From Saigon to Kabul

The recent debacle in Afghanistan has elicited predictable comparisons with our exit from Vietnam in 1975. Although there are parallels, we should remember that historical analogies are often misleading. One such analogy is the claim that the United States was predestined to lose both conflicts. But this claim ignores the fact that victory or defeat depends on decisions actually made and strategies actually implemented.

Of course, all agree that the disastrous evacuation from Kabul recalls a similarly chaotic exit from Saigon. But there was a workable, and relatively well-executed plan in 1975, something that doesn’t appear to be the case in Kabul.  As Jim Webb observed recently : 

From the very outset, one searches in vain for evidence that our senior military and civilian planners came up with anything that indeed prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. 

In contrast: 

Once the North Vietnamese offensive began in March 1975 our military and civilian planners went into high gear.  By the end of April when Saigon fell, refugee camps were already in place in Guam, the Philippines, Camp Pendleton, California, Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, and Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.  American leaders gave clear signals to the advancing North Vietnamese that any interference with the retrograde would be met with military force.  A full naval Task Force was off the coast, scooping up thousands of people . . . who had set out in small fishing boats without knowing whether they would live or die, and then brought to refugee camps that were ready to assist them.  In a very short time, under the threat of an advancing army, our military rescued more than 140,000 Vietnamese, with hundreds of thousands of Boat People to follow over the next few years.

The decision to abandon the Bagram Air Base will go down in history as one of the great military blunders of all time. 

But beyond the optics of a chaotic exodus from both Kabul and Saigon, the two conflicts diverge. To begin with, they were fought for different purposes. Despite after-the-fact claims to the contrary, our intervention in Vietnam had a strategic purpose based on an understanding of U.S. national interests. As David Halberstam wrote years ago in the context of the Cold War, Vietnam’s geographic position and cultural strengths made it “one of only five or six nations in the world that is truly vital to U.S. interests.”

The conflict in Afghanistan, on the other hand, began as a punitive reaction to the attacks of 9/11. The initial offensive involving cooperation with the Northern Alliance succeeded in routing the Taliban but after the escape of Osama bin Laden from Tora Bora, the United States lost its strategic focus and the mission expanded to an attempt to impose a new political regime on a country with no civic tradition in a region of little strategic importance to the United States. 

Nation-Building Folly

In the 19th century, Afghanistan was the arena of the “great game” between Britain and Russia. The former absorbed many setbacks there in order to maintain the area as a buffer against a Russian threat to India, the crown jewel of the British Empire. Our “great game” is with China, and the main areas of confrontation in that struggle are the littoral areas of the Indo-Pacific, not the expanses of Southwest Asia.

A relatively small military and CIA footprint, with support to anti-Taliban warlords—as was the case with the Northern Alliance—might well have been sufficient to ensure that Afghanistan did not become a sanctuary for anti-American terrorists. Instead we embarked on “nation building,” a fool’s errand in a place like Afghanistan. The military component of this was counterinsurgency operations executed in places such as Helmand Province, in order to buy time to build an Afghan national army. 

Under President Trump, U.S. military operations were ramped back as the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), with U.S. logistic and fire support, took the lead. U.S. casualties plummeted. This bore some similarity to the “Vietnamization” program that President Nixon put into place in 1969. 

As was the case in Vietnam, some Afghan units performed well over the last few weeks, others less so. There are numerous accounts by U.S. soldiers attesting to the courage and skill of some of their Afghan counterparts. But neither the ARVN nor the ANSF were capable of operating without U.S. logistical and fire support. Once that support was precipitously removed, collapse was inevitable.

Vietnamization, which began in 1969 as Nixon sought to extricate U.S. forces from Vietnam, placed the burden of military operations on the ARVN. But U.S. logistical and fire support remained in place. The first test of Vietnamization came in the spring of 1972, when the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) launched the massive “Easter Offensive,” which dwarfed  in magnitude both Tet of 1968 and the final offensive of 1975. The United States provided massive fire support and although there were inevitable failures on the part of some ARVN units, all in all, the South Vietnamese fought well. Indeed, having blunted the Communist thrust, they recaptured much of the territory that had been lost to Hanoi. 

But in an act that still shames the United States to this day, the Democratic Congress that was elected in the wake of Watergate completely cut off military and economic assistance to South Vietnam. In response, the PAVN cobbled together a much weaker military push than the Easter Offensive. Constrained by congressional action, President Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon after he resigned, defaulted on promises to respond with force to North Vietnamese violations of the peace terms. Despite the heroic performance of some ARVN units, South Vietnam collapsed. 

