The US-Nato presence in Afghanistan, and its chosen government there, exactly replicate the situation in Vietnam in the early 1960s. And, betting on same percentages that prevailed in Vietnam, the US can only lose more money, men and, in the end, the conflict
by William P Polk
The documentary Combat Patrols Afghanistan, made by Bing West, who was embedded with US soldiers, has a message popular among Americans: “More senior-level attention must be paid to inflicting severe enemy losses in firefights and to arresting the Taliban, so that their morale and networks are broken... [We] need also to design concepts that bring more lethality to the ground battlefield” (1). Like US policy on Afghanistan, the film neglects the country and its people. The Taliban, anchored in a venerated religion (a primitive Islam) and a social/cultural code, are the only effective political-military organisation in the eyes of the majority Pashtun population. To fight the Taliban is to fight all Afghans, a fight we cannot win.
When I first went to Afghanistan in 1962 to write a US National Policy paper, I imagined a rocky hill, deeply gullied, on which were scattered 20,000 ping-pong balls, representing autonomous village-states. These communities were united with others by religion and custom but ran their own affairs and were mostly self-sufficient. The Russians found, after the invasion of 1979 and a decade of fighting with the loss of 15,000troops, that they could smash many of these villages and chase away thousands of people, but they could never win the war. Even with their large forces and victory in most battles, they never controlled more than 20% of the country. By the time they pulled out in 1989, the war against the mujahideen had almost destroyed the Soviet Union.
The British led the way here, fighting wars with the Afghans in 1842, 1878-80 and 1919, losing about as many English and British Indian soldiers as the Russians, before giving up. Zamir N Kabulov, who spent 30 years in Kabul as ambassador for the Soviet Union, then Russia, notes that the Americans have repeated all the Russian mistakes and are making new ones. The US is trying to smash the Taliban without incurring many American casualties, to split the Taliban leadership and break their links with the Afghan people, and work through a US-chosen native government of its choice.
‘All failed dismally’
These tactics invite comparison with Vietnam, where the US tried and failed to split the (communist) Viet Minh leadership and attempted to find, and deal through, moderates who would turn against hardliners. The US made enormous efforts to sever relations between the Viet Minh and the people, regrouped into strategic hamlets (2). And the US worked through its choice of native government. In fact the US had a greater chance of success in Vietnam than it does in Afghanistan because the ideology of communism was foreign to many Vietnamese, whereas Islam and the cultural code are widely shared in Afghanistan.
According to the most extensive official account of the Vietnam war, The Pentagon Papers (3): “The attempt to translate the newly articulated theory of counterinsurgency into operational reality [through] a mixture of military, social, psychological, economic and political measures [was] marked by consistency in results as well as in techniques: all failed dismally.” General David Petraeus has reinvented that policy and General Stanley McChrystal is trying to implement it.
As a member of the Policy Planning Council, I gave a talk to the US National War College in 1963 predicting that we would lose the war in Vietnam. I divided the challenge into political, administrative and military, and assigned to each a percentage of importance. I then put those categories in a historical perspective. The political component accounted for about 80%, and had been won by the Viet Minh by the late 1940s. As President Eisenhower observed, Ho Chi Minh could have won a free election even in the South. To the administration I assigned 15%: by the end of the 1950s the Viet Minh had destroyed the administration of the South, killing many officials, policemen, teachers and even doctors, so no taxes could be collected, no messages delivered, no services provided, and no movement made, even by South Vietnamese soldiers after dark. The remaining 5%, the military engagement, was what we fought over for the next decade; and neither counterinsurgency nor large-scale combat had any real effect.
In Afghanistan, the US-led coalition can exercise little if any influence on the politics or culture of the country. The Afghans hate foreign intrusion, always have done. On administration, the US has drawn up a list (as Congress required) of checkpoints of our success: they are few and ephemeral. As soon as our troops pull out, the Taliban, like the Viet Minh, will overturn what has been created.
Everything is for sale
Richard Oppel Jr, in The New York Times of 23 August 2009, described Khan Neshin province. Its governor told him he had “no body of advisers to help run the area, no doctors to provide healthcare, no teachers, no professionals to do much of anything. About all he does have are police officers who steal and a small group of Afghan soldiers who say they are here for ‘vacation’”. It may be better in some other areas, but it is certainly worse elsewhere. Nation-building in Afghanistan is worth, at best, 8% — half of my estimate for Vietnam.
