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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

US wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam

“An error. Another error. Yet, in his experience, refusal to acknowledge an error did not reset circumstance to an error-free state.” ? Sharon Lee, Dragon Ship

Since the invasion of Afghanistan by the US and allies in October 2001 till to date, one is often reminded of its similarities with the dreadful US War in Vietnam and one wonders as to why lessons learnt (if at all) have not been applied to the ongoing conflict. Since I have had a chance to interact with outstanding historians teaching in US military institutions and right in Washington DC, visited war memorials and the largest cemetery of young soldiers who sacrificed their lives in World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, I found it bewildering that the American policy makers, military planners and commanders on the ground in Afghanistan seemed to have either totally missed the opportunity to learn from the experience of past conflicts, or else they were simply intoxicated by the over-estimation of their military might and under-estimation of the foes they were going to confront.

The Vietnam War was the longest in U.S. history until the Afghanistan War (2002-2019…). The war was extremely divisive in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. Because the U.S. failed to achieve a military victory and the Republic of South Vietnam was ultimately taken over by North Vietnam, the Vietnam experience became known as “the only war America ever lost.” It remains a very controversial topic that continues to affect political and military decisions today.

Wise men and women in the US administation must join hands to undertake greater introspection for the good of not only American people, but of the whole globe

The U.S. War in Afghanistan), code named Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan (2001-14) and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (2015-present), followed the United States invasion of Afghanistan of 7 October 2001. The U.S. was initially supported by the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia and later by a coalition of over 40 countries, including all NATO members. The war’s public aims were to dismantle al-Qaeda and to deny it a safe base of operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power. The War in Afghanistan has become the longest war in United States history, after the Vietnam War.

In May 2012, NATO leaders commended an exit strategy for withdrawing their forces. UN-backed peace talks have since taken place between the Afghan government and the Taliban. On January 28, 2019 the U.S. government announced that negotiators for the US and Taliban have agreed in principle on key issues. U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan in return for Taliban promises that Afghan territory will not be used by terrorists. Nevertheless, there’s a slip between the cup and lips when it comes to peace negotiations in Afghanistan. Foreign Forces withdrawal, establishment of an interim government in Afghanistan, release of prisoners and removal of Taliban and its leadership from terrorist list and directly talking to the American instead of government in Afghanistan remain the Taliban’s main demands; whereas ceasefire to allow holding presidential elections (or even interim government) and talks between Taliban and Afghan government remain the US’s main demands to allow them to exit smoothly much before next US presidential election become due in 2020.

The real cost of the Afghanistan War is more than the $1.07 trillion added to the debt. First, and most important, is the cost borne by the 2,350 U.S. troops who died, the 20,092 who suffered injuries, and their families who have to live with the consequences (end  2017 estimates).

The comparison of the US war in Vietnam (1955-1973) and US war in Afghanistan(2001-2019…) summarized above bring to fore many similarities with respect to the incessant Great Game between USA and Russia (including emerging China) with competing strategic interests in the region, reliance on military and economic alliance by both sides, strategic blunders by US and allies at policy, planning and executions levels in both civil and military domains, misguided and chaotic covert wars by intelligence services, greater disparity in the stated and implicit goals, US over reliance on military muscles and technology with its limitations exposed, a tendency to bomb its way to victory, disregard to great human and financial losses resulting in decades-long economic and social crises, arrogance leading to underestimation of direct and indirect foes, disrespect to own public sentiments/internal fault lines and international opinion, changing goalposts and declared objectives, distraction by opening simultaneously new fronts causing over stretch, repeating the same experiments again and again and expecting different results, failure to comprehend the dichotomy inherent in killing with one hand and trying to win hearts and mind with the other, faulty assessment of “clear, hold and build concept” in the invaded country, disregard to limitation of its allies and consequent disenchantment, letting down tested friends and allies for scapegoating, and finally abandoning the war torn-region in utter chaos.

While the US role and involvement in the 2nd World War helped it become a great super power that stood on stated high moral grounds achieved by great sacrifices of its proud and brave soldiers; yet, the subsequent conflicts during the Cold War period and beyond that mostly added to anti-Americanism, greater economic burden and heightened insecurity both at home and abroad. It is time for American wise men to join heads for undertaking greater introspection for the good of not only American people, but for the whole globe.

“The hardest lessons are the ones that from ourselves we don’t learn.

The everlasting ones are those we are not able to forget.” —Lamine Pearlheart

The writer is a retired Army officer with experience in military & intelligence diplomacy and is a consultant on strategic analysis for many newspapers, magazines and PTV.

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