Edwin E. Moïse

Limited War

Comparing the Limits

Both the US war in Vietnam and the Soviet war in Afghanistan were limited wars. In each case, it is possible to say with reasonable assurance that the superpower could have won the war if it had not limited its actions. The superiority in manpower and resources of the United States over Vietnam, or of the Soviet Union over Afghanistan, is too great for it to be plausible that the superpower could not have won if it had devoted its full resources to the conflict.

In evaluating what could have been accomplished by the United States in Vietnam or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, it is particularly important to note the very cautious attitude of the superpower backing the guerrillas in each war. The guerrillas did not obtain large quantities of outside aid, or sophisticated weapons, until the wars in question had been going on for many years. In Afghanistan, the shift was relatively sudden, and occurred in 1985 and 1986. The Stinger anti-aircraft missile, which began to reach guerrilla units in the second half of 1986, altered the whole nature of the Afghan war.

There is not so clearly definable a benchmark in Soviet support for the Vietnamese guerrillas, but the general pattern was the same: Soviet weaponry supplied to the guerrillas remained low both in quantity and in technological level at least until 1967. The most probable explanation is that the superpower backing the guerrillas in each war was being cautious, avoiding provocatively large quantities of support for the guerrillas until the superpower backing the government had become sufficiently war-weary to be unlikely to respond strongly to provocation. Another possibility should, however, be kept in mind: that the backers of the guerrillas did not for many years understand the true strength of the forces they were supporting, and the magnitude of the results the guerrillas could attain if adequately supported.

In regard to the way the powers supporting the governments in Afghanistan and South Vietnam restricted themselves to limited war, a comparison in matters of detail may be highly illuminating.

The United States could have put millions of military personnel into Vietnam. The actual number never got much higher than 500,000. The Soviet Union, with a slightly larger total population, could have put millions of military personnel into Afghanistan. The actual number never got much higher than 115,000.

The limits the United States placed on its bombing of the external sanctuaries that supported the Communist war effort in South Vietnam have already been discussed. These limits, however, were so broad that the bomb tonnage the US dropped on the "sanctuary" countries of Laos (2,093,300 tons), Cambodia (539,129 tons), and North Vietnam (539,129 tons) added up to about five times the tonnage that the US dropped on Germany in World War II. As a comparison, consider the attitude of the Soviet Union toward the sanctuaries in Pakistan, Iran, and China, from which the Afghan insurgency was supported. Soviet bombing of these sanctuaries, during all phases of the war from beginning to end, varied from zero to negligible. To say that the restrictions on Soviet bombing of guerrilla sanctuaries were ten times as stringent as those placed on US bombing of guerrilla sanctuaries would be a preposterous understatement of the actual difference.

The US government, trying to maintain normal standards of living and indeed economic growth during the war, held expenditures on the Vietnam War down to an average level (for the period of serious US combat commitment) of between fifteen and twenty billion dollars per year. The Soviet Union held expenditures down to a much lower level; surely less than five billion dollars per year and probably less than three billion.

The United States got tired of the war in Vietnam, and pulled its troops out, after a total expenditure of about 150 billion dollars and over 50,000 American lives. The Soviet Union got tired of the war in Afghanistan, and carried out a more sudden pullout, after a total expenditure that was surely less than 30 billion dollars and has been estimated as low as 15 billion. The first official Sovier casualty figures were released by the Defense Ministry in May 1988; they said Soviet casualties were 13,310 dead and 35,478 wounded. Novosti, the Soviet feature syndicate, released a commentary February 9, 1989, indicating that an additional 1,700 soldiers had died. (The New York Times, February 10, 1989, p. 6; see also February 8, p. 6, and Robert S. Litwak, "Soviet Policy in Afghanistan", in Kurt Campbell and S. Neil MacFarlane, eds., Gorbachev's Third World Dilemmas [London: Routledge, 1989], p. 246.) The total loss of Soviet lives may well have been higher than these figures show; one might especially note that the US casualty figures include non-combat deaths while the Soviet figures may by for combat deaths only. But it is unlikely that the number of Soviet dead matched the number of US dead in Vietnam. Only in regard to atrocities committed against the civilian population is it possible plausibly to suggest that the Soviet Union did not fight a more limited war than the United States did. Even this is only a plausible suggestion; it is not something that one can even come close to proving, at least with the information available to this author. One cannot measure even approximately the number of peasants shot by soldiers of either side, much less tell in how many of these cases the soldiers had some serious reason to believe that the peasants they were shooting were or might be dangerous enemies. Nor can one devise numerical ratios that will enable one to decide how many tons of fragmentation bombs, napalm, or herbicides applied to a Vietnamese village would be as atrocious as one ton of poison gas applied to an Afghan village.

Next section: Will to Win

Copyright © 1998 Edwin E. Moïse. Revised November 24, 1998.