. ground combat forces are scheduled to withdraw in Dec 2014). The protracted nature of both conflicts, the perceived lack of success in both conflicts, and the enormous drain on U.S. human and financial resources make both conflicts similar in that regard. The second reason I liken Vietnam to Afghanistan is the uncanny similarity between the French and Russian experience and ours. France lost fighting a counterinsurgency in Vietnam (Indochina) and the Soviet Union lost fighting a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. The U.S. lost in Vietnam after the French while fighting a counterinsurgency and could also lose fighting a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. The final outcome in Afghanistan remains to be seen, but the current weak and corrupt government is susceptible to collapse. If the Afghan government collapses after the U.S. cuts assistance, you may see a repeat of what happened when the Soviets withdrew in 1989. The Afghan government under Najibullah lasted three years until the Soviets cut funding in 1992 and government collapsed. This paved the way for the Taliban to take control 4 years later. A lesson learned for the future may be continued financial support to the Afghan government. France, Russia, and the U.S. all had military and financial advantage but failed to tie it all together in the end.

    What are the parallels of Afghanistan to Vietnam?
    -Population centric counterinsurgency warfare strategy (Winning Hearts and Minds) but focused on counter-guerilla operations
    – U.S advise/assist mission to train host nation forces – ineffective or only marginally effective for both conflicts
    – Massive financial and military equipment assistance- drained the U.S economy and eroded support at home
    – Ineffective host nation troops requiring a great deal of US assistance to secure the population/perform
    -Complicated and complex dealings with neighboring countries in both conflicts (Pakistan and Iran, Cambodia and Laos)
    – Both conflicts spanned multiple US Presidential administrations, and involved protests at home against the conflicts
    – Both conflicts started off with US popular support and become unpopular as the length of conflict turned into years.
    -Long term care of veterans physical and mental injuries that will cost into the billions long term
    -Failure to heed lessons learned from French and Soviet experiences, as both lost previously in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively
    – War Crimes or unsavory acts committed by US troops that had strategic negative impacts and boosted the resolve of the enemy- killing of civilians (intentionally and unintentionally), urinating on corpses, burning Korans, mistreatment of woman, destroying property

    Is Afghanistan doomed to end the same way Vietnam did, or are the situations different enough, and the US capabilities and strategies different enough, for Afghanistan to survive as a nation state unlike South Vietnam?
    The U.S. had the same capability advantage in both conflicts. The host nation though has to ultimately manage its own affairs. I believe that Afghanistan could survive long term if a few conditions are met. The first is a legitimate Afghan government, one that is not corrupt and represents the people of Afghanistan (tribal parity in the government). A capable military to provide security and secure the border with Pakistan. Another is a stable economy, natural resource and agriculture development must be a priority. China and India are reaping the benefits of copper and natural gas, perhaps more investment by these two countries. There must be an incentive not to rely on poppy and marijuana, which funds terrorist’s activities. And lastly a global commitment to assist Afghanistan as long as progress is being made. Pakistan and Afghanistan must work together on security issues, especially along the FATA and along other border areas.
    MAJ James Everett, 11A

    Comment by MAJ James Everett | May 18, 2013

  4. I believe that Afghanistan is more like Vietnam that Iraq. The major lesson we can take from the comparrison is that if we completely withdraw our support then the Afghanistan government will not be able to support itself. The Afghan government and particulary the military are heavily reliant on money and training provided by the United States. After we withdraw from Afghanistan if we do not have a plan to continue that support and slowly wean the government off of it and transition them to being self-sustaining then the government will fail. Those in power will attempt to gain the most that they can before the collapse and leave the country in ruin. We have to look forward and develop a workable solution that not only defeats the insurgency but helps improve the government and essential services to the point that they can survive and provide for the people of Afghanistan without US assistance and oversight.

    Comment by MAJ Patrick Biggs, SG 11B | May 30, 2013

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