The trickiest problem in evaluating a limited war is not in making clear what limits were observed, or even in trying to estimate the results of those limits, but in trying to decide by what standard to judge the limits. People who ask why the United States waged a limited war in Vietnam implicitly assume, for the most part, that this should be considered an odd anomaly, that total war is the normal form of warfare. In fact, wars that approached the abstract ideal of "total warfare" closely enough for the use of the term to seem even marginally appropriate have not been all that common. Historically, limited warfare has been the norm.
The issues involved can be considerably illuminated by comparison with a very similar war: that fought by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
The problem began in April 1978, when the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan carried out a coup and Noor Taraki became the leader of the new government. The previous President, Daud (a general who had himself come to power by a coup in July 1973), was killed. It had not previously been obvious that the People's Democratic Party was a Communist Party.
In September 1979, Taraki was killed and his former Deputy Prime Minister, Hafizullah Amin, became the new leader. In December 1979, there was another coup, in which Amin was killed and Babrak Karmal (who had been in exile in Moscow) came to power. Soviet troops parachuted into Kabul December 27 to assist this coup; four motorized rifle divisions crossed the border the following day. "The Soviets have always insisted that they came in response to a plea for help from a legitimately constituted Karmal government... Moscow announced that its 'limited military contingent' would stay as long as necessary to repel outside aggression." (The New York Times, February 16, 1989, p. 4.)
Karmal was replaced by Najibullah, formerly head of the secret police, on May 4, 1986.
Soviet troops went into Afghanistan with the assumption that by siezing the capital they were siezing the country. During the first phase of the ensuing war, the Soviets conducted large-scale, conventional attacks, motorized and with heavy weapons and air power, into rebel strongholds. Part of the reason these did not work was that they were both reasonably predictable and temporary; guerrillas could scatter from the target areas, and return after the Soviet troops returned to their bases, meanwhile harassing and ambushing Soviet units to the extent of their abilities.
Another reason for failure was the poor training of the Soviet Army. Troops in ambushed units tended to remain with their vehicles, instead of charging the ambushing forces as they should have done. Field commander showed too little initiative, waiting for orders instead of acting on their own. By 1983 the Soviets had essentially give up trying to control the countryside; they withdrew into enclaves and bombed the countryside. There was a lot of fighting along supply lines that the Soviets tried to keep open.
In 1984, the Soviets introduced new tactics. Reconnaissance units were delivered into enemy territory by helicopter. When they found targets, airmobile assault troops, supported by aircraft and helicopter gunships, attacked. These tactics achieved considerable success.
This war began toward the end of Jimmy Carter's term as President of the United States. Carter provided some US military aid to the guerrillas fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan while he was president. He did not provide a huge amount--about $30 million for 1980. Under Ronald Reagan this went up $50 million for 1981, $50 million for 1982, $60 million for 1983, and $140 million for 1984. These figures do not suggest a huge differenc in policy between the Carter and Reagan administrations. One would not expect deliveries in the first year after the Soviet invasion of December 1979 to have been huge; it could legitimately take some time to get the pipeline going. For the first-year deliveries to have been half of the fourth-year level actually looks to me as if Carter got things off to a pretty fast start. (Figures from Cordesman & Wagner, The Lessons of Modern War, vol. 3, The Afghan and Falklands Conflicts, p. 20).
The big break was between Reagan's first and second terms. US military aid jumped to $250 million in 1985, and in succeeding years to $470 million, $660 million, and $700 million. In 1986, the US began supplying Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the guerrillas. These imposed such heavy casualties on low-flying helicopters and assault planes that the airmobile tactics were largely abandoned in 1987, and the Soviet troops returned to a strategy of defending strongpoints and supply routes.
In 1988, the Soviets decided to quit, and signed an agreement under which all their forces were to be out of Afghanistan by February 15, 1989. The Soviets continued to send weapons and supplies to the government they had been backing, and it hung on for a few years after it was no longer supported by Soviet troops, but finally fell before guerrilla forces.
The fundamental pattern of the wars in Afghanistan and and Vietnam was strikingly similar. In each case, the government of a Third World country was challenged by a guerrilla war. In each case there was a superpower providing massive support to the government; another superpower provided much more modest support to the guerrillas. In each case the superpower backing the government finally tired of the effort and withdrew its forces. The government in question had been strengthened enough during the time it had been supported by large numbers of foreign troops so it could hang on for a couple of years without them, given substantial financial aid, but soon political turmoil in the superpower supporting the government led to drastic reductions even in financial aid, and the government fell to the guerrillas in 1992.
A comparison of the relative degree of outside support for the guerrillas in the two conflicts is complicated by the question of the extent to which persons born in North Vietnam should be considered outsiders when fighting in South Vietnam. (Those tempted to treat this as a simple question should be reminded that in the early years of the war, most of the northerners fighting in South Vietnam were in the ARVN, rather than in the Communist forces.) Even if we decide to regard North Vietnamese as foreigners in South Vietnam, it remains clear that the amount of outside support given to the Saigon government was far greater than that given to the Viet Cong guerrillas, and furthermore that it was the larger program of US aid to the Saigon government that developed first, and the smaller program of North Vietnamese aid to the guerrillas that came chronologically later.
In each case the superpower backing the government claimed that it was carrying out a commitment to defend a legitimate local government. In each case this claim was reduced to farce at a quite early date when the superpower became dissatisfied with the ruler it had supposedly come to support, and the superpower then overthrew or connived at the overthrow of that ruler. The United States connived at the coup that overthrew Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, though the US had apparently intended that Diem only be deposed and exiled, not actually killed. The Soviet Union directly overthrew and killed Hafizullah Amin, at that time the Communist ruler of Afghanistan, in 1979. Before these events, the government of Hafizullah Amin had a slightly better claim to legitimacy as a genuinely indigenous regime than had the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. After the coups of 1963 in Vietnam and 1979 in Afghanistan, the status of the government as a puppet regime created by foreigners was at least as clear in Afghanistan as in South Vietnam.
The superpower supporting the government also had a variety of other ways of putting the best light on its actions. It described the government it was supporting as democratic in character (farcical in each case) and claimed that it was fighting to defend democracy. It pointed to the modest outside support given to the guerrillas, and to the guerrillas' use of external bases and sanctuaries, as the real outside interference in the affairs of the country, and claimed that its own much more massive intervention was intended to promote self-determination by countering the effects of outside support for the guerrillas. It publicized the humanitarian spirit of its forces, their provision of medical care for villagers in the areas where they operated, and so forth. It claimed to be eager to negotiate a reasonable compromise settlement of the war, and denounced the intransigence of the other side as the main obstacle to such a settlement.
A sample of such propaganda lines on the Soviet side, remarkably similar to US propaganda during the Vietnam War, was conveniently gathered together in Pravda International, vol. 2, no. 5 (this issue was not explicitly dated, but was apparently that for May 1988), pp. 4-9. It is, of course, so far from reality that it would be comic, if not for one sobering thought: many of the Soviet troops fighting in Afghanistan probably believed that these fairy tales represented an accurate picture of the cause for which they were fighting.
Next section: Comparing the Limits
Copyright © 1998 Edwin E. Moïse. Revised November 24, 1998.