By Daud Khan
ROME, Sep 6 2021 – There are several points of similarity between the war in Afghanistan and the war in Viet Nam. The Taliban, like the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, proved to be formidable tacticians and fighters. They managed to contain a far better equipped opponent and mount effective counteroffensives; access sufficient domestic and foreign funding to pay their fighters and support their families; build a formidable intelligence network; and acquire necessary technical capabilities in areas such as repair and maintenance of small arms.
Both the Vietnamese and the Taliban were experts in the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). In Viet Nam an estimated 10% of US army deaths and almost 20% of injuries were due to booby traps and land mines. In comparison, in Afghanistan nearly half of deaths were due to IEDs. An officer who served in a bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan told me about how the Taliban were as skilled as most conventional armies in handling explosives. According to this person, apparently one of the Taliban’s most skilled operatives was a lady whose work was recognizable for the sophistication of the associated electronics.
Like the Vietnamese, the Taliban also proved to be canny strategists. Their approach during the Doha engagement was very similar to that of the North Vietnamese during the Paris talks – negotiate but give away little; continue to fight on the ground and gain territory; and accompany this by a strong propaganda effort to undermine the morale of the weakest element in the enemy ranks (the South Vietnamese army in the one case; the Afghan National Army in the other).
There are also striking similarities in the images of representative moments of the two wars. US soldiers armed with equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars, patrolling villages and hamlets with small children, wide-eyed and ill clad, looking on; scruffy looking Viet Cong or Afghan soldiers armed only with light arms and grenade launchers marching through barren hills or torrid jungles; and, during the last days of the war, the helicopters taking off from Kabul and the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon.
Now that the USA and its allies have left Afghanistan and the Taliban are taking up the reins of Government, it is worth speculating about what kind of regime we are likely to see. Key questions in the coming years will be: how the Taliban would treat their political and military opponents; what systems of administration and justice would they set up; what will be the role of women and how they will be treated; what relations would they have with countries regional players such a Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia and Turkey, as well as with the USA; and, above all how will they bring about a prosperous Afghanistan?
The Taliban appear to have learnt from the Vietnamese in the conduct of the war. Maybe they should also learn lessons from Viet Nam about the conduct of the post-war peace.
After the USA pulled out of Viet Nam, the Communist Party took over a poverty-stricken and ravaged country where much infrastructure was destroyed, basic services were missing and the large swathes of the country side were inaccessible due to landmines or the use of Agent Orange – a chemical defoliant that was aerially sprayed to destroy the forests that the Viet Cong were allegedly hiding in. Deep social and economic divisions separated the north and the south of the country. There was also a huge flight of capital, both financial and human, soaring inflation rates and severe debt problems. Not much different from Afghanistan today?
But despite the disastrous starting point, Viet Nam’s development over the last 45 years has been remarkable. During the first decade after the end of the war, economic progress was slow as priority was given to political consolidation with the Communist Party tightening its hold on power and laying the foundations for systems for administration, security, development and fiscal management. There was also a massive focus on education at all levels, from primary to tertiary, with top students being sent abroad for doing Master’s degrees and Doctorates at top universities around the world.
Another achievement of that period was the establishment of high levels of participation, accountability and competence at commune level – the lowest level of Government. I worked in some of the poorest and most remote areas of Viet Nam and the dedication and organizational skills of Government staff even in these areas was striking. Even more striking was the level of people’s involvement – no one had qualms about berating the Commune Chairman and his team for jobs not done, duties overlooked and problems not given due attention.
The building on the political and administrative efforts made in the first decade after unification, attention turned to economic stabilization and development. Reforms introduced in the mid to late 1980s liberalized much of economy and spurred rapid economic growth, transforming what was then one of the world’s poorest nations into a lower middle-income country with GPD per capita approaching US$3,000.
A major factor in making the reforms work was the commitment of Government staff at all levels and the strong ideology that underpinned the development effort. The Communist Party played a key role ensuring that resources and processes were not captured by local elites; that development efforts focused on meeting real needs; that economic growth was by and large equitable with the result that poverty rates, which were well over 70% at one point, fell to around 5%; and that foreign policy and international relations were pragmatic and subservient to the economic needs at the time. A couple of anecdotes would illustrate the commitment and pragmatism of the some of these people.
My work often involved close interaction with senior Government staff. A routine part of this was a certain degree of socialization – a coffee together, a drink after work, or a pleasant dinner – which created a friendly, informal atmosphere where difficult issues could be discussed and hopefully sorted out. But I was puzzled by the fact that while there were plenty of official “banquets” there was never any personal invitations from our counterparts – neither to their houses nor elsewhere. The reasons became clear to me over time. The salaries of even senior Government employees were simply not enough to cover the costs of dinners or other such events.
And after several years, when I was finally invited to the house of one of my counterparts for dinner, I had the privilege – and I use the word privilege deliberately – to see how senior government staff lived, I also understood why they never invited us home. They were simply embarrassed.
My friend picked me up from my hotel on his 90 cc Honda motorcycle; took me to his modest two bedroom flat where he lived with his family of five; and we had a simple and frugal dinner cooked by his wife and mother-in-law. No big cars, no servants, no fancy electronic equipment. And this was a person who had a PhD. from Harvard University; who at the time was a Director in the ministry I was working with; and who went on to become the Governor of a Province and then a full Minister. And he, like many others, despite their low pay and limited privileges, worked incredibly hard, often sleeping in their offices when major policy changes and decisions were being formulated and implemented.
The second anecdote regards attitudes to the past and the future. Another senior Government officer told me about living in Hanoi during the war – the planes screaming overhead night after night, the rush to the bomb shelters, and the sounds of explosions. Her father was a senior officer in the army and was never at home; and every time the phone rang her mother’s hand used to tremble as she picked up the receiver as she braced herself for bad news. She also told me she still had nightmares about their home being bombed or receiving a telephone call to inform them that her father had been killed – and how she would wake up from these nightmares in a cold sweat with the smell of death and destruction in her nostrils.
I asked her how she felt about present day Viet Nam, where US investments were pouring in, various trade delegations were visiting her ministry, and the young people from US and Europe were thronging the cafes and bars of the city. Without batting an eyelid she said: “We have to close the door to the past, and open the door to the future”. This was a phrase I went to hear many time after that.
Is it at all possible that the Taliban will continue to follow in the footsteps of the Vietnamese over the coming years?
If they were to do so, they would have to overcome a series of political and social challenges such as the turning their fighters into a force for peace and security; overcoming tribal differences; limiting the influence of outside organizations such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS who may wish to make Afghanistan a base for global or regional Jihad; handling the more radical groups within their own ranks; promoting education for everyone; and unleashing the power of Afghan women. They will also have to turn their attention to economic issues such as trade, finance and development and this will involve making links with richer countries, with international financial institutions, and with humanitarian and aid agencies and NGOs.
Do the Taliban have the discipline and dedication to address these and other challenges? The Taliban have overcome immense odds to defeat the mightiest army ever present on the planet. They now have to run the country. Good luck to the Afghan people who, after over four decades of war, deserve four decades of peace and progress as happened in Viet Nam.
Daud Khan works as consultant and advisor for various Governments and international agencies. He has degrees in Economics from the LSE and Oxford – where he was a Rhodes Scholar; and a degree in Environmental Management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology. He lives partly in Italy and partly in Pakistan. He has worked extensively in Viet Nam and in Afghanistan.