Vietnam and Afghanistan

March 1st, 2012

By Tom Carter

This article was originally published in September 2009 — two and a half years ago.  Unfortunately, it’s as relevant today as it was then.

In late 1965, I was in Kontum, Vietnam as a pilot in a helicopter crew sent there for a few days to support U.S. Special Forces operations. I was quartered in a Vietnamese Army compound, a fairly nice facility left over from French military days. There were rooms in a wing of the compound, each with an outside door opening on a walkway and facing an interior area that included an officers’ club.

When a Vietnamese soldier showed me to my room, there were suitcases already there, a sign of some confusion in room assignments. I told the soldier to put the suitcases outside the door, figuring whoever had left them could find his own room. There were few people around, and the place was mostly empty. Then I went to the officers’ club bar, which was deserted. Using the normal honor system, I went behind the bar, got something to drink, and left money to pay for it.

About then, a man came in and asked if it had been my room where he mistakenly left his bags. Obviously, he’d found his stuff on the sidewalk. I apologized for evicting him, and he apologized for taking the wrong room.

Bernard FallWe introduced ourselves, and I learned that the person I had been less than polite to was Bernard Fall. I knew who he was, that he had written Street Without Joy, an important book on the French military experience in Vietnam, and other books. I hadn’t read any of his books, although eventually I read almost all of them. I also learned later that he had been a member of the French resistance and had fought with a Moroccan army division in Europe during World War II. He had been studying French and American involvement in Vietnam since the early 1950s. Unlike most journalists and scholars, he spent most of his time in Vietnam on the ground with combat troops, which eventually cost him his life. He died in a landmine explosion while on patrol with U.S. Marines in 1967.

We talked for almost an hour, just the two of us in the large old French officers’ club. I asserted my conviction that the U.S. war in Vietnam would be much more successful than the French experience had been, primarily because of our new air mobility doctrine and our ability to find and fix the enemy using heliborne tactical operations. He patiently explained that there really wasn’t much difference in the way we were operating and the way the French operated against essentially the same foe, concluding that we would also fail. It was a friendly conversation as I remember, he patiently explaining what was and what would be based on years of experience and study, I disagreeing with all the wisdom typical of 22-year-old ignoramuses. He was right, of course, and I was very wrong.

Which brings me to Afghanistan. When I think about that war, I remember the things Bernard Fall tried to explain to me more than 40 years ago. His point was that we must remember history and try to learn from those who came before us. One thing we should have learned from Fall and others was that our adventure in Vietnam was doomed from the start, for reasons ranging from lack of a good understanding of the region and its people to practical restraints on the amount of power we could apply. The same is true in Afghanistan.

When I look at the U.S. Campaign Plan for Afghanistan, I can’t help thinking that by changing some words this could be a plan written years ago for Vietnam. We’re going to try everything we tried before, dressed in different terms — search and destroy, winning hearts and minds, supporting a weak and corrupt government, building schools and health clinics, and Afghanistanization. We don’t even have a clear, simple, and practical understanding of what victory is. After probably 10 years, we’ll go home, and Afghanistan will revert to, well, Afghanistan.

Unlike Vietnam, we don’t even know for certain who the enemy is in Afghanistan. First we went there to hunt down and kill Al-Qaeda and it’s leadership, specifically including Osama bin Laden. What we mainly accomplished was driving them into the border regions and into Pakistan. We’ve killed or captured a large number of Al-Qaeda terrorists and some of their senior leaders, but bin Laden himself remains holed-up somewhere, issuing statements and threats and undoubtedly planning future attacks with seeming impunity.  [Bin Laden has since been killed in Pakistan by U.S. special operations forces.]

We threw the Taliban out of power and set up a shaky central government in Kabul. Who is the enemy in Afghanistan now? Is it the Taliban, who oppose the foreign-supported central government and aim to bring it down, reimposing their primitive form of Islamic rule? That’s what we’re told, but the reality is far more slippery. For one thing, there isn’t a unitary Taliban out there wearing identifiable uniforms and marching under flags everyone recognizes. The reality is a crazy-quilt of clans and tribes with their own squabbles and differences. The Taliban, essentially ideological Muslim extremists, are out there among the people and generally indistinguishable from everyone else. So whom do we attack and defeat in order to achieve some sort of victory?

