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Like Vietnam, it is Time to Cut Our Losses in Afghanistan

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Like Vietnam, it is Time to Cut Our Losses in Afghanistan

Chad M. Pillai

US Emb Kabul


Afghanistan, as another Vietnam, conjures images of defeat as U.S. helicopters take the last American off the embassy roof. While the Vietnam War was a near-term strategic defeat, in retrospect, it may yet prove to have been a geo-strategic win. The same may prove true for Afghanistan after a U.S. withdrawal. Like a bad business investment, there are times when you must accept one’s losses and move on.

Vietnam, after the U.S. withdrawal and fall of Saigon, was a poor yet united country after centuries of domination by the Chinese, Japanese, and French. Like its more powerful northern neighbor, China, it too is a communist dictatorship embracing capitalism.  Despite its similarities with China, China’s rapidly aggressive political-economic-military influence in the Asia-Pacific region is pushing Vietnam closer to the U.S. to counter-balance China. For the U.S., this potential alignment, as seen by the recent U.S. carrier visit to Vietnam, could provide invaluable access for the U.S. and its regional Partners and Allies to hedge against China’s regional hegemonic aspirations.

The strategic defeat in Vietnam allowed the U.S. to refocus its efforts on rebuilding its military capability and capacity to confront the Soviet Union, along with its covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, contributed to the Soviet Union’s collapse. While Putin may have viewed this moment as the single-worst strategic event in the 20th century, it propelled the U.S. as the sole-super power and to a hyper-power status. As with any counter-factual theory, had the U.S. remained in Vietnam, it would have been conceivable that the U.S. would not have been able to refocus its efforts on rebuilding its military capability to confront the Soviets and conceivable that the collapse of the Soviet Union would have been delayed or not occurred at all.  As we see today, 18 years of fighting small wars in the Middle East has allowed our strategic competitors (Russia, China, and Iran) the space needed to close their capability gaps.

As for our present-day war in Afghanistan, the longest war in our nation’s history, despite reported gains against the Taliban, they remain far from being defeated. Often, the Taliban have shown their ability to reconstitute and adapt their strategy and tactics to the U.S. and NATO’s military and diplomatic approach.  There are several reasons for this to include the unhelpful sanctuaries that remain in Pakistan and the Afghan Government’s inability to provide effective local governance throughout the country - and its inability to confront the perception among the local populace that Afghan forces, especially the local police, are more corrupt and predatory than the Taliban. That said, many analysts believe the Afghan Central Government would fall without significant Western support.  When I was deployed to Afghanistan, 2012-2013, former International Security Assistance Force Commander, General John Allen, used to compare Afghanistan’s situation to South Korea immediately after the Korean War and that South Korea’s status today as an advanced modern democracy and economy are due to prolonged U.S. support.  However, our long-term commitment was tied to our larger geo-strategic interests during the Cold War and less on the domestic situation in Korea as evident by our support for its military dictatorship until the late 1970s.  Afghanistan is not like Korea and our vital national interest there do not carry the same geo-strategic weight Korea did during the Cold War. It is time we accept that reality that the time to leave Afghanistan is sooner rather than later, and as Senator Rand Paul’s statement during the Pompeo testimony concluded, and declare victory.

Major actors in the region, Russia, China, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, all have similar strategic interests in a stable Afghanistan.  Where they differentiate is how each defines a “stable Afghanistan” and the means to achieve that objective.  Too often, people associate Afghanistan as the “Graveyard of Empires.”  This is far from reality as Max Boot and others have noted that Afghanistan was more of a buffer and/or transitory zone between Empires and civilizations. This was true during the heights of the Persian (modern day Iran) and Mughal (modern day India and Pakistan) empires’ competition and later during the “Great Game” between the British and Russian empires.  Occasionally the Afghans would play a role in the region - as when they invaded India during the 1600s and later during the Anglo-Afghan wars ending in 1919.

A U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will return it to its traditional position as a buffer/transitory zone between other regional powers.  Like the withdrawal from Vietnam, withdrawing from Afghanistan will allow the U.S. to focus its efforts on its new reality – the return of great power politics against Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea as identified in the latest National Defense Strategy. The U.S. would maintain a minimal presence in Afghanistan and the region to continue counter-terrorism efforts against the persistent threat of violent extremists such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. A reduced presence would eventually force Afghanistan to evolve over time, like Vietnam, to become a strategic partner with the U.S. – much like Vietnam emerging as a potential strategic partner in the Asia-Pacific against a rising China and re-surgent Russia. Afghanistan too could eventually play a key role in allowing the U.S. and the West to compete and influence the historic region of the Silk Road that connects the strategic important Eurasian landmass from East to West. Leaving Afghanistan in the end may not be bad, it may be vital to our continued position atop the global order.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government or U.S. Department of Defense.

Categories: Afghanistan

About the Author(s)

Chad Pillai is a military strategist with recent service in a Theater Special Operations Command. He is a published author who has published previously in Small Wars Journal and other journals and online mediums. He received his Master of International Public Policy (MIPP) from the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 2009. The opinions expressed in his articles are the author's alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of Defense or the US Government.


Unfortunately, Maj. Pillai makes several fatal errors in this piece: firstly, he conflates the perceptions of a fickle and lay domestic audience with persistent facts on the (very distant) ground far; secondly, he conflates separate countries and separate wars so as to impose a top-down model; and lastly, he misunderstands America’s theories of victory across time and place.


