From Saigon to Kabul | Press

The collapse of the Afghan army has drawn several comparisons with the fall of the government of South Vietnam in 1975. La Presse asked two specialists from the two Vietnamese whether they were eligible. A journey through time with Sean Fear from the University of Leeds, who grew up in Toronto and studied in Montreal, and Pierre Asselin from the State University in San Diego, who grew up and studied in Quebec.

Posted on Aug 29, 2021 at 7:00 am

Mathieu Perreault La Presse

Q. Can we compare the collapse of the Afghan and South Vietnamese governments?

Pierre Asselin: There are just as many differences between the Second World War and the Vietnam War as there are between the Vietnam War and the war in Afghanistan. In Vietnam 20 times more American soldiers and many more local soldiers died. The American bombings in Vietnam claimed many more civilian lives. But I think we can compare their effects. The fall of Saigon fueled communist guerrilla warfare in Angola, Mozambique and Nicaragua. I believe that without the fall of Saigon, the Soviet Union might not have invaded Afghanistan. It caused a second cold war. Once again, the overthrow of an American-backed regime after the withdrawal of their troops should encourage the enemies of the United States.

Sean Fear: In both cases there was a huge gap between a cosmopolitan city and a more traditional rural society that was exploited by communist and Taliban guerrillas. The Afghan and South Vietnamese governments have been plagued by corruption stemming from massive US spending. Public distrust of this corruption was heightened by the deaths of civilians during the American air strikes.

Q. Are the reasons for the military collapse similar to the government?

Pierre Asselin: That is mainly due to the interruption of American air support. The United States had armed armies like theirs that needed such air support. But when they decided to pull the American soldiers out of the country, they had to stop the bombing because there was no way to get their downed pilots back. In Vietnam it was clear that North Vietnam knew victory was impossible when American planes came into play.

Sean Fear: In Vietnam, as in Afghanistan, the withdrawal of American air support has played a crucial role. It was very demoralizing for the soldiers. But there are also reports that the Taliban paid Afghan units to lay down their weapons, which has not happened in Vietnam, apart from isolated cases in which South Vietnamese commanders smuggled their weapons in the Viet Cong, the communist guerrilla. On the other hand, I think there was a strong tendency in Afghanistan, the Taliban had been making progress since 2017. In Vietnam, between the North Vietnamese offensive in 1972, successfully pushed back with the American Air Force, and 1975, there was no progress.

Q. Can we make a comparison between Chinese and Russian support for the Viet Cong and North Vietnam and Pakistani support for the Taliban?

Pierre Asselin: I don’t think there was much direct military aid from Pakistan. What is certain, however, is that the ability for the Taliban to seek refuge in Pakistan, and the impossibility for the United States to systematically pursue them there, is a reminder that the Viet Cong use Laos and Cambodia as refuge and material from the ‘through the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The world was not outraged by these communist violations of the sovereignty of these two countries, but the bombing by the United States was very unpopular and had to be stopped. Likewise, the United States could not anger a key regional ally, Pakistan.

Sean Fear: Without the material support from China and the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese would certainly never have won. Even the communists did not oppose the French government in the 1950s. But Pakistan’s support was less material than protective. However, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban might have reappeared after all, even if the US military had been able to pursue them in Pakistan.

In numbers

1.7 million: deaths in the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1975

241,000: Number of dead in the war in Afghanistan since 2001

Source: Brown University

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