US Vice President Kamala Harris is due to visit Vietnam on Tuesday, August 24, making her the first sitting US Vice President to visit the country.
With Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Vietnam on August 24, the fall of Kabul inevitably conjures up images of Saigon 46 years ago: a defeated US ally, a hasty and ignominious withdrawal, desperate partners seeking refuge.
So, is Kabul Saigon redox? In short, no. But Americans shouldn’t be too reassured.
There are similarities. In both countries, the United States has been engaged in civil wars for almost 20 years. The United States spent more than 10% of its annual GDP on each war effort. Washington ultimately decided that the wars were not winnable and struck deals with adversaries to the detriment of our Vietnamese and Afghan allies, which effectively sealed their fate.
And Washington hoped for a “decent interval” between the American withdrawal and the collapse of our allies. The intervals were not suitable.
But the differences are also striking.
In Vietnam, the United States’ strategic objective was to contain the Soviet Union, an adversary with nuclear weapons and worldwide influence. The strategy may have been misapplied, but it was nonetheless part of a global existential struggle.
In Afghanistan, we fought to kill terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and to deprive al-Qaeda of a sanctuary. Then the mission turned into nation building.
Every soldier, sailor, aviator, sailor or civilian lost in war is a personal and piercing tragedy. The United States lost more than 58,000 Americans in Vietnam, with more than 150,000 additional injuries; in Afghanistan, we have suffered nearly 2,400 deaths and over 20,000 injuries, many of them seriously. While by no means minimizing our loss of life in Afghanistan, our losses in Vietnam were of an entirely different magnitude.
National political impact
The injury to our civic life was also of a different magnitude. Vietnam was a national enterprise, with over 500,000 military personnel at its peak. He tore the nation apart, became a defining cause for a generation, and changed American politics.
Most Americans know little about the war in Afghanistan. With a fully voluntary army, the burden of the fighting was borne by a relatively small segment of our population. There were no mass protests against the war in Afghanistan, no exodus of young Americans to Canada to avoid conscription.
The humanitarian crises in Vietnam and Afghanistan are both enormous and deeply tragic, but they unfold very differently. In Vietnam, the great exodus came when the war was over and the United States had lost. Perhaps 1.2 million Vietnamese launched themselves as “boat people” after the fall of Saigon, with the United States ultimately resettling nearly one million refugees inside the United States.
The great exodus of Afghans has already taken place, with some 2.5 million Afghans seeking refuge, mainly in Pakistan and Iran. While many more could flee, depending on many factors, the United States is likely to resettle at most a tenth of the number of Afghans as we did for the Vietnamese.
Given the disparities between Vietnam and Afghanistan, the damage that the fall of Kabul will cause to America’s prestige, credibility and power will be an order of magnitude less than the fall of Saigon.
But there is another important difference that should be noted, not in the two wars, but in the international environments in which they were fought.
The United States that failed in Vietnam was still the colossus of the world without a close rival. The United States could afford to make big mistakes and get over it.
Now the United States is less dominant in world affairs. Even competitors, especially China, are emerging to challenge US might. Arguably, the United States will no longer be able to afford and recover from such serious mistakes. The current global balance of power is much more the Duke of Wellington called a tight thing.
When Vice President Harris visits Vietnam, comparisons between the fall of Saigon and the fall of Kabul will be inevitable. But our friends and allies – and our competitors – will not focus on the severity of the damage caused by the United States in Afghanistan. They will look for signals that the United States is now ready to focus on its most important strategic interests and to do so in a concerted and competent manner.
In short, Kabul is not Saigon. But 2021 is not 1975 either.
Mark C. Storella is a professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies of the Practice of Diplomacy. He was a United States Foreign Service Officer for more than three decades and served as United States Ambassador to Zambia from 2010 to 2013.
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