For the US military, the Vietnam War ended on April 29, 1975 when its last personnel were evacuated from the embassy roof in Saigon. Only hours later, the South Vietnamese government surrendered to the Vietcong.
These were momentous events set in motion 25 years earlier when, in August 1950, the first shipload of US arms arrived in Vietnam, ostensibly to bolster France's ability to suppress a mounting Communist-led insurgency against continued colonial rule.
But while that conflict is now just another part of history, the tragic events that culminated in the United States’ ignominious defeat then might be instructive in its now almost decade-long war on the same continent. And, as the United States slips into another quagmire—committing ever more resources to try to quell the Taliban-al-Qaeda insurgency in Afghanistan—its policymakers would do well to consider the increasingly obvious parallels with this earlier endeavour.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The most important of these similarities is almost certainly the critical variable that eventually convinced the US public that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and provoked growing and ultimately decisive opposition to its continuation—mounting casualties.
When casualty rates rose from a relative handful per month to the level of scores and ultimately hundreds per month, no amount of reassurance that there was light at the end of the tunnel—and that perseverance would eventually carry the day—was going to convince a sceptical US public it should continue.
This isn’t to say that the level of casualties has yet (or ever will) compare with the Vietnam fiasco. But relative to the scope of war now being waged in the AfPak theatre, casualties are rising uncomfortably sharply and the US public is growing restive.
There’s considerable evidence that the jihadi quasi-state that now embraces a significant portion of the tribal mountain region situated between the Afghani and Pakistani heartlands has jelled into a formidable socio-political entity with significant military capabilities. This quasi-state is the reason why no matter how many Taliban leaders have been killed by drones, insurgent attacks have persisted and even escalated.
This ‘state’ possesses the fiscal, manpower and administrative and ideological resources to replace its battlefield losses, resupply its military equipment, and mount sustained and sophisticated attacks against US and NATO forces.
As a consequence of all this, public opposition to the war, as happened with Vietnam, is trending toward critical mass, a shift likely to be fanned by the public scepticism on display by key opinion formers.
Back in the 1960s, it was pronouncements like that from the late Walter Cronkite, who declared in 1968 that ‘We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find,’ which helped solidify opposition.
Now, concerns are being raised by leading foreign policy intellectuals such as Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haas, formerly director of policy planning in the US State Department under Gen. Colin Powell, who had a cover story in Newsweek last month that effectively declared the Afghan war a failure and called for a complete rethink.
And, while back in 1971 the release of the Pentagon Papers blew the lid off public confidence in its leaders, the WikiLeaks publication has laid bare for all to see the mounting problems in Afghanistan.