“Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template”

A fascinating analysis on a subject often discussed on the FM website (see the list at the end of this post).   I recommend reading it in full.

Excerpt from “Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template“, Thomas H. Johnson (Prof of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey) and M. Chris Mason (retired Foreign Service officer, Sr Fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies), Military Review, Nov-Dec 2009:

Whatever the outcomes of the President’s decision and the current Afghan election in the next few weeks, however, they will not affect the extraordinary similarity of the two conflicts.

The superficial parallels between the Afghanistan and Vietnam conflicts are eerie enough. Both insurgencies were and are rurally based. In both cases, 80% of the population was and is rural, with national literacy hovering around 10%. Both insurgencies were and are ethnically cohesive and exclusive. In both cases, the insurgents enjoyed safe sanctuary behind a long, rugged and uncloseable border, which conventional U.S. forces could not and cannot cross, where the enemy had and has uncontested political power. Both countries were wracked by decades of European imperial aggression (France, the Soviet Union), both improbably won their David-versus-Goliath wars against the invaders, and both experienced a decade of North-South civil war afterwards: all producing generations of experienced and highly skilled fighters and combat commanders.

Both countries have spectacularly inhospitable and impassable terrain and few roads, limiting the value of U.S. superiority in motor vehicles and making tanks irrelevant and artillery immobile. Such terrain forces a reliance on airpower for fire support and helicopters for personnel movement and resupply. Both wars are on the Asian landmass, thousands of miles from the United States, which requires super-attenuated logistics lines, although in Afghanistan, unlike Vietnam, where the U.S. Navy performed extremely well, there is of course no Cam Rahn Bay, no Mekong Delta, and no coastline, largely limiting the huge advantage of U.S. naval power to SEALs and Seabees.

As in most rural peasant insurgencies, in both cases, poorly equipped guerrillas lived and hid among the people. Neither the Viet Cong (VC) nor the Taliban were or are popular. Support for either to be the national rulers was and is below 15%. In both wars the enemy deeply infiltrated our bases, and forced interpreters to inform them of our every move and word. In both countries, heavy-handed and culturally offensive U.S. troop behavior and indiscriminate use of fire support turned rural villages into enemy recruiting centers. North Vietnam received money, weapons and support from the Soviet Union; the Taliban receives it from the Pakistani Army (the ISI) and wealthy Saudis. In June 2009, the U.S. Army even reinstituted the “body count” as a metric of success. (General McChrystal revoked this on taking command, but the mentality remains.)

Those are just a few of the surface symmetries. The real parallels are far more profound. There are differences, to be sure, but most, if examined, are more atmospheric than structural. And unfortunately, most are distinct disadvantages for the United States. Afghanistan is a patchwork of ethnic groups, unlike Vietnam, with almost no national sense of identity or nationalism. In Vietnam, the United States had complete control over the prosecution of the war; in Afghanistan, the “war by coalition” is hampered by fractured internal lines of authority and national caveats and rules of engagement that undermine unity of command. In Vietnam, the enemy was monolithic; the insurgency in Afghanistan is a complex network of networks, and that is bad news. Afghanistan is not one insurgency but several connected ones, and generalizations about U.S. enemies in Afghanistan are misleading and often counterproductive. …


The Vietnam and Afghan wars are remarkably similar at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. …

For more information on the FM website

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Including About the FM website page. Of esp relevance to this topic:

Posts comparing the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars:

  1. A living eulogy to Robert Strange McNamara, 26 July 2009
  2. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009
  3. Another note from our past, helping us see our future, 16 September 2009
  4. A history lesson recommended for the top of your reading pile, 17 September 2009
  5. Let’s blow the fog away and see what General McChrystal really said, 23 September 2009


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