A Better War

Biden and his supporters are trying to blame Donald Trump for the Afghan debacle, despite the fact that the latter had negotiated a conditions-based plan for extricating U.S. forces. But the fact is that Biden, following in the footsteps of the disgraceful action of Congress in 1975, chose unilaterally to abandon Afghanistan. 

The Afghan debacle has led some to recycle the old narrative about Vietnam (For my own views, see this review of the Ken Burns PBS series on the conflict.  ): that the Vietnamese Communists were too resolute, the South Vietnamese government too corrupt, and the Americans too clueless to fight the kind of war that would have secured victory. That Vietnam was destined to be a quagmire, and America was destined to lose there. But, again, countries are not predestined to win or lose wars. Victory or defeat depends on decisions actually made and strategies actually implemented. 

The United States made plenty of mistakes in Vietnam. Our complicity in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem was one. The subordination of strategy to the “systems analysis” preferred by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the academic theory of “limited war” was another. But I am convinced by revisionist historians such as Lewis Sorley and Mark Moyar that we had opportunities to succeed and that indeed, we were on the track to success after the United States and ARVN forces repulsed the Tet Offensive in early 1968. 

As one who served as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam in 1968-1969, I have been heavily influenced by Sorley’s argument as to the change in U.S. operational strategy after Tet under General Creighton Abrams, who replaced William Westmoreland as the commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam. 

As Sorley argues in his book, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (1999), during his time as commander in Vietnam, Westmoreland’s operational strategy emphasized the attrition of the PAVN in a “war of big battalions”—multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy with superior fire power. The battle of the la Drang Valley in November 1965 was an example of his preferred approach.

But he ignored the political struggle and the “protracted conflict” element of armed struggle. Accordingly, he did little to train the Vietnamese army, a policy endorsed by McNamara, who claimed that by the time the Vietnamese were trained, the Americans would have won the war.

In A Better War, Sorley examines the largely neglected later years of the conflict, concluding that the war in Vietnam “was being won on the ground even as it was being lost at the peace table and in the U.S. Congress.” Sorley argues that Westmoreland’s tactics squandered four years of public and congressional support for the war. “Search and destroy” operations, that is, were usually unsuccessful, since the enemy could avoid battle unless it was advantageous for him to accept it. But they were also costly to the American soldiers who conducted them and the Vietnamese civilians who were in the area.

Creighton Abrams succeeded Westmoreland as commander shortly after the 1968 Tet Offensive, joining Ellsworth Bunker, who had assumed the post of U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam the previous spring, and William Colby, a career CIA officer who coordinated the pacification effort. Abrams’ approach emphasized not the destruction of enemy forces per se but protection of the South Vietnamese population by controlling key areas. He then concentrated on attacking the enemy’s “logistics nose” (as opposed to a “logistics tail”): since the North Vietnamese lacked heavy transport within South Vietnam, they had to pre-position supplies forward of their sanctuaries before launching an offensive.

Fighting was still heavy, as illustrated by two major actions in South Vietnam’s A Shau Valley during the first half of 1969: the 9th Marine Regiment’s “Operation Dewey Canyon” and the 101st Airborne Division’s epic battle for “Hamburger Hill.” But now PAVN offensive timetables were being disrupted by preemptive allied attacks, buying more time for “Vietnamization,” the shift of military responsibilities from the United States to South Vietnam.

In addition, rather than ignoring the insurgency and pushing the South Vietnamese aside as Westmoreland had done, Abrams followed a policy of “one war,” integrating all aspects of the struggle against the Communists. The result, says Sorley, was “a better war” in which the United States and South Vietnamese essentially achieved the military and political conditions necessary for South Vietnam’s survival as a viable political entity. Of course, this was all undone in 1975 when Congress cut off U.S. support.  

U.S. interests in Afghanistan were not nearly as important as those in Vietnam. Neither were our goals. But over two decades, neither our civilian policymakers nor our military leadership were able to decide what they wanted to achieve and how to know when they had.

Serious Consequences

What can we learn from these two conflicts? First, it is necessary to have some clarity concerning the goals of the war, since they are fought for political objectives. Second, strategy must link those goals to available resources and constantly adapt to shifting circumstances. Third, any strategy must take account of the enemy. As the adage goes, any plan that depends on an enemy’s cooperation is bound to fail. 

Finally, defeat in war creates serious consequences for both the defeated and its allies. In defeat, South Vietnam ceased to exist, as has the Afghan government we supported. For the United States, the danger is that the blow to its credibility as an ally is likely to make the world a more dangerous place by inviting adventurism on the part of our adversaries. This happened with the Soviet Union in the 1970s. We can discern it today with a more aggressive China.

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About Mackubin Owens

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.

Photo: MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES via Getty Images