Eighteen years ago, the United States began preparing for war. Supported by 88% of Americans at the time, the Bush administration rushed into a conflict in Afghanistan that has now become unwinnable and feels endless. Recent plans for U.S.-Taliban peace talks opened the possibility for U.S. withdrawal from the region, but attacks by the Taliban in Kabul led U.S. President Donald Trump to cancel the talks, effectively thwarting any progress toward a meaningful end to the war. As we approach the anniversary of the beginning of the conflict, it’s hard not to think of another war once plagued with similar problems: Vietnam. One stark difference between the two is the strength of the domestic opposition. Despite more Americans believing that the government failed in achieving its objectives in Afghanistan, there has been no meaningful resistance to it — especially compared to that faced by Vietnam. Looking back, it is valuable to recognize the historic importance students had in bringing an end to the war. As the world moves farther away from the possibility of peace, we must pick up our contemporary responsibility to oppose any future combat efforts and bring an end to America’s longest war.
After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. military successfully overthrew the Taliban but failed to prevent their retreat, allowing them to transform into an insurgency — partnered with the remnants of Al-Qaeda and other allies — whose control over the country has changed over the years. Despite an escalation of U.S. forces to combat this insurgency, little progress has been made since. Coupled with the corruption of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan and an overall lack of direction, it becomes clear that the war in Afghanistan is lost. Perhaps it was from the beginning, as the legality of the invasion itself has been challenged. Either way, there’s a war; as an international community, we must come to terms with this before any more lives are lost.
This is not the first time the U.S. struggled to end a war it shouldn’t have started. Even beyond this, there are multiple parallels to be drawn between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam: military escalations that didn’t work and governments plagued by corruption — in retrospect, the New York Times deemed the war to have had “no purpose.” By 1966, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara privately doubted the possibility of winning the war, which nevertheless continued for seven more years.
More so than the impracticality of the war, the real issue with Vietnam was the cost — both materially and personally. Having spent the equivalent of $1 trillion, the US lost more than 58,000 soldiers, with more than 153,000 wounded. As difficult as this was for our country to face, the cost for Vietnam was unimaginable. Militarily, both sides combined saw the deaths of 1.4 million soldiers. Civilians suffered the most, with more than 2 million being killed.
While all sides in Afghanistan saw less casualties than the participants of Vietnam, the costs — both economic and human — can not be overstated. Though it bears a similar price tag, the human cost in Afghanistan has been due to the nature of the conflict. The highest number of U.S. troops in Vietnam was greater than 500,000; at its height there were only 100,000 in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the war in Afghanistan has significantly worsened the state of the country and the cancellation of peace talks has only made the situation more dire.
As we prepare for the administration to refocus its position in the region, we must look back to Vietnam. Most of the student opposition came in response to the escalation in warfare as well as the draft. As the war grew, so did the struggle for peace. Here at NYU, there were demonstrations against the war every year from 1965–71. National protests culminated in the 1970 student general strike, which resulted in the Kent State shooting and the deaths of four students — protesters at NYU responded with a banner saying “They Can’t Kill Us All” and “by storming campus buildings and attempting to blow them up.”
The radical tactics used to oppose Vietnam reflect the extreme cost of the war for many students. A June 1969 issue of LIFE magazine called “Faces of the American Dead” displayed the portraits of more than 200 Americans who had been killed in the war that week. The death toll of the Vietnam War is eclipsed only by the longevity of Afghanistan. In 2018, the U.S. Army highlighted an infantryman serving in the same unit his father had at the onset of the conflict — this is not the first time this has occurred. From this point forward, individuals born before the impetus of the conflict can now die participating in it. The war in Afghanistan has outlived its usefulness.
With no real end in sight, the future of the region remains uncertain. In order to avoid another escalation of the war, students must be aware of their responsibility to oppose the war, both historically and socially. While we can not determine the outcome, we can have a say on U.S. involvement. The conflict has long been considered a stalemate by even the most conservative estimates and any victory would be achieved at an unacceptable cost. Any escalation of U.S. forces would only continue to worsen the state of the country and must be avoided. A majority of Afghans are “deeply opposed to the foreign troops on their soil” and a majority of U.S. veterans say the war was “not worth fighting.” If we hope to create a more peaceful world, de-escalating the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is the only thing we can do to help. As students, we must lead the charge.
Email Cole Stallone at [email protected]