Echoes of Vietnam in Afghanistans crisis

Echoes of Vietnam in Afghanistan's crisis


Tue, Nov 03, 2009

ANALYSIS: An unfair election, a leadership without popular support and a war without apparent end: the parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan appear striking to a former soldier

FORTY-TWO years ago in the fledgling Republic of South Vietnam, corrupt former general Nguyen Van Thieu was elected president with 38 per cent of votes in an election described as “generally fair” by the US commission overseeing it.

It was in fact corrupt, coercive and fraudulent. Like that which took place recently in Afghanistan. In Vietnam’s next election, Thieu’s political opponents declined to run, citing endemic electoral fraud as ridiculing the democratic process. Abdullah Abdullah has just said exactly the same of Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul, as a result of which the run-off election set for November 7th was yesterday cancelled.

Vietnam’s 1967 election had been hoped for by many to mark a turning point in the intensifying war, a chance for the US-backed South Vietnamese government to gain much-needed credibility and legitimacy in its fight against the communist insurgency threatening its attempted nation-building. So the election was hailed as a success.

The failure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Afghan government to establish political legitimacy stems from Afghan history and culture, as it did for the US in Vietnam. In Vietnam, there was no unifying purpose, no feeling of a South Vietnamese nationality among those who lived outside of its capital, Saigon. In Afghanistan, where tribal dynamics, warlords and alliances are even more prevalent, the same is true outside of Kabul.

The similarities do not end here. The South Vietnamese often displayed greater solidarity with their communist compatriots than they did with a foreign propped-up and corrupt indigenous government. In Afghanistan, the traditions of religious resistance, of the mujahideen and of the successful expulsion of foreign invaders, themselves perhaps the only common national sentiments, directly challenge the efforts of a foreign-backed and corrupt indigenous government. Moreover, neither Vietnam nor Afghanistan had or have any history of elections or democracy. The notion of exporting these western ideals, however noble, is based on the premise that we know best. History has proved that this is not the case.

Meanwhile, western militaries found and still find themselves tasked with providing legitimacy-strengthening security in cultures more than 1,000 years and 5,000 miles removed. They can be manipulated. They were. And they are in Afghanistan, too.

The US was not militarily defeated in Vietnam, just as Nato will not be in Afghanistan, but tactical victories did not and do not translate into strategic gains. For all his emphasis on his military prowess, the US commander in Vietnam, Gen William Westmoreland, realised this and requested more troops from president Lyndon Johnson, just as Gen McChrystal has of President Barack Obama.

The generals in Afghanistan privately complain about unclear war aims, the futility of using an outside military force to build a nation, and the lack of resources.

Afghanistan is not a war. It is campaigning – campaigning on a par with the 19th century British colonial army trying to manage the unwinnable on the northwestern frontier in India. Just like the Americans 40 years ago in Vietnam. Why did – and do – the generals and troops feel like this? What was or is the strategy behind these long, bloody conflicts? The answers are in the strikingly similar strategic contexts of each conflict.

The campaign in Vietnam occurred in the context of the cold war nuclear threat. US involvement was justified and simplified for public consumption on the basis that Vietnam’s weak southeast Asian neighbours, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, would fall to communism if a stand was not made.

At this grand strategic level the same could be true in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan/Pakistan border of the federally administered tribal areas, Waziristan and Baluchistan, represent another political vacuum – and the credible threat of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into al-Qaeda’s hands. The ending of al-Qaeda’s attacks on the Nato homelands is simply a secondary, publicised credible threat.

The campaign in Afghanistan is at once limited and limitless, remote yet omnipresent. Unlike “real wars” with total mobilisation and national sacrifice, experience of Afghanistan, like that of Vietnam, is second-hand for most.

Of course there are differences, too. The US was attacked from Afghanistan, unlike Vietnam. There was a definable start to the Afghan campaign: a declaration of intent, presidential announcements, and a UN mandate. And Afghanistan is not – yet – on the scale of Vietnam in terms of engagements, military or civilian casualties, civilian displacement or cost.

Obama’s carefully considered approach to the “double or quits” American troop level commitment in Afghanistan is indicative of the momentous implications his decision holds. Faced with receding US power and the rise of China, enlarged troop numbers coupled with the risk of still possible failure will only increase the evidence that America’s star is fading. Such a path could lead to defeat on a par with that of Vietnam, another blow to America’s collective psyche, and the speedier demise of US hegemony. That is a lot to risk.

If Obama chooses not to increase force levels, to continue with “Afghanisation” and the defence of Kabul’s seat of power, he risks less but admits limited defeat. Indeed, Obama’s policy mirrors Nixon’s Vietnamisation of the early 1970s.

Given the complexity of Afghanistan, this is the wiser choice. I recently heard a Vietnam veteran describe his experiences as a “blur of going from village to village, with no sense of destination, mission or purpose”.

“You’d go to a village, search it and leave. Somebody might die or not, and you’d come back a month later to the same village and do it again. It was like going in circles.”

This is almost how I would describe my experience in Afghanistan. Maybe the military, for all their advances, are simply the wrong tool for the job.

Patrick Bury is from Wicklow. A retired captain from the British army, he served in Afghanistan from where, as lieutenant, he wrote A Soldier’s Diary during 2008 for The Irish Times . A memoir of his experiences, Callsign Hades , will be published next year by Simon and Schuster

© 2009 The Irish Times
Irish Times

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