The war in Afghanistan will not be ‘Obama’s Vietnam.’ Afghanistan will not shadow his presidency as Vietnam did for Lyndon B. Johnson’s. The analogy is a simplistic reading of past and a rather vast misconstruction of the present.
The Taliban is not the Viet Cong, and anti American sentiment is the only real parallel we can scrape from the history books and draw between the two. Ho Chi Min was the head of state, a central authority, and the leader of a unified armed resistance force.
The principle leaders of the Taliban command a disunited and disparate insurgency, divided along tribal boundaries, under the authority of warring chiefs and warlords. A conventional opposition in Afghanistan, similar to that of the North Vietnamese Army in the 1960s does not exist.
Afghanistan harboured Al-Qaeda operatives and the US went into Afghanistan on the pretext of fighting their ‘war on terror’. Al-Qaeda has since dissolved across the region and remains a wholly separate entity to the Taliban, who remain in their country and solely seek support in neighbouring Pakistan.
The Taliban has few resources and lacks the sponsorship of a superpower. Vietnam’s communists received international support and sought sanction in Laos and Cambodia, whilst supplies continued to be received from both the Soviet Union and China. Afghanistan’s neighbours in India, Russia and Iran are unlikely to support the reinstating of the Taliban, who have already governed their country.
Whilst Afghanistan is a tribal civil war, Vietnam was both a civil war, and a proxy war between superpowers. It was, in essence, the fought element of the Cold War.
The North Vietnamese received international support and armed assistance. The Viet Cong insurgency was an additional level of armed support and resistance that ran alongside the conventional efforts of their Northern partners.
The modus operandi of the Taliban is solely one of insurgency. The North and South Vietnamese each fielded armies of several hundred thousand combatants. In Afghanistan rough estimates suggest there are at most 25,000 active members of the Taliban.
Over 58,000 Americans and more than one million Vietnamese were killed in the American war in Vietnam whilst just over 100,000 troops have hit Afghan soil and are volunteers not draftees.
The scale of the two wars is incomparable; a Tet-style and scale offensive in Afghanistan is implausible. Today the Taliban are struggling to maintain control of a few small villages and towns. The Viet Cong were significantly better equipped to deal with foreign armed forces.
Sentiment against fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan has not turned the way it did in Vietnam. Afghanistan won’t hijack Obama’s presidency and Obama’s foreign war will not derail his domestic agenda. Americans today will be looking at their own economic situation before they do their country’s war on terror.
Iraq saw Bush fail to push his domestic agenda into a second term in office. Again Afghanistan is just not sullied to the same degree by Americans or the international community.
The Obama administration and commentators of the counterinsurgency must look at this war without the historical analogy. Future armed and economic involvement in Afghanistan will determine the success of this war. Let’s not look to the past to pave Afghanistan’s path forward.