What can Vietnam War teach us about Afghanistan, North Korea?
Prompted by documentary, historian examines parallels to current conflict in Afghanistan
By Robert Buzzanco
September 30, 2017 Updated: October 1, 2017 9:10am
On Wednesday, Taliban forces fired rockets at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, shortly after Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit. Though Mattis was the target, he had left before the attack and was not harmed.
The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan for 16 years – a long, tragic and ironic conflict. In the 1980s, the U.S. government funded and armed various mujahedeen groups fighting against the Soviet-backed government. In that era, many of the same people now trying to attack American officials like Mattis were hailed as “freedom fighters.”
In the 1960s, as millions of Americans have been reminded by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary “The Vietnam War,” the U.S. also was supporting other “freedom fighters” in the southern part of Vietnam with huge amounts of money and weapons.
Just as Mattis was a target in Kabul, then–National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy was visiting Vietnam in February 1965 when enemy Viet Cong forces attacked a U.S. airbase at Pleiku, in the Central Highlands. Even in “friendly” territory, American officials were at risk.
The Viet Cong were never recipients of U.S. aid nor American support, unlike many of the Afghan fighters who later joined the Taliban, but both attacks illustrate the peril of intervening in the internal conflicts of another country.
In Afghanistan today and Vietnam decades ago, the U.S. sent soldiers, weapons and funds to secure “freedom” – but instead stirred up local animosities and got mired in ever-deepening military conflicts. While the U.S. role in helping create the Taliban is more clear, America also had a major hand in emboldening the armed resistance in Vietnam by propping up the corrupt South Vietnamese government. We intended to “save” both the mujahedeen and the Vietnamese from Communism, American leaders claimed.
Increased American involvement in the two countries instead led to more instability and bloodshed. Rather than bring people together, it motivated them to fight for their own independence against the Americans, who in their view were an outside force trying to control their country.
American officials helped create the country of “South Vietnam” in 1954 at the Geneva Conference, sponsored and supported the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem and sent “advisers” and later combat troops to Vietnam – more than 500,000 Americans at the height of our involvement. We waged a relentless war, dropping over 6 million tons of bombs, but the U.S. did not win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese.
Indeed, as American officials in Vietnam, civilian and military, consistently observed, the enemy Viet Cong had the mantle of nationalism and were more popular than the client regimes in the south who survived on American money and weapons.
Similarly, once the Americans helped the mujahedeen oust the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul, the Afghans were ready for the U.S. to withdraw from their country so they could begin the process of creating their own independent state – which, to be sure, would not be a liberal, western-style democracy. This was much like the Vietnamese belief that the French withdrawal in 1954 would allow them to create their own government and society.
The U.S. did not go away easily in either case. Ideals of democracy and human rights were used to justify prolonged occupations. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the U.S. had the mantle of occupier and the local population fought to force them out and punish those who collaborated with the Americans. The U.S. did not have the support of the native population, and that made success, however defined, impossible.
Most Americans opposed the political ideologies of our enemies in Afghanistan (political Islam) and Vietnam (nationalist Communism), but their support waned when they saw growing numbers of young American soldiers dying in foreign lands.
Today, long after the Vietnam War was fought and well into a morass in Afghanistan, the U.S. is again confronting the specter of military action abroad in places like Syria and North Korea. Many Americans are aware of the conditions in both countries and are unsympathetic to the regimes of Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong-un.
But as we learned in Vietnam and are discovering in Afghanistan, foreign interventions to oust a regime can lead to resentment and anger from the local population and bring on escalating American commitments, huge monetary expenses and ever-wider wars.
No one has to be a fan of Ho Chi Minh, the Taliban, Assad or Kim to understand the profound dangers of foreign interventions, as the attempted attack on Mattis exhibited. By studying past conflicts, we can avoid making these mistakes again and stand aside as countries determine their own political systems.
Let’s hope future documentary filmmakers will not have to develop shows about a new series of wars.
Buzzanco is a professor of history at the University of Houston and the author of “Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era.”