June 8th, 2010
01:25 PM ET

Can Afghanistan be compared to the Vietnam war?

Much has been made in recent media reports about the conflict in Afghanistan surpassing the length of the Vietnam War, becoming the United States’ longest war.   Some would dispute that, and few would suggest the two wars are comparable. 

Unlike the Vietnam War, the beginning of the ongoing war in Afghanistan can be dated very precisely to October 7, 2001, when U.S. and British forces launched an invasion to remove the Taliban from power and rout al Qaeda from its mountain sanctuaries along the border with Pakistan.

Operation Enduring Freedom was unprecedented in that it was the first time the United States mobilized its military might to respond to an act of terrorism.

That winter, I was one of a CNN team at Tora Bora – Osama bin Laden’s warren of caves in the White Mountains.  U.S. airpower, including B52s from the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia,  pummeled al Qaeda’s hideouts.  But there was very little U.S. presence on the ground in that remote corner of Nangahar province.

The work of corralling al Qaeda fighters was left to the poorly trained and unmotivated mujahedeen of the Northern Alliance. Many of al Qaeda’s hierarchy escaped. It was the first misstep of many in a country that has become a graveyard for invading forces since the days of Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.

 Today, 104 months later, about 1,000 U.S. servicemen and women have died in Afghanistan (the exact number depends on the criteria you use) along with very nearly 300 British military personnel and others from NATO countries that have contributed to the International Security Assistance Force.

Most of those deaths have occurred in southern Afghanistan, and more can be expected as coalition forces try to drive the Taliban out of Kandahar, which they still consider their spiritual home.   Most of those U.S. troops have died in the past two years; it is a casualty rate that has risen sharply compared to the years following the invasion.

But the Afghan War can’t really be compared to the conflict in Vietnam, which claimed some 58,000 American lives and involved more conventional warfare, including pitched battles for major cities, as well as guerrilla combat. The Tet offensive in 1968 involved some 80,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers in a series of coordinated attacks on cities in South Vietnam.

The Taliban would not be remotely capable of such an operation. The Afghan War is what military analysts call a “low intensity” conflict – a counter-insurgency campaign of small engagements and ambushes but few if any pitched battles.

Another critical difference is that the Vietnam War was part of a larger ideological battle fueled and financed by the superpowers – pitching communism against the free-market democracies in a giant game of dominoes that was played out on five continents. The Afghan War is part of a new paradigm: a clash of “value systems,” one based on culture and religion rather than political philosophy. The term the military uses is the “assymetrical war.”

However, there are similarities between the Vietnam and Afghan wars.  In both cases, the United States' enemy used terrain and time of year to its advantage, and has proved adaptable and resilient.  The U.S. public has gradually lost faith in the prosecution and purpose of both wars.  Few CNN polls since 2006 have shown a majority favoring the war in Afghanistan; the latest from the end of May has just 42 per cent in favor and 56 percent opposed.

Whether or not Afghanistan is now the longest war that America has fought is a contentious issue.  The Department of Defense officially lists deaths in Vietnam beginning November 1, 1955 as related to the war; that’s the date when the Military Assistance Advisory Group began in Vietnam. Others insist that 1964 represents the year when the United States rapidly escalated its military presence in Southeast Asia, and moved from a support role to front-line engagement.

The start of the Vietnam War is also dated from  the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, something that diplomat Richard Holbrooke has rejected.

Holbrooke, the current U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, was a young diplomat in Saigon during the Vietnam era.  He notes that casualties began in 1961. On the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, there are 16 U.S. personnel listed as killed in that year.

Whatever the arguments about timelines, Holbrooke says he expects Afghanistan to be one of the longest wars in U.S.  history. And with the gift of hindsight, he says it’s more important than Vietnam.

“Vietnam was not directly related to our national security interest in the way Afghanistan is," he told National Public Radio. "We're there because of 9/11. And that's a simple matter of fact.” 

Both wars have cost the United States dearly,  both in the number of lives lost and in military spending. But they don’t compare with the era of “total war” – the conflicts that involved the entire population, when society as a whole was mobilized to support the “war effort.”

