U.S. Defense Department Did Not Apply Lessons from Vietnam to Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq

May 15, 2013
By Maryann Lawlor
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Despite the Vietnam War experience, the United States military was ill prepared for the fighting it faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the opinion Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, USA (Ret.), nonresident senior fellow, Center for a New American Security, and Minerva Research fellow, U.S. Naval Academy, shared with attendees at the final morning keynote address at East: Joint Warfighting 2013.

While Operation Desert Storm was the type of war the United States wanted to fight since its failure in Vietnam, it was a military success without victory, because Iraq’s leadership stayed in power. “The first Iraq war was necessary; this one is not,” Col. Nagl said. “Good intentions do not always result in favorable outcomes.”

The counterinsurgency lessons from fighting in Southeast Asia were not truly learned, because they were not applied to the fight in Southwest Asia until Gen. David Petraeus, USA, was called into action. And although operations in Iraq can be considered somewhat of a success because some stability has occurred, the jury is still out about whether the same can be said about operations in Afghanistan, Col. Nagl related. “Will Afghanistan end up like Vietnam … or an untidy success like Iraq?” he asked.

The colonel believes the U.S. military must continue to prepare for missions that are more counterinsurgent in nature. Counterinsurgency wars are long and messy, but these are the types of wars the U.S. is mostly likely to face in the future, he said.

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