Why Afghanistan Is Not Vietnam

On the surface it sounds like the same situation. But there are strong humanitarian and strategic reasons to stay in Afghanistan.

Corrupt local officials. Demoralized, under-prepared and poorly led troops. An ambivalent local population. Complicated and ancient feuds where the combatants switch sides and the enemy is hard to define. The situation in Afghanistan sounds eerily familiar.

Since Pres. Joe Biden’s announcement that the U.S. would pull all of its remaining troops by September, the Taliban has taken over 26 government outposts, including four regional centers, effectively taking over the government there. In most cases, that has happened without a shot being fired. The government troops just gave up, often taking a payment from the Taliban, and went home.

The writing seems to be on the wall now. When the last of the U.S. and allied troops are gone, the Taliban or other radical groups will over-run the country.

Nonetheless, there are three good reasons for the U.S. and its allies to stay.

First, there are lessons from the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia. That resulted in an horrific humanitarian disaster. More than a million people were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 after the civil war there. The situation in Afghanistan is likely to follow a similar pattern, with a civil war between competing factions followed by a brutal crackdown by the victors. All semblance of liberal democracy will be wiped out. The rights of women will be turned back by centuries. Twenty years of U.S. investment will be pretty much for naught.

The bones of victims of the Khmer Rouge. Expect similar horrors when the U.S. is gone from Afghanistan.

Second, what happens in Afghanistan can have a direct impact on the security of the United States. While the situation in Southeast Asia presented no direct threat to Americans, that’s not true here. The reason we went into Afghanistan in the first place was to root out the sources of radial Islamic terrorist attacks against the U.S. That threat hasn’t gone away.

Third, the U.S. was keeping all this at bay with a small investment of troops — about 3,000 plus another 7,000 allied soldiers. It seems like a small price to pay for the benefits.

It’s true that — just like in Vietnam — we made little progress in nation building. We can’t just leave and expect the government to remain standing. And, yes, that does mean that we may need to stay there for another 20 years. That’s not all that unusual. We’ve been in Europe for 80 years. We’ve been in Korea for 70 years. And we’re in both places with a lot more than 3,000 troops.

Our withdrawal from Afghanistan will result in an utterly predictable human rights disaster and it may well result in direct attacks on Americans, even on American soil, in the future. This is one decision by Joe Biden that I think is a horrible mistake.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “Why Afghanistan Is Not Vietnam

  1. I didn’t know you were interested in writing fiction Dave. The account you offer here of Afghanistan only exists in the fevered minds of neo-liberals. The plans to invade Afghanistan were in existence long before the war on terror was unleashed on the world. We were never in control of the majority of the country. Right now, as I’ve previously mentioned, we are only in control of maybe 20% of it. If we were going after radical Islam, we would have invaded Saudi Arabia.

    A history refresher might be in order – please check out “The Great Game” for a good background on what’s involved in Afghanistan and the real reasons why we invaded that country.

    The humanitarian disaster in Vietnam and environs began with our invasion of that country. The CIA actively supported Pol Pot.

    We do not expend blood and treasure without an expectation for a return on our investment. I use ‘our’ loosely, as the only benefactors are the military-industrial complex. The one that Ike warned us about 60 years ago. The one that has only grown massively more powerful in the ensuing years. Neo-liberal fantasies about saving the world for democracy only feed that beast.


    1. The supporters of the pull-out don’t want to deal with the facts on the ground. Isn’t it true that when we’re gone the rights of women will be turned back and that girls will be prohibited from getting an education? Isn’t it the case that 18,000 interpreters and others who helped us will likely be subject to imprisonment, torture and worse? Is it wrong to suggest that the terrorist training posts that existed there won’t be reestablished? And, finally, is it incorrect that we could avoid all that with a relatively small investment of troops?


      1. Facts on the ground is what I’m trying to point out here.

        I think we would agree that Afghanistan is was and will be one of the most volatile places on our planet. If we do agree, keeping some small number of troops there is like sticking a finger in a cracking dike.

        Education – we just spent the last 16 months leaving behind our most vulnerable students. I suggest we look to our own backyard first, before solving the world’s problems.

        We know where the second largest number of ‘terrorist training posts’ are in the world – Saudi Arabia. If we follow the courage of your conviction, we should have invaded them and should be invading them now.

        The largest number of terrorist training camps are within our shores, and are well-documented. If you want to save the world from terrorism, I suggest starting right here at home.

        If the only way we engage with volatile places on our planet is with armed troops, we create the problem you seek to solve; a variation on Einstein’s definition of insanity.


  2. Maybe the time has passed, but I would like to know how you, writing as a center-left liberal, justify invading a sovereign nation? R2P?

    Even when I was a lefty, which I was for most of my life (I am trans-partisan now), I could see no moral justification for doing so.


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