Sobering Lessons for the Afghan Pullout in Paris Peace Accord Anniversary

James Kitfield and Sara Sorcher
National Journal

Even as the Obama administration and the Afghan government are locked in intense negotiations over the terms of the withdrawal of U.S. troops after a decade of war, the United States is approaching a sobering milestone. Jan. 27 will mark the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords ending America’s long war in Vietnam. By August of that year U.S. combat troops had pulled out of the country, though Washington continued to backstop South Vietnamese forces with airpower and other support.

What happened next should give U.S. officials pause as they contemplate how fast to remove the remaining 65,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and what, if any, residual support force to leave behind. After the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from South Vietnam, Congress became increasingly disillusioned with the continued fighting, eventually halting all U.S. air strikes and most other military support in 1975. North Vietnam’s communist forces overran the south soon after.

Today, of course, the United States and Vietnam have normalized relations-- even increased military cooperation, with China and Hanoi in a dispute over islands in the South China Sea claimed by both countries.

If animosities stoked by the Vietnam War have largely dissipated, however, the tragic legacy of that conflict lingers. A significant portion of the 7 million tons of bombs that the U.S. drooped on Vietnam failed to detonate on impact, and according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, there are still tons of submissions scattered throughout 55 Vietnamese provinces. The failure rate of cluster munitions from the Vietnam war is estimated at 30 percent, meaning there may be 125,000 tons of “bomblets” the size of baseballs scattered throughout the countryside.

As a result, four decades after the end of Vietnam, the war still claims fresh victims monthly. On average an incident involving unexploded ordnance occurs each week in Vietnam, In December of 2012 alone, five children were killed in two separate accidents involving unexploded ordnance.

“As we begin to pull our troops out of Afghanistan, it’s pretty sobering to consider that four decades after the end of the Vietnam War that conflict is still claiming new victims,” said James Hathaway, co-founder of Clear Path International, which is working in both Vietnam and Afghanistan to deal with the detritus of those conflicts. With funds provided by private donors as well as the State Department, Clear Path assists survivors of accidents involving mines and unexploded ordnance. The wounded are steered towards an Accident Survivor Assistance Program, which covers medical expenses and home modifications to make them more handicap accessible. In some instances, scholarships are available to children of those wounded by stepping on unexploded ordnance.

“In Vietnam everyone in the family is expected to work, so when someone is knocked out of work by one of these accidents involving unexploded ordnance, it can send the entire family into a spiral of poverty,” said Hathaway. “Our job is to try and stop that downward spiral and help the wounded and communities who are impacted.”

Afghanistan itself is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, after more than three decades of violent conflict since the Soviet invasion that began in 1979. The State Department, estimating more than 6,000 still-hazardous areas spanning hundreds of square miles in the country, has spent $303 million for nearly two decades until 2011 for to clear mines, help Afghan organizations de-mine and assist survivors, according to the latest public information from the department. Landmines killed or injured 812 Afghans -- more than half of them children-- in 2011 alone.

There is still more work to be done, Hathaway said, and U.S. involvement in this effort should continue past the slated end to combat operations in the country through organizations like Clear Path and others. “As the drawdown in Afghanistan takes place,” Hathaway said, “it’s our hope the U.S. government continues in its leadership on this issue in Afghanistan well beyond the pullout as long as possible to avoid the situations like Vietnam.”