Per Marshall McLuhan: “Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America—not the battlefields of Vietnam”.  Maj. Pillai may well be right that Afghanistan has been similarly lost in the “living rooms of America”, which obviated the need for a summation of Vietnam’s post-1975 history in three sentences.  Whether on the ground or on television, it was evident that the US campaign in Vietnam had grown from a counter-insurgency supported by airpower to a full-scale conventional war against an adversary that had inviolate bases and staging areas protected by two nuclear-armed great powers.  Despite a duration of only three years less than Vietnam, Afghanistan has only cost 4% of the fatalities of Vietnam.  Whereas US losses were 18% of coalition losses (foreign and local allies) in Vietnam, they are only 5% of the total in Afghanistan, indicating much greater success in placing the security burden on local forces.  At this rate, Afghanistan will not generate the outrage that led to the effort in Vietnam being curtailed after it had successfully defeated an insurgency and was now dealing with an invasion. 


Afghanistan is not Vietnam, and the Taliban are not the Viet Cong.  It is remarkable how Maj. Pillai transcribed the ‘South Vietnam is like South Korea’ error into an ‘Afghanistan is like Vietnam’ error.  A key consideration is that whereas the Indochinese wars consumed the resources of rival or adversarial great powers such as the Soviet Union and China, the war in Afghanistan is rather insignificant to Russia and China.  I could delve into the various actual differences between these countries, but it would take more words than the author has used in his gloss.  From the standpoint of perception, however, continental European NATO members, South Korea, Japan, and even Taiwan were portrayed to the American public as being “just like us” and in defiance of Palmerston, “permanent friends” .  Yet the Vietnamese and Afghans were portrayed typically as ‘others’ with whom Americans were merely transacting with in the furtherance of the national interest, allowing Americans to romanticize or demonize these peoples depending on their pre-existing convictions. 


Maj. Pillai’s theory of victory is that a much-reduced US presence in Afghanistan, “would eventually force Afghanistan to evolve over time, like Vietnam, to become a strategic partner with the U.S…Afghanistan too could eventually play a key role in allowing the U.S. and the West to compete and influence [Central Asia]”.  Yet this notion has weak premises.  It was by no means assured that Vietnam would become a partner of the US, and in fact during the Sino-Vietnamese War, the US was more interested in a partnership with China against the Soviet Union, which was Vietnam’s sponsor.  US-Vietnamese rapprochement is a relatively recent trend that began some 12 years ago, despite Vietnam having been unified and independent 42 years ago.  I would ask the author to consider the various failed US partnerships with formerly hostile states such as Yugoslavia under Tito, Romania under Ceausescu, and Iran under Khomeini, as well as the turmoil in US-Pakistan relations in the 1970s-1980s.  And if Vietnam could be ‘flipped’, why is North Korea then still an adversary despite its tensions with both China and Russia?  Yet these rather tactical failures pale in comparison to the strategic successes of US-China rapprochement in the 1970s and US-Soviet rapprochement in the 1980s.  In Vietnam, the US sought to help construct a strong South Vietnamese state on the order of South Korea; its ambitions for Afghanistan rather less enthusiastic.  I would argue that the US does indeed have a “reduced presence” in Afghanistan at present, considering the aforementioned 5% share of allied personnel.  Certainly, the CIA never left Afghanistan even after the withdrawal of Soviet forces, enabling it to forge relationships with what would become the Northern Alliance.  The current deployments seem sufficient to contain and attrite the Taliban, support the development of non-Pashtun Afghans in the central and northern regions, and to prevent the re-establishment of Al Qaeda or Daesh bases.  Gen. Allen was born at the end of the Korean War, and his comparison of South Korea in 1953 and Afghanistan in 2012-2013 is rather ludicrous.  A more appropriate US theory of victory in Afghanistan could be modeled more on interwar Iraq: where Iraqi Kurds became an American client in a US airpower protectorate, and where the rest of the country was under overwatch and subject to airstrikes at leisure. 


I agree that the US should focus on high-end warfare against peer-competitors.  Nevertheless, the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria are more than capable of causing significant discomfort to the US and its allies.  Was it more or less expensive for the US to withdraw from Iraq in 2010, only to return four years later with a massive air campaign?  Was it more or less expensive to dismiss CIA-led intervention in 1996-1999, only to proceed in 2001? 



Most of southern Afghanistan is and should be a no-man's land where only special forces and aircraft dare to go.  The problem is that you have a Pashtun nation of more than 40 million straddling the Durand Line.  If you provide them too much autonomy in Afghanistan, they will destabilize Pakistan (which will not forget the 1971 loss of East Pakistan/Bangladesh, despite conveniently forgetting its genocide and mass rape there), and intervening in Pakistan to give the Pashtun self-determination is about as advisable as intervening to help the Chechens, Tibetans, or Uighurs.  The sheer scale of the populations involved, the inconvenient geography, and the presence of nuclear weapons all mean that there will never be a stable unitary or federal Afghan state within the present borders of Afghanistan.  The best option is to contain the Pashtun and their Taliban in the south along the lines of say Gaza or the West Bank, and help the non-Pashtun Afghans develop a separate society, along the lines of say the Iraqi Kurds from 1991 to present.  


Mon, 04/23/2018 - 12:22pm

Though I disagree with your references about the U.S. in Vietnam, it's obvious that the decision-makers (especially, it seems, the generals) haven't bothered to look at the Lessons-Learned from Vietnam.

An obvious example of this is the almost daily strikes by the Taliban in Kabul. If U.S. and Afghan forces can't even control the capital city, how can they pacify or turn the countryside?

Further, why would anyone broadcast that the U.S. wouldn't chase terrorists crossing the border into Pakistan? Can you spell L-A-O-S?

Too bad that none of the generals or admirals served in Vietnam, as the old expression say, "We were winning when I left."