The US has failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam in Afghanistan
When General William Westmoreland, the Commander of the US forces in Vietnam stood in the garden of the American embassy in Saigon in 1968, shells exploding all around, he told reporters that the Tet offensive had failed. At the back of his head, the general knew the US had lost South Vietnam, seven years before the fall of Saigon. The policies of ‘containment’ and ‘domino theory’ paved the way for the US to enter Vietnam after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Once Vietnam was partitioned in 1954, the socialist North Vietnamese called for elections in 1956 knowing that no one stood in their way.
But the US had other plans and threw its weight behind its crony, South Vietnam. It took the American’s another five years before US ‘advisors’ entered the country. In 1965, the US finally got boots on the ground when they engaged the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in the la Drang valley. This gave the US leverage to send in another 200,000 GIs.
Like the modern day Afghan National Army (ANA), Lyndon Johnson ‘helped’ raise the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) from scratch. Like the ANA, the ARVN was just as inept. US troops complained Vietnamese troops had soft aims, stole supplies and were full of communist sympathisers.
This did not waver the Americans who continued to pour funds into the losing conflict. The sum total: $5 billion in economic aid and a staggering $135 billion in military aid. Everything from A-4 Skyhawks to M-60s to bandages held up South Vietnam.
In Afghanistan today, the US is repeating the Vietnam experience. After toppling the Taliban government in 2001, the US is now set to fulfill Marx’s edict: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
After the 9/11 attacks, the US threatened the Taliban to hand over the Al-Qaeda leadership or else. Before the Taliban could respond, the US started Operation Enduring Freedom as the US military entered Afghanistan and took Kabul.
In 2013, the US gave Afghanistan $14.95 billion in economic aid and spent $86 billion on military operations. The bulk of the funds, a total of $50.63 billion, was spent on the ragtag ANA in 2011-2012.
On the ground, the Taliban still controls everything from Kunar to Helmand. Like the Viet Cong before them, the Taliban have mastered the ‘death by thousand cuts’ strategy. The rainforest has given way to treacherous peaks which the insurgents call their own. No amount of military operations has been able to cleanse the region of them. When Operation Anaconda was launched at Tora Bora, the coalition forces found it extremely hard to navigate the undulating terrain of the region. After relatively heavy casualties, coalition forces turned to carpet-bombing the area with thermobaric ordinance, a weapon which sucks oxygen from a cave, with the successive shockwave decimating everything in its range.
Eleven years on the Taliban have shown how tough they are. The US has ditched its “no negotiations with terrorists” narrative as it prepares to withdraw from a pointless campaign in a meaningless war. While IEDs in Afghanistan have replaced the punji sticks in Vietnam, the ability of the US not to learn has not changed. After losing 58,000 troops in Indochina and spending billions, the ‘world’s policeman’ finally dined with the enemy at the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. Something similar may follow in 2014.
But what will become of Afghanistan when foreign forces depart? After the US signed the Paris Accords, it tried its best to keep its old comrade South Vietnam within its influence. US troops were promised when required. But when the NVA made the final assault on South Vietnam, the ARVN evaporated into oblivion. South Vietnamese pilots flew their fighter jets to flee the country. It is said that the world got to know of the final assault when unannounced jets swamped airports in Thailand.
As Saigon fell, the US troops on guard escaped just in time, with US troops evacuated via helicopters from their embassy’s roof to offshore naval vessels. That is how the story of South Vietnam ended, with no bang but a whimper, taking down with it millions of lives, billions of dollars and the ego of a superpower.
Now as the US and its posse again plan to vacate the Afghan quagmire, it appears to understand it is walking deeper into the morass. After losing more than 3,000 GIs, it still publically claims “the Afghan administration is capable of running the country after withdrawal.” This is a lie. The 11-year-old ANA is little more than an imaginary fighting force. The army is structured in six Corps, almost one for every major province. Its order of battle does not exist. What can 8,500 Humvees, 240 AFVs and 100 T-62 tanks do when the world’s only superpower has failed with 200,000 troops, 900 plus attacking aircrafts and every ammunition known to mankind?
The battle has been lost. It was lost the day the Americans forgot history. Now the ANA will have to stand alone against an enemy more dangerous than the Viet Cong. “90 percent of our troops come from Pakistani refugee camps,” said head of the ANA’s 207th Corps, General Walihzada. “All they come for is the money and the uniform, once they have that; they desert.” He went on to say that the troops steal everything from diesel to APCs. Some 30 percent of all firearms used by the Taliban are said to be ex-ANA. This speaks volumes about the state of the ANA.
When the US trainers’ concerns were published in an official report by the Pentagon, the general theme went something like this: “ANA soldiers don’t aim; they just shoot in the general direction…Troops are always hesitant to enter battles and flee at the slightest sign of danger… ANA personnel hurl death threats at their US mentors when reprimanded for stealing.”
Some things don’t change even after 50 years and a 1,000 miles of distance.
But like Saigon before, the Americans have one last card to play. The coalition plans to continue providing military and economic assistance to the Afghans after withdrawal of all international forces. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to know how this will end. The ISAF and the coalition plan to base several companies of special forces around the country the epicenter of which will be Kabul. A few bombers and fighter aircraft will also remain in the country as the Afghan air force is still little more than a pipedream.
When the Russians retreated across the Oxus in 1988, they too had made promising arrangements for the future: ballistic missile batteries would be based in Kabul; special forces would be at the government’s call while Soviet Sukhois and MIGs would patrol the skies. This strategy would have pulled through had the Afghan army not dissolved like it did after the last Soviet army man, General Gromov walked back into the USSR.
The mujahedeen quickly gained sympathisers, mostly from the ranks of the Afghan army, who many times arrived with all their issued complements; assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades, trucks and sometimes even BMP armoured personnel carriers.
The ballistic batteries were ambitious but of limited use against an army of guerillas. The eastern provinces soon fell to the mujahedeen and Kabul was surrounded. Once the heights overlooking the historic capital were in the hands of the Taliban, the writing was already on the wall. Everything from 7.62mm bullets to 203mm shells obliterated the city in a way similar to the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968.
The graveyard of empires has followed the same road that Vietnam followed 50 years before it. The same superpower has made the same mistakes for the same motives. With a year left for the withdrawal of foreign forces, it seems the age-old, Afghan axiom will again hold true: “They have the clocks but we have the time.