On 6th June 1944, D Day, the United States lost an estimated 2,499 men on the beaches of Normandy – more than twice the number of American troops so far killed in Afghanistan.

soundoff (282 Responses)
  1. Emo

    I agree with ^^^

    February 6, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Emo

    I actually think so too:P I have been browsing around the web for a while today, and its kinda hard to find something entertaining to read on blogs:P Maybe thats because there are too many of those around =) But your site actually keeps catching my attention=] Great stories, and kawai design ^__^. Ill be sure to give it more time from now on =]

    October 10, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Devil Dog

    S. Powell you dumba$$ the marines an't growing opim to export. They are there to kick ass.
    Sepmer Fi

    September 14, 2010 at 7:34 am | Report abuse |
  4. fontana

    Vietnam has no OIL.

    July 4, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. davonskevort

    I say we give them the ultimatum. behave or be nuked over all the poppy fields. kill the buffalo... kill the indians concept here target the money. We back out. we nuke then we kindly ask pakastan for osama with a bow on top in 30 days..

    June 15, 2010 at 3:01 am | Report abuse |
  6. Ryan

    I do believe this war can be seen similar to Vietnam except that we have far more cause and doing a whole lot better job. This was is not going to be simple or quick, it will be long and less costly (comparison to other wars). It is not going to be just an individual soldiers' effort but yet a whole worlds' civilian effort.

    June 15, 2010 at 1:45 am | Report abuse |
  7. Dean

    More than anything else at this moment we are there to stay on top of Pakistan. We all know Pakistan has a lot of nuclear bombs and the ability to deliver them. Right now the regime is stable. If our enemies get their hands on just one, and they are probably trying to do so, it could be a disaster.

    June 14, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Reynolds Wrap

    Thank you for caring everyone,but we the United States are not in Afganistan to win..We a are there to fight a regime that has a problem with women bettering themselves.It might sound rediculous but if you read about what the Taliban do you will clearly understand that they are there to cause mayhem.

    June 13, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Sean

    The simple fact is that Afghanistan isn't a winnable war. Do we honestly think that if we capture or kill Osama Bin Laden that the Taliban/Al Qaeda will simply throw down their weapons and surrender? These people have a way of life that we will never understand. They are individually motivated and would rather die fighting than surrender.There is no organized army force that we are fighting against and can be ordered to surrender. This is a sad and discouraging fact, but it is the fact. With all that said, the Taliban will soon come to realize why the Nazis and VC were so afraid of the Marines as they drop the hammer on their sorry asses.

    June 13, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Anonymous Solder

    I didn't read through all the posts, so this may be redundant.. As a combat veteran of the Operation Enduring Freedom, I resent the comparison to D-Day, which implies that this conflict's casualties are negligible when compared to one day of combat in WW2. War should never be quantified by numbers, because each soldier who falls is just as valuable as any other, and to compare the wars in which they are involved is to put a value on their sacrifice.

    June 13, 2010 at 11:10 am | Report abuse |
  11. HereOneTime

    They say Albert Einstein was a bright guy when he said as long as we have weapons we will find a reason to use them. I am a Vietnam war veteran and former VA employee. Our military wounded from the Vietnam war were not as serverly wounded physically or they would not of made it back due to lesser medical and response technology than we have today. Both wars have destroyed the minds and hearts of Americans, Afghans and Vietnamese.
    Listen. Completely take over the distribution of the opium crops by bullying the Tailban. Offer protection and a good return plus the aid to grow other crops that feed people. There is a medical market for opium. We need to take the power away from the Tailban. AND i agree with everyone since I am running for OFFICE. Just Kidding.

    June 13, 2010 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
  12. Canadian Jim

    If this was truly about 9/11 the US would have pursued bin Ladin with all its might and never would have sent forces into Iraq. As soon as they had bin Ladin and those they thought responsible they would have withdrawn and taken him back to stand trial. Bush/Cheney had another agenda and capturing bin Ladin was not in the plans. Now Nato countries which stood by the US in the wake of 9/11 are trapped in an unwinable situation. You cannot fight a religious war with guns and bombs. The more of the enemy you kill, the more religious the battle becomes for them, the more tenacious they become, their is no fear of death to a zealot, superior fire power will hold them at bay, but cannot conquer the beliefs which give them a reason to be.

    June 13, 2010 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
  13. Qasim Manzoor

    this is the fruit of U.S. agression against muslim countries and we hope this will continue untill it review policies. if us is still willing to remain their i hope they will not get out alive.

