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.

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