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On Vietnam War Anniversary, 3 Lessons For Afghanistan

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This April 30marks thirty-seven years since the end of the Vietnam War. The first US ground troops entered Vietnam in 1965 as a part of US foreign policy strategy of containment, seeking to prevent South Vietnam’s communist takeover by the North Vietnamese government and Viet Cong. Ten years later, American troops completely withdrew from the country, following the North’s takeover of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

Many have compared US involvement in the Vietnam War, almost four decades ago, to US involvement in the war in Afghanistan today. Debates over the past few years have compared Vietnam and Afghanistan analyzing similarities and differences between motivations for entering the wars, the number of casualties, and chances for US success. However, as the US prepares for the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, the focus must shift to how the US will handle post-war rehabilitation and assistance to Afghan civilians. In addition to lessons that Vietnam taught us about warfare, it also taught us lessons for what happens after wars, specifically with regards to humanitarian crises and rescues.

The Vietnam War was an event that forever changed US foreign affairs. Not only does the US constantly reevaluate its relationship with Vietnam today in current affairs, but whenever foreign conflicts call for US involvement, the country remembers Vietnam and from there, questions whether involvement would repeat any mistakes of the past.

Policymakers and military officials have their sights set on ensuring that government and military reforms are enacted in Afghanistan upon US departure. However, little has been said about what will happen to the civilians who will be left behind who are not a part of the government or military. It is crucial that US officials consider what steps ought to be taken to ensure their protection and well-being within the country after US forces withdraw — thus, avoiding such neglect committed after the Vietnam War. The following topics are key components that the US must consider as we figure out how to exit Afghanistan: 

Those who aided the US: During the Vietnam War, the US recruited Vietnamese citizens to help in its missions, promising compensation and protection. However, when the US withdrew, it failed in some cases to deliver the promises to the Vietnamese who had agreed to help the US. The US left these allies to be thrown into enemy prisons, tortured, or executed. Will this situation happen again as US troops are pulled from Afghanistan? The US, in addition to ensuring the safe withdrawal of its American citizens and soldiers, must also ensure the safety of those Afghans who have provided assistance throughout this war. Whether it is protection through a new life within Afghanistan (a sort of “witness protection” program), or a pass to immigrate to the US; compensation must be given.

Refugees: Just as during and after the Vietnam War when there were refugee crises as people escaped their homes to find safer places to establish new lives, there is, and will be, a refugee crisis as a consequence of the war in Afghanistan. Overcrowded camps for the refugees do not have access to heat or electricity for the winters, they have limited access to basic needs such as food and medical care, and have insufficient funding for schools and infrastructures. UNHCR is the main body that is helping mitigate the situation, but the US can play a role too. The US could provide funding to UNHCR so they could continue doing their job efficiently, and have wider spread access to victims of the war.

Women: Women’s issues were not prevalent during the Vietnam War, but they certainly are during the Afghan war. An article in Foreign Policy magazine notes that in 2001, one reason Washington leaders defended US intervention in Afghanistan was Afghanistan's abysmal regard for women’s rights. 

The Foreign Policy article claims, “Washington leaders regularly invoked the plight of women, who had just endured years of Taliban rule that barred them from school and work… the return of women to public life was seen as among the most positive by products of the US invasion of Afghanistan.” Since then, as the American public has grown more and more disapproving of American involvement in Afghanistan, the fight for Afghan women’s rights has slipped back into the shadows

In a speech at the US-Afghan Women’s Council earlier this year, Secretary Clinton stated:

“The women of Afghanistan are a valuable and irreplaceable resource, and their rights must be protected, and their opportunities for them to contribute must be preserved… I know that many women in Afghanistan and their supporters around the world are closely watching what we and the Afghan Government do to support a potential political reconciliation. Many are worried that in whatever future negotiations that might occur women, their rights, their roles, their concerns will be scarified, and the old days will return… The United States cannot and will not let that happen.”

While rhetoric for women’s rights remains strong, substantive programs must actually be put into place to realize the goal of ensuring Afghan women’s participation in the country’s society.

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