Journal of Cold War Studies 4.2 (2002) 133-135
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Vietnam and Afghanistan Compared
Douglas A. Borer, Superpowers Defeated: Vietnam and Afghanistan Compared. London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999. xxiii 1 261 pp. $57.50.
The U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan have generated much debate and scholarly analysis over the years. A vast number of articles and books on various aspects of these two landmark events have appeared. However, almost all of these works, reflecting a wide range of perspectives, have focused on the events individually and independently of one another. The book under review is the first of its kind to take an in-depth, scholarly look at Vietnam and Afghanistan on a comparative basis.
Douglas Borer adopts a simple enough conceptual approach, arguing that two closely related "underlying hypotheses unify the historical narrative and the comparative analysis" of his book. The first theme is the lack of political legitimacy, which he defines as "the basis for social unity, cohesion, and stability within any given polity,with the polity comprising the ruling state apparatus and the citizenry ofa given territory" (p. xix). The other theme is the "impact of foreign military intervention on both the domestic political legitimacy and [the] international credibility of the superpowers [as perceived by] other actors within the international system" (p.xx).
Relying on this framework, Borer undertakes his rather complex study of the Vietnam and Afghanistan conflicts. His objectives are to identify the similarities and [End Page 133] differences between the two, to establish the pattern of superpowers' involvement in these wars, and to answer two important questions: What caused the superpowers' debacles, and what were the major lessons of the Vietnam and Afghan wars?
In addressing these issues, Borer provides a thorough explanation of the internal dynamics and foreign policy circumstances of Vietnam and Afghanistan in both historical and contemporary terms. He concludes:
In each instance the superpower strategy of containment failed, in part because detainment of a rebellious population, rather than containment of outside aggression, was the primary problem that military force attempted to redress. The root cause for defeat had already been firmly established at the onset of the U.S. and Soviet intervention—in the view of most of their own subjects the governments in Saigon and Kabul were illegitimate creations of hated foreign interlopers. (p.194)
As such, he relates the findings of his study back to his main hypothesis about political legitimacy and international credibility. Borer finally claims that the superpowers' defeats—something that the United States could survive but the Soviet Union ultimately could not—were grounded more in political than in military failures.
Borer's comparison of the Vietnam and Afghanistan conflicts and his explanation of the role of the superpowers in the wars are instructive. They reflect good knowledge of the two conflicts and the workings of the American and Soviet decision-making processes. His analysis of the conflicts as both domestic and international in character, and of their similar paths of development, is thorough and perceptive. Similarly, his use of the concepts of political legitimacy and international credibility as the main themes underpinning the cohesion and analytical vigor of his study is clear and pertinent. The language of the book is lucid, its content rich, and its conclusions, in many ways, challenging.
Overall, the book relies mainly on secondary sources and provides little new information. When discussing Soviet decision-making processes and policy behavior, Borer has drawn far more on the information available from the Soviet era than on the valuable new material released since 1992 from the former Soviet archives. This is true in relation to Soviet policy in both Vietnam and Afghanistan. Borer gives no indication that he has consulted the declassified transcripts of key Soviet Politiburo meetings about Afghanistan, which were published in translation in the Cold War International History Project Bulletin in the mid-1990s, or the numerous insightful accounts by individuals directly involved in the Soviet decision-making process under Leonid Brezhnev (when the Soviet Union invaded) and Mikhail...