    June 13, 2010 at 7:07 am | Report abuse |
  14. Dinesh

    And the " CREDIT " goes to Pakistan, for Afghan longest war.

    June 13, 2010 at 5:11 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jack Meoff

    Leave now and leave Iraq. Two BS Corporate America Big Oil Lie and say its about stopping terrorism wars.

    June 13, 2010 at 2:18 am | Report abuse |
  16. mmi16

    There are parallels to Viet Nam

    Innocent civilian by day and Viet Cong by night
    Taliban fighter until killed then they become a innocent civilian.

    The reality is that the Afghan's only live to fight and die. If not with US involvement, then amongst themselves...they can't concieve of a life without killing someone, anyone. They have been doing it since time began and will be doing it until time ends.

    June 13, 2010 at 1:07 am | Report abuse |
  17. kbbpll

    As soon as Congress declares war, we can start the clock. Until then, it's just a corporate takeover that kills people.

    June 13, 2010 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
  18. Ian Grant

    I should like you to note the Canada, one of those other unnamed NATO countries to which you refer, has lost about 150 soldiers in Afghanistan, which proportionate to the population, is more than any other country, including the U.S.A.

    June 12, 2010 at 11:06 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Paul Khanton

    This article passes as propaganda but not as news. As others have pointed out the very premise of the article is based in a lie. Whether it is the "longest" war or even "unprecedented" miliitary response to a terrorist act. Did the reporter ever hear of a President named Jefferson? President Jefferson sent the US Navy and Marines to attack the Barbary Pirates and their collaborating governments – and that was a few years before our reciprocation in Afghanistan. Perhaps the phrase "to the shores of Tripoli" is alien to the reporter. Then, again, propagandists usually know the truth and simply choose to ignore it. Way to go, CNN! Just because another President with Jefferson in his name (Clinton) failed to respond adequately to terrorist acts doesn't mean that when a President (Bush) does respond that it was "unprecedented". Of course, maybe CNN simply doesn't want to remind its audience that the Barbary War was fought to stop SLAVERY – the ENSLAVEMENT of free men by a certain culture, since slavery still is practiced and honored by that very same culture. I'm sure CNN doesn't want to rock the boat of an administration that believes firmly in moral relativism and the right of other cultures to enslave women and others.

    June 12, 2010 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
  20. hector

    There are some key similarities between the Vietnam War and the War in Afghanistan that are often over looked due to the superficial differences of the ideology of the insurgents and the terrain. Just as in Vietnam the Unites States equates that technological superiority and the vast economic power of this country can and should guarantee victory over a foe, this is the failure of American military thinking. All one has to do to understand why, is to examine the remarks of the General Diep who lead the North Vietnamese forces to victory over the United States. When reminiscing about the conflict he stated that the first time his forces fought a large engagement with the Americans the American routed them by applying their immense technological advantage and fire power. But he also noted that after examining the battle he was able to come to the conclusion that this was in fact where their weakness was, because this reliance on technology meant that the American force carried the Unite States where ever they went impeding their mobility, but more importantly it showed the longing that American had to return to their country, and as for him and his forces, they weren’t going anywhere, this was their home. This strategy is simple an enemy has to do is show up for the fight and eventually the amount of lives and money spent will manifest themselves, as well as the futility of the conflict that seems to just go on. I don’t want the United States and its allies to lose this war, because I have little respect for the ideological belief and draconian religious interpretation that the Taliban have, but I do recognize that they are fighting at home and that means that they don’t have to win any battles, they just have to have the will to get up in the morning and pick up a gun.

    P.S It is true that LBJ allow his civilian cabinet to become heavily involve in military planning, but it is often forgotten that these me were not just any civilians, most of them had server in the military during WWII as did Robert McNamara who achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and did have an understanding of military doctrines.

    June 12, 2010 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Nope....

    America's invasion of Afghanistan should be compared to Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

    USSR invaded Afghanistan and failed. So did America.... how the heck can you compare Afghanistan to Vietnam? They are worlds apart and vastly different fighting.

    A comparison with Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is more accurate.

    June 12, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  22. John Clarke

    Yes we did not win in Vietnam and we will not win in Afghanistan, we do not learn from history.

    June 12, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
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