Fighting irregular forces mixed in with and hiding among civilian noncombatants is extremely difficult and unlikely to win many hearts and minds. Every time the U.S. attacks and kills several Taliban leaders along with a larger number of innocents, we lose. That’s going to keep happening, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. It turns the population against us and generates strong international opposition. Right now, we operate under the umbrella of NATO, but the forces of other nations aren’t going to be in Afghanistan for long. Once they leave, it’s all U.S., with perhaps a few token elements from our closest allies. And we’re back to Vietnam.

[At that time we were] debating sending more troops to Afghanistan. That’s wrong. We should be withdrawing major combat units as quickly as possible. We can support the Kabul government diplomatically and with development assistance, with a small military presence designed solely to protect U.S. personnel and facilities. What would the result be? The central government may or may not survive; primitive Islamic extremists may or may not resume control of the country; or the region may be ruled by tribes and their warlords with a powerless titular government of kleptocrats sitting in Kabul. The key point is this: The possible outcomes will be the same whether we withdraw our military forces now or in 10 years. How much American blood is that worth?

So if we withdraw from Afghanistan, how do we protect ourselves from future terrorist attacks, assuming that’s why we’re there? The same way we’ve been doing it successfully since September 11, 2001. Good intelligence, effective homeland security, and striking at terrorists when and were we can find them. We don’t have to be on the ground and engaged in a war in Afghanistan or anywhere else to do that. We have the precision weapons to put conventional fire on any target anywhere in the world. Any nation that harbors terrorists will quickly learn that there’s a price to pay, and that will include Afghanistan.

We need someone like Bernard Fall to teach us that invasions of Afghanistan don’t work out well. Would-be conquerors from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union have learned that lesson the hard way. We don’t have to learn it again. But we didn’t listen to Fall in the 1960s, and we probably wouldn’t now.

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Categories: History, Military, Politics | Comments (4) | Home

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4 Responses to “Vietnam and Afghanistan”

  1. Dan Miller |

    Tom, we repeatedly ignore history only to do the same things again with minor variations but with little chance of beating the odds.

    You say, Any nation that harbors terrorists will quickly learn that there’s a price to pay, and that will include Afghanistan. I hope that you are correct but am less sanguine about the prospects.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Well, the “any nation” statement is contingent on doing the other things discussed in that paragraph. Whether countries that harbor terrorists do or do not learn from our strikes against those terrorists within their borders is less important than the fact that we consistently do it. In any case, that’s a far more rational policy that those we’ve pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last decade.

  3. Deborah Dills |

    As a vet myself and a husband who also served in the military, I will always stand up for protection of our borders and country. But when we have a President and Secretary of Defense that refuses to abide by the Constitution and War Powers Act and go into war without congressional approval, I must say no, this is Treason and must stop.
    Our military war machine has gotten too big, and out of control. As President Eisenhower once said ” Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed”.
    We are stealing precious resources by invading other countries for the benefit of contractors, and the elite. We are an Imperialist nation, that should mind their own business, and tend to the tasks of maintaining our safety at home, bring back jobs, rein in the financial sector, closing Guantanamo Prison, and so much more.
    One day, maybe, our young men and women will stop enlisting in these “never-ending, useless wars, that solve nothing. Our military men and women are suffering by enduring multiple deployments, suffering hardships like PTSD, and being sent right back in to fight another day. This is absurd. It is time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan after 10 long yrs there.

  4. Tom Carter |

    Deborah, I agree with your last line — it is, indeed, time to bring our troops home after 10 years in Afghanistan and no reasonable resolution in sight.

    However, with due respect for your service and that of your husband, I have to disagree with much of the rest of your comment. To address just a few points:

    — The Bush and Obama administrations definitely did not “refuse to abide by” the Constitution and the War Powers Act in regard to Iraq and Afghanistan. Both were approved and have been repeatedly funded by Congress, and the Act wasn’t in any way violated. Libya briefly presented a minor disagreement on the War Powers Act, but that was largely inconsequential.

    — The U.S. military is by no means “out of control.” I’d be interested to know what you meant by that.

    — Conspiracy theories about the U.S. going to war to benefit contractors and “elites” of some kind are simply silly. Beyond that, the U.S. isn’t an “imperialist nation.” I’d suggest a little more study in these areas.

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