Over the recent years I have heard Afghanistan compared to our involvement in Vietnam. This comparison mostly revolved around the ‘It’s un-winnable’ argument. While this may be a valid point, it is important to understand why this effort might be un-winnable.
We went into Vietnam based on the domino theory, that if we didn’t stop the communists there, we would soon have to fight them here. While controversial, that theory has held up pretty well, since we didn’t defeat them there, we are now in conflict with them much closer to home.
We went into Afghanistan, for much the same reason. If we don’t stop the Taliban, and Al-kaida there, we will soon have them here. Current events provide evidence of this.
In both cases, we originally helped our enemies. During WWII, Ho Chi Mihn was a simple nationalist, fighting a common enemy, the Japanese. The Taliban, in a former reincarnation, was the Northern Alliance, and helped us against the Russians. We trained, armed, and supported both. Both groups also have a history of resistance to outside intervention. The Vietnamese, have resisted the Chinese for centuries, then the Japanese, then the French, then us. The Afghans have fought with everyone that came along since Alexander (or before), including the British, twice, the Russians, and now the United States. And they have succeeded. When not throwing out invaders, they stay in practice by killing each other. Not a peaceful people.
Next on the list of similarities, is the presence, in theater, of sanctuary areas. In Vietnam, the sanctuaries were Cambodia and Laos. In Afghanistan, it is Pakistan. Both are necessary for the sustenance of an army. We used the sanctuary of Pakistan to supply the Northern Alliance against the Russians, the same way the Chinese and Russians use the Ho Chi Mihn trail to supply the Viet Cong.
Afghanistan may well turn out to be the latest iteration of Vietnam. Our leaders can refuse to learn the lessons of history and repeat the ignominious defeat we suffered, or they can learn from our mistakes and, while it may not be quick, or pretty, accomplish our goals in Afghanistan. The left, historically, doesn’t seem to want this. They wish for, and practically have as a plank of their platform, the humiliation, and denigration of the American way.
When we entered Vietnam, Kennedy started small, with advisors, and limited forces, hoping to solve the problem on the cheap. By the time Johnson realized we were in pretty deep, he sent a large army and the war was on. In bitter fighting, we slowly gained ground in the mid sixties, but not fast enough for the media, or the American public. General Westmorland, realizing the fight we had on our hands, requested more troops. Johnsons’ secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, grudgingly sent them. A few at a time. This allowed the enemy to slowly build up their forces to match our increased strength. This incremental escalation was a mistake. Even though American troops were superior in the field, and never lost a major battle, in spite of what the media portrayed, the enemy was able to pretty much keep up until the Tet offensive of 1968. The Tet offensive was the beginning of the end for our involvement, even though it took several more years. The American media portrayed it as a huge victory for the Vietcong and the NVA, even though, they did not win a single battle, and the end result was total devastation of the enemy forces that they were never able to recover from.
In Iraq, when it got hairy, we sent a huge surge of troops, overwhelming the enemy and probably turning the corner toward victory. If we intend to stay in Afghanistan this would make sense. Think of it this way: We all, from time to time, watch the ubiquitous cop shows on tv. When the law shows up to serve a papers on someone, if they have any problem, they don’t just sent one more junior assistant deputy constable out there, they send the whole swat team, and overwhelm the subject. Police have learned that this method leads to the quickest, and most harmonious outcome, from their standpoint.
A second similarity is and was, the civilian government. Americans have a checkered history of government swapping to suit their purposes. This is often done without considering the unintended consequences. In Vietnam, we swapped one corrupt government for another whenever it suited us. This did not endear us to the natives. Their government may have been corrupt, but it was their government. The recent Afghan elections may or may not have been fair, but the population suspects the results. A better long term solution may be to allow the Afghans to choose their own leaders even if we don’t particularly care for them.
The next similarity between these two conflicts is: Sanctuary areas. In Vietnam, the NVA used Cambodia and Laos as safe zones to support their insurgency. The Taliban has Pakistan. In 1970, we crossed the border of Cambodia and wiped out the enemy sources of supply, further diminishing the enemies ability to wage war. The situation is slightly different today. In Cambodia, and Laos, the government actively supported the NVA the same as the Pakistani government supported the Northern Alliance when they were at war with the Russians. The shoe is on the other foot now. The Pakistani government does not overtly support the Taliban, but neither do they have control of the territory. It must be remembered that national borders in the region, as many places in the worlds were just lines drawn on the map by distant powers with no understanding of ethnic or tribal loyalties, or even basic geography. Witness the Kurds in Northern Iraq: They are fairly evenly divided between Iraq, Turkey and Iran, causing constant irritation to their host nations, and even though they are a distinct, homogeneous group, they were divided by fiat, by the British years ago. This is a separate problem that will eventually have to be resolved.
Since the Pakistanis are unwilling or unable to control their so called ‘tribal areas’, we should look at the area with a view to ethnicity, and loyalty, and ignore the lines on the map. If we can get the cooperation of the Pakistani government, so much the better, if not, convince them to turn a blind eye while we deal with the problem. And don’t bother to let the ISI in on the plan either. Air power in the age of drones is better than the carpet bombing of the Ho Chi Mihn trail, but it will never achieve what boots on the ground can. Some of the most effective troops in history, man for man were the special forces in The Laotian highlands. Within just a few well trained men, they did a remarkable job. The same could be done today, we don’t need several divisions ‘across the fence’ to be effective.
The American fighting forces are the most powerful, best trained, best equipped forces in history, and we don’t lose on the battlefield. We didn’t lose in Vietnam, we quit. Thanks to neutered leaders. Like we have now.
If we intend to win, we need to ‘loose the dogs of war’. And muzzle the ‘Poodles of peace’ on the left. If we plan to lose, as I believe the left intends, we should do it before we spill more blood and treasure on a losing cause. But, bear in mind, that if we hand a political victory to the Taliban, they will expand their horizons and soon have control of the nuclear weapons in Pakistan. This will make giving whiskey, cars, and gunpowder to teenage boys look like a minor incident. It would be an untenable, unsustainable, unworkable postponement of the inevitable.
If we win, it will be militarily. If we lose, it will be political, and the ramifications won’t be evident for a time, and the cost to make the situation aright will be VERY expensive.