Why the Lessons of Vietnam Don’t Apply to Afghanistan

In a recent New York Times op-ed, “What Trump Needs to Learn from Vietnam,” David Elliot draws lessons from America’s experience in Vietnam for Afghanistan. His opinion follows those of a few others, who have similarly argued over the past 16 years that Afghanistan has slowly turned into America’s Vietnam, a quagmire, from which the United States must disengage. While studying the complexity of Vietnam War remains interesting for academics and policymakers, it offers no relevant lessons for international engagement in Afghanistan.

These are two different countries in two different eras, influenced by different ideologies and geopolitics. In Vietnam, the United States sought to protect its remote interests against the expansion of an ideological threat from communism. In Afghanistan, the United States seeks to avert the spillover effects of terrorism, radicalism, and criminality that directly threaten America’s homeland security. 9/11 is a tragic reminder of that mission.

In his recent address to the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump pointed out the transnational nature of terrorism. He called on the world leaders to “deny the terrorists safe-haven, transit, funding, and any form of support for their vile and sinister ideology. We must drive them out of our nations.” He singled out the threat of state-sponsorship of terrorism, calling for global collective action “to expose and hold responsible those countries who support and finance terror groups like al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban and others that slaughter innocent people.”

That is why, unlike the Vietnamese, Afghans invited the United States and its NATO allies to rid our country of terrorism, which remains entrenched in South Asia. While few countries supported the counter-insurgency in Vietnam, America is now joined by more than 40 other countries to help stabilize Afghanistan against terrorism with regional and transnational roots. In this fight, the Afghan people and their brave forces remain a strategic asset, unlike Vietnamese.

“Today, there are over 20 international terrorist groups with an imposed presence on Afghan soil,” President Ashraf Ghani recently told world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly. He noted that “though we may be on the frontlines, the threat knows no boundaries.” “For terrorist groups who are harbored in the region, an attack in Kabul and an attack in Brussels, Paris, Barcelona, London, or anywhere else are equal victories,” he reminded the international community.

Moreover, while the United States administrations, Congress, and public were divided on Vietnam War, Afghanistan has consistently enjoyed bi-partisan support over the past 16 years. The 9/11 commemorations recently remind us of the enduring public support for Afghanistan’s transformation from a pariah state under the Taliban that repeatedly targeted Americans to a country where our multifaceted achievements—including institutionalization of democracy and human rights—remain a shared work in progress.

And, unlike former National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, who lacked on-the-ground Vietnam experience for effective war policy-making, Lt. General H.R. McMaster has served in Afghanistan and knows its surrounding region exceptionally well. That is why Trump’s regional strategy focuses on addressing the key drivers of insecurity in Afghanistan: external state sponsorship of terrorism, which maintains the Taliban and provides an enabling environment for other terrorist networks.

The National Unity Government of Afghanistan complements the United States strategy by pursuing a robust reforms agenda and effectively partners with the international community to implement our National Peace and Development Strategy that holistically addresses Afghanistan’s security, governance, and development needs and challenges. In this endeavor, President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah provide unified, visionary leadership, unlike the North-South ideological divide that fueled two competing capitals and presidents in Vietnam.

The fact that the Afghan people and our leaders stand united against terrorism completely sets us apart from the complexity of Vietnam’s operational environment. This reality renders the perception of a civil strife in Afghanistan baseless, while Vietnam was torn by a civil war between those that supported communism and others that opposed it and sought to institutionalize democracy. But weak leadership from President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic who discriminated against the majority Buddhist population, undermined rather than complemented America’s war efforts. “The Ultimate Protest” on June 11, 1963 directly resulted from a failing regime that quickly eroded American and international support for the Republic of South Vietnam.

All told, the international community, led by the United States, must stay the course in Afghanistan until we can firmly stand on our own. With support from the Afghan people and government, the United States is on the right path, helping us to win against terrorism, radicalism, and organized crime that destabilize Afghanistan and threaten America’s homeland security. That is why Americans should be patient and not allow politics to get in the way of President Trump’s strategy for shared success against our common enemy.

Ashraf Haidari (@MAshrafHaidari) is the director-general of Policy & Strategy for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, and formerly served as the country’s deputy chief of mission to India. He was previously Afghanistan’s Deputy Assistant National Security Advisor, as well as Afghan Chargé d’Affaires to the United States.

Published on September 26, 2017 in The Hill