So that leaves the US military intervention: with superior firepower, the US will win all the significant engagements. But the insurgents will fade only to return. So let us estimate the military effort at a generous 3%, which makes the odds against a US victory about 10 to one.
The people hated and feared the former South Vietnam government, as they do the current Afghan one. The corruption of the South Vietnamese government was monumental. Officials stole aid money and food given to their people; and they sold to the enemy Viet Minh equipment and arms given as war matériel by the US. They left the dangerous jobs to the US. A Marine Corps colonel in the interagency task force I then headed told me that when the South Vietnamese army learned of US plans, Marines were certain to be ambushed.
In Afghanistan, the government we condoned and effectively installed is involved in the drug traffic, sells offices in the police, army and civil service, decides law cases by the size of bribes, steals everything its officials touch, and has been caught selling ammunition to the Taliban. Everything is for sale. The re-election of Hamid Karzai was not a travesty; it was a joke. The result was announced before the votes were counted. And the Karzai government has almost no effect outside of central Kabul. US troops find that Afghan soldiers keep as far out of danger as possible; many go over to the Taliban. As in Vietnam, the US’s opponents, helped by the local population, “own the night”.
What is different from Vietnam is the presence in Afghanistan of the warlords, hated and feared, who almost control the government. Karzai had to call back the notorious Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum (4) to “win” his election and now has made him effective co-ruler. These warlords, associated in the public mind with the US, are the Taliban’s greatest asset.
President Obama says we must win. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates says we must stay there “a few years” (the senior British general, Sir David Richards, says 40). The Spaniards, Canadians, Germans and Norwegians are reconsidering. My calculation, based on the Iraq campaign, is that the Afghan war will cost the US economy between $3 and $6 trillion, more than 25% of US GDP, making most of Obama’s domestic plans impossible.
Afghanistan is on the way to being as politically fatal to Obama as Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson. Despite this, Obama has decided to stay the course, proclaiming that Afghanistan is the fountainhead of terrorism. Terrorists based there will attack the US. This is wrong. Terrorism will be promoted rather than contained by military action in Afghanistan (especially as attacks have spilled over into Pakistan, Somalia and Iraq). More “boots on the ground” means increased danger. Terrorists do not need Afghanistan, remote and poorly served by communications and transport: the 9/11 attackers were based in Europe, and future terrorists could attack from anywhere. “Winning” in Afghanistan would incite them.
Despite the US’s long experience with terrorism, back to its own revolution, it has not understood its nature and cause: terrorism is the weapon of the weak to be used when it is the only means to redress “wrongs”. This story has been repeated over the past two centuries in South America, Ireland, Spain, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, France, Palestine, Turkey, South Africa, Kenya, India, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, China and Russia. When we approve of the terrorists’ aims we call them freedom fighters, but the difference is in our attitude toward their objectives, not their means of action.
We also confuse the Taliban and al-Qaida, yet they are very different: the Taliban form a national political organisation, a government in internal exile, based on the traditional leadership and the largest community in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida is a loose amalgam of people from all over the world who act on their own; it is not an organisation and lacks central command. Osama bin Laden is not a general but a guru. The issues vary but, in general, they arise from the ragged, violent heritage of (mostly but not entirely western) imperialism.
The use of force could prove dangerous to US society and to its political and legal system. Prudence dictates maintaining the fine line that divides the desire for security from tyranny. Forty years of warfare in Afghanistan, as the neocons advocate and the generals predict, will probably not defeat the enemy but could destroy what the US most cherishes. Washington needs to base its defence policy on some simple principles: create a long-term policy that addresses issues that empower terrorists; search for a compromise that will open the path toward national reconciliation in Afghanistan, on the basis of Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo. And beware of the instant experts who provide Obama with winning formulas that always fail.
William P Polk is a former member of the Policy Planning Council, a professor of history at Chicago University and president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. He is author of Violent Politics. A History of Insurgency, Terrorism & Guerrilla War: From the American Revolution to Iraq (Harper, New York, 2008) and Understanding Iran (Macmillan, New York, 2009)
(1) “Close-in Firefight Afghanistan July 09” (video on Youtube).
(2) This programme, devised by the US and South Vietnam in 1961, aimed to fight insurrection through population transfers.
(3) Their full, official title is “United States-Vietnam relations, 1945-67: A Study prepared by the Department of Defence”.
(4) Dostum is accused of allowing thousands of Taliban, imprisoned in 2001 in the north of the country, to be murdered when their rule was overturned.