Browse Topics

Services

Programs

Afghanistan Is Not Vietnam
An Essay by John Laurence

audio Listen to Laurence's essay.

Nov. 2, 2001 -- Voices are being raised in Britain and other parts of Europe opposing the bombing of Afghanistan. A front-page headline in the Guardian newspaper this week declared “Majority Want Bombing Pause.” Fifty-four percent say halt attacks and allow aid convoys into Afghanistan.

Some European columnists have criticized allied policy in recent days. The general argument is that the bombing is killing and maiming innocent Afghan civilians without achieving success against the Taliban. Washington and London, it is said, do not have a winning strategy for fighting the war.

Similar criticism is reported in the United States. This week The New York Times headlined “Afghanistan As Vietnam” over an analysis suggesting similarities between the two conflicts. I wonder whether some foreign policy observers may be rushing to judgment.

"Afghanistan is not Vietnam. There are too many significant differences in terrain, population, weather, politics, history and motivation to make comparisons meaningful -- except, perhaps, for national will."

John Laurence

Something similar happened in the Middle East 10 years ago. Columnists, politicians and policy experts warned of terrible casualties that American troops would suffer when they met thousands of battle-tested Iraqi troops on the harsh desert sands of Kuwait. It was claimed that new military hardware, like Apache helicopters, wouldn't work properly, that the terrain was too tough, that Iraqi warriors were ready to die fighting. However, when Operation Desert Storm began, most Iraqi troops surrendered without a fight. They had been bombed mercilessly for more than a month.

Dire warnings were heard during the NATO bombing of Kosovo two years ago -- that it wasn't going to succeed, that too many civilians were being slaughtered, that the Serbs would hold out indefinitely. How quickly we forget. In the Gulf a decade ago, it took the United States and its allies nearly six months to prepare ground forces for the liberation of Kuwait. Kosovo did not require a ground attack, but the threat of one was a key factor in convincing the Serbs to surrender.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam. There are too many significant differences in terrain, population, weather, politics, history and motivation to make comparisons meaningful -- except, perhaps, for national will. If American leaders are determined to eliminate the threat of terrorism from with Afghanistan's borders, the American people will have to be patient. It will take many months to build the airfields and bases of operations, to stockpile the weapons and supplies and to transport the troops and their equipment before America's enemies in Afghanistan can be confronted and dealt with directly.

In the meantime, the bombing kills some of them, keeps the rest off balance and awake at night, destroys their supplies, disrupts their training programs and interferes with their ability to plan and execute more terror attacks like those in America in September. There is not going to be a quick, easy fix in Afghanistan, no instant gratification for those who judge what might happen on the basis of doubtful parallels with the past.

John Laurence covered the war in Vietnam for CBS and the wars in Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and the Persian Gulf for ABC.