Rather than rehashing modern political failures, this article will point to several actions that the US took in the Korean War, which led to the stability of the regime in the South, which they failed to do in Vietnam, and then failed to do once again during the conflict in Afghanistan.
These consisted of:
- Partitioning the country
- Stopping the flow of foreign arms and soldiers into the country
- Legitimizing and stabilizing the government and army with a permanent treaty and troop placements
Without making moral claims over the legitimacy of the South Korean, South Vietnamese, or Afghan regime, suffice it to say that the governments supported, while often corrupt and brutal, were often faced by a totalitarian foe and were often thought of as the lesser of two evils.
In the aftermath of World War II, Korea was already pre-partitioned into two states and spheres of influence, the communist North, supported by the USSR and later the PRC, and the capitalist South, supported by the US, which each became their own respective sovereign states.
The Korean war began when, with the tacit support of their allies, North Korea invaded the South in an attempt to seize the entire peninsula. With the Soviet Union boycotting the UN over the Taiwan issue and the PRC still unrecognized, the UN Security Council was free to authorize military action to defend the South’s sovereignty.
Foreign fighters from China, and weapons, and logistical and financial support from the USSR flowed across the borders, making this conflict into a war of attrition, with China sacrificing somewhere in the vicinity of 300,000 of their people to push the American-Korean allied forces back to the 38th parallel.
As such, the country was partitioned and post-conflict, and the lines were reiterated through the creation of a mined de-militarized zone along the 38th parallel. This became a permanent line of demarcation and border between those states, whose crossing would trigger a restart to the conflict.
Despite the extrajudicial killings carried out under Syngman Rhee, the United States, observing the horrific war crimes perpetrated by the North Koreans and Chinese, continued to support the South as a better alternative, and legitimized the government through permanent military placements in the South.
Vietnam, after an attempt to create a communist state in the North, and then a French and then later American backed anti-communist regime in the South, was divided at one point at the 17th parallel.
It was only after the South lost its popularity through problematic policies and security collapsed in the face of infiltration and a campaign of targeted kidnappings and assassinations of officials that the situation eventually escalated to an invasion by 40,000 guerilla troops by 1963, largely across from the border with Laos.
The same year, Kennedy approved US troop involvement as the US abandoned hopes the the South could militarily defend itself.
Incompetence led to the assassination of Diem, the leader of the South, which itself brought about more chaos. Airstrikes began in 1964, and a ground campaign in 1965, both aimed at encouraging the North to cease its support for destabilization of the South as the US took increasing responsibility for its security.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were marked by the attempt for the US to train and build South Vietnamese capacity to defend their own country and maintain the counterinsurgency. Over time, the US gradually reduced aid and troop numbers.
After the US pulled out and ceased military and financial support, the North, bolstered by continued support both from abroad, took over the South.
Vietnam and South Korea
The major differences between the conflict were in terms of those three facets, legitimacy of the government and creating a firm partition, across which no people nor materiel could flow.
South Korea’s regime, while sometimes despotic, remained popular and kept its legitimacy. The bombing campaigns of the North and the invasion and destruction of the South meant that standards of living were both equally low, with the communist alternative offering little appeal. The war took place just after World War II, and thus Rhee had just as much credibility in terms of pro-independence credentials as did Kim, perhaps more, owing to the massive rearmament provided by the Soviets to the North while the US cautiously provided only defensive weapons to the South.
Further, South Korea is surrounded by ocean, and therefore its only border with the invading North and the flow of Chinese troops was through that border, which if sealed would mean that the possibility of foreign-backed intervention was greatly reduced. South Vietnam had no such advantages and the very long and porous borders with both Cambodia and Laos, besides the constantly shifting border with the North itself, proved to be easily penetrable to both soldiers and armaments. The lack of a fixed hard border meant that there was little to seal off or signal a significant shift in the status quo, meaning that clashes were usually seen as just clashes, and not as invasions.
Finally, the US left permanent bases in South Korea to discourage further provocations, and ensure local stability. War-weariness and the endless intractable nature of the Vietnam War meant that the US was unwilling to do the same there.
A replay of many of the same mistakes, it is landlocked and surrounded by states with a large incentive to destabilize it and harm US interests.
Their highly rural population, low central government legitimacy, and a porous border with Pakistan, which for decades has facilitated the flow of arms and soldiers into Afghanistan, were known vulnerabilities that were never addressed.
The US could have attempted to partition the country into either independent states, or a loose federation separating areas with ethnic minorities into self-governing regions, a secular capital region, and Dari and Pashto speaking regions. It instead made the error of keeping the same tired colonially-drawn boundaries that led to the failure of both the UK and the USSR to maintain stability long term. This also allowed the Taliban, who have a culture and language distinct from many of the people in those regions, to imply that the only choices were central government control or Taliban rule. Full local autonomy was never offered as a legitimate alternative.
Finally, the US could have maintained a base or permanent force in Kabul in support of the government there, but instead made both symbolic and concrete gestures to the Taliban, like in Vietnam, that their commitment to the country was ending and would not be rekindled, regardless of the fate of the government that they once supported. They abandoned the country with haste, leaving no permanent force, and without encouragement or funding, the government and its military force collapsed in months.
The strategic vulnerability and weakness of the state and geographic factors weaked their chances. So did American choices made both in regards to bolstering the legitimacy and defense of the Afghan government, and ending interference from Pakistan, few lessons seem to have been learned from Vietnam by those engaged.
Like Vietnam, long term stability without US support was difficult if not impossible to envision because of the impediments to centralization and democratization there. Nevertheless, it is always worth reflecting on the failures of the past to try and prevent the blunders of the future.
Staff writer: Ari B