By : Arnold L. Punaro , WSJ
Defense Department leaders have assured Congress and the American people that the military would study the war in Afghanistan to learn lessons from America’s 20-year involvement and painful exit. This will be an important exercise, but not a new one.
Many lessons from Afghanistan mirror ones from Vietnam. This time, we owe it to our fighting sons and daughters not merely to identify the lessons of failure but also to integrate them into our military so they aren’t repeated.
From the start, the U.S. engagements in Vietnam and Afghanistan suffered from a lack of clarity and coherent strategy. Despite the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the U.S. remained in Afghanistan, and leaders continued to misunderstand the differences between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies. We should have known better. In Vietnam we similarly lacked knowledge of the broader social, political and economic dynamics underpinning the situation and broader region.
We also “Americanized” the war in Afghanistan despite the failure of the same strategy in the Vietnam War. We defaulted to teaching our allies to fight like U.S. soldiers, with U.S. weapons and technologies and American-style training. We failed to teach our partners in either case self-sustaining logistics and maintenance skills, thereby setting them up for failure.
In Afghanistan we witnessed a stream of inaccurate accounts and unreliable analyses of the situation on the ground, much as we had in Vietnam. In both cases, the failure to address reality laid the groundwork for failed nations and botched evacuations.
The similarities go on. There were diplomatic blunders: The North Vietnamese paid only lip service to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, and the Taliban repeatedly failed to uphold their end of the conditions-based withdrawal agreement. There were foreign-aid problems: The influx of cash to both countries yielded little benefit but fueled rampant corruption and created dependency on external help. There were bureaucratic snafus: Poor coordination and communication, as well as an unclear division of labor among U.S. federal agencies, foreign governments and international organizations hampered mission effectiveness. (These issues also contributed to the failure to prevent 9/11.)
Are we doomed to repeat history? Service members who served during both conflicts, as I did, were pained to see our efforts in Afghanistan fail to take into account Vietnam’s lessons, even though many of our early leaders in Afghanistan cut their teeth in Vietnam.
There is still one critical failure of the Vietnam War that we could avoid repeating: the failure to act decisively on lessons learned. Three strategies could help ensure that things are different in the future.
First, the military should reform its education requirements to include a thorough examination of the lessons of both Vietnam and Afghanistan. It should be included in boot camp, officer candidate school and the senior service schools. The lessons must be absorbed by all, not limited to an analyst’s bookshelf.
Second, understanding and applying the lessons of Vietnam and Afghanistan should become part of the nomination process for three- and four-star generals. The Senate Armed Services Committee makes nominees certify all manner of commitments. They also should testify that they understand the lessons and won’t repeat the same mistakes.
Third, Congress must step up its oversight capacity. It should implement congressionally mandated strategy reviews as a safeguard against becoming bogged down in similar situations.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s August 2021 report contained a powerful quote from retired Army Gen. Jack Keane: “After the Vietnam War, we purged ourselves of everything that had to do with irregular warfare or insurgency, because it had to do with how we lost that war. In hindsight, that was a bad decision.”
We need to make better, more informed decisions. Let’s study these painful lessons and prevent them from happening again.