From Saigon to Kabul -- Vietnam haunts Barack Obama as he decides what to do in Afghanistan
MAO ZEDONG called it protracted war; the Spanish in Napoleonic times knew it as guerrilla; and Muslim militants from Indonesia to Mauritania call it simply jihad. Perhaps the best description of insurgency is “War of the Flea”, the title of a 1965 book on revolutionary warfare by Robert Taber, an American who witnessed Fidel Castro’s success in Cuba. “The guerrilla fights the war of the flea,” he wrote, “and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous and agile an enemy to come to grips with.” In the end, exhausted, the dog dies or gives up the fight.
It happened, among others, to the British in Palestine, the French in Algeria and, momentously, the Americans in Vietnam. The helicopters whisking evacuees from Saigon in 1975 still haunt America. “Vietnam”, synonymous with “quagmire”, is shorthand for an unwinnable war. So it was over the war in Iraq. And so it is now over the one in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama rejects the comparison with Vietnam—“You never step into the same river twice,” he says. But the V-word is back in vogue.
In the most recent version of the allegory, the backdrop is the Hindu Kush, with an even fiercer reputation for breaking foreign armies than Indochina. President Hamid Karzai, besmirched by a fraud-ridden election, plays the role of Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s repressive and corrupt prime minister and later president. General Stanley McChrystal who, having received 21,000 extra American troops wants up to 40,000 more, is cast as General William Westmoreland, whose answer to every problem was to use more force. Mr Obama’s role is undecided. The chorus asks: will he play John Kennedy, who rejected his generals’ demand for combat troops (he sent advisers); or Lyndon Johnson, whose misguided air- and land-war doomed his presidency?
The characters consult oracles, but the advice is ambiguous. Gordon Goldstein’s “Lessons in Disaster” tells the story of the Vietnam-era national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, who later recanted his hawkish views. Rufus Phillips’s “Why Vietnam Matters” argues that America’s error was to take over the war from the South Vietnamese.
To many, Vietnam proves the futility of Western powers using force in somebody else’s country. The West’s record in colonial wars, and later interventions, is hardly glorious. Yet there have been some successful counter-insurgency campaigns, notably by the British in Malaya in the 1950s and by the Americans in the Philippines a century ago. Even in Vietnam, many scholars argue, the Americans belatedly got the knack for irregular warfare, blending political, economic and military action. South Vietnam, they note, was largely pacified after the 1968 Tet offensive; it succumbed not to the insurgents, but to the regular armies of North Vietnam, after the war effort was starved of support by Congress. America did not lose the fight; it lost the will to fight.
Such lessons have been learnt, or rather relearnt, by the American army and encapsulated in the now-famous counter-insurgency (COIN) manual, FM 3-24, issued in 2006. Seeking to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam, it says the main objective is to protect the population rather than kill the enemy. Such ideas were adopted with considerable success (and luck) in Iraq. Even as Mr Obama withdraws from Iraq, it looked as if he would apply the same theory to what he called the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan. He sent more troops there, approved a “comprehensive” counter-insurgency strategy for Afghanistan and appointed General McChrystal, a veteran of the Iraq war, to put it into action.
But suddenly Mr Obama is wobbling. He says he will consider the general’s request for troops with a “sceptical” mindset even though it should have come as no surprise. Protecting a population needs lots of boots on the ground. General McChrystal wants around another 200,000 Afghan soldiers—recalling America’s abortive attempt at “Vietnamisation”.
A’stan is not ’Nam
Yet the comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam has obvious flaws. The Vietcong had the full-blooded support of North Vietnam which, in turn, was backed by China and the Soviet Union. The Taliban enjoy a haven in Pakistan (and perhaps the help of some of its spooks) but they have no state sponsor. The scale of fighting is much smaller today. In Vietnam America lost hundreds of aircraft and about 55,000 soldiers; in Afghanistan America has mastery of the skies and has suffered about 850 dead (one-fifth the losses in Iraq). NATO allies have lost some 570 soldiers. American opinion is ambivalent rather than hostile. There is no draft, and no taunts that American soldiers are “baby-killers”. The memory of the attacks on September 11th 2001, ordered by al-Qaeda leaders who lived in Afghanistan, is still powerful.
In some respects, though, lessons of Vietnam should be heeded. Winning over a population requires a credible and legitimate government. It must be tempting to dump Mr Karzai. But the American-backed coup that killed Diem in 1963 brought in an even less savoury bunch. Mr Karzai may be deeply flawed, but he is probably more popular than the other options. The message is that America should compel Mr Karzai to reform—or at least set a clearly better example than the Taliban.
Mr Obama’s understandable caution is starting to look like weakness—even Pakistan’s former leader, Pervez Musharraf, says so. Prevarication is encouraging the sceptics of counter-insurgency (the so-called COINtras) to call for withdrawal from Afghanistan, or for a diminished campaign that focuses on air strikes and raids by special forces to kill al-Qaeda leaders. America’s qualms will sap European allies’ readiness to stay in Afghanistan. And they will embolden the Taliban into thinking that, after eight years of flea-bites, the American dog is about to roll over.
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