• Thanks for stopping by. Logging in to a registered account will remove all generic ads. Please reach out with any questions or concerns.

Vietnam: Who was right about what went wrong – and why it matters in Afghanistan

daftandbarmy

Army.ca Dinosaur
Reaction score
28,109
Points
1,160
Vietnam: Who was right about what went wrong – and why it matters in Afghanistan

It may be that the logic of the stalemate machine is built into the very concept of limited war. Or that it is a predictable consequence of how presidents manage the constraints posed by American politics. In any case, the histories of U.S. military involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan should serve as warnings to future presidents who might be tempted to again jump onto the treadmill of perpetual war.

http://www.salon.com/2017/09/18/vietnam-who-was-right-about-what-went-wrong-and-why-it-matters-in-afghanistan_partner/
 
Afghanistan is not Vietnam as much as the left would like.We have around 38,000 troops in Afghanistan vs over 500,000 in Vietnam in 68. To sustain large troop levels required the draft. On a tactical level we won in Vietnam and in Afghanistan. The terrain was an advantage in both wars for the enemy. Self employed rules of engagment limited our ability to go after the enemy safe havens.This is a problem in Afghanistan. The leftist anti-war movement did what the Vietnamese communists couldnt accomplish on the battlefield. The enemy strategy was to fight a war of attrition which seemed.The steady drumbeat of weekly KIA's undermined morale and set the stage for our eventual retreat from Vietnam. The US transitioned to an all volunteer force which eliminated the one weapon the left had to mobilize against the war.

In Afghanistan the taliban just cant beat us on the ground. Can we sustain our small wars campaign ? I dont know. The one advantage of fighting the jihadists in Afghanistan and the ME is that we can kill the radicals far from our shores.Realizing this they have used refugee's as a cover to insert fighters into Europe. Now Europe is overrun with jihadists and refugees which threaten to transform Europe into a Caliphate subverting Europe's culture under the guise of political correctness. Once again the left sides with the jihadists to tear down our culture and institutions from within. Of course should they win that battle, the jihadists will kill them much as the communists turned on anyone who opposed them. We have tried to keep the wolf away from our homeland but the wolf has found our weak under belly and we may not have to stomach to win that fight at home.
 
The main similarities are the safe havens and no go areas for the US military. Had the USAF been allowed to take out the docks the Soviets were using to supply NV, then the war may have ended sooner. Likewise Pakistan played a double game giving the Taliban safe havens to operate, while at the same time having no way to control them.
 
Colin P said:
The main similarities are the safe havens and no go areas for the US military. Had the USAF been allowed to take out the docks the Soviets were using to supply NV, then the war may have ended sooner. Likewise Pakistan played a double game giving the Taliban safe havens to operate, while at the same time having no way to control them.

There are going to be some constraints in a war with limited objectives to prevent it from spiraling into a broader conflict.  How do you think the U.S. would have reacted if the Soviets started bombing South Vietnamese harbors containing U.S. shipping? 

Both wars were also characterized by significant cross border efforts which came to relatively little.  The U.S. incursions into Cambodia and the bombing of Laos never disrupted the Ho Chi Minh Trail (to the extent that was even the decisive supply line…resources collected by the NVA within South Vietnam were also significant), and the U.S. UAV/SOF campaign targeting Taliban leaders in Pakistan hasn’t exactly taken the wind out of their sails either.  Are you saying we should have expanded our war into Pakistan more broadly?

I agree with T6 that the wars are different in many respects, but there are plenty of parallels such as the importance of “hearts and minds” and the dangers of supporting regimes that fundamentally lacked the support of their people that we would be foolish to ignore. 

The impact of domestic public opinion was also significant in both conflicts.  While the all-volunteer force deployed by the U.S. in Afghanistan created a different dynamic when compared to the Vietnam anti-war movement very much tied up in the draft, it is undeniable that domestic public opinion was a key factor in the U.S. Afghan war strategy.  Absent domestic political pressure, the U.S. troop surge which started in 2010 would have been considerably larger and lasted longer. Instead, we had a couple years of approximately 100,000 U.S. troops followed (which never fully secured the country) followed by the residual force of approximately 10,000 U.S. troops in place today which appears able to do little more than allow the Afghan government to hang on by its fingernails indefinitely.
 
tomahawk6 said:
Afghanistan is not Vietnam as much as the left would like.

In Afghanistan the taliban just cant beat us on the ground.
While the 'left/right' boogeyman is a default for many, I personally don't see such a simplistic political lens as being relevant here.  ymmv

I think Vietnam -- and many other 'small wars,' insurgencies, terror campaigns -- remains relevant for the potential lessons that could  be considered. 

As but one example, from an often-repeated anecdote:
In 1975, Colonel Harry Summers was in a delegation to Hanoi.  In conversation with North Vietnamese Colonel Tu, Summers said: "You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield."  Colonel Tu thought about that for a minute and replied: "That may be so.  But it is also irrelevant."

Harry G. Summers, Jr.  On Strategy:  A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War.  (Novato CA: Presidio Press, 1982), 1.

Some inevitably choose to wring their hands over ROEs, or safe-havens (or the Electoral College system, or Russian collusion, or...or...), while the bigger-picture reality is either dismissed or beyond their understanding;  neither the 'left' nor the 'right' have cornered the market.
 
Another similarity is that the US did not want to get dragged into either conflict. When approached by guerrillas that fought the Japanese alongside the Allies to support Indochina Independence, the US balked and choose to let France move back in, when France made a mess of it, the US were sucked in to help them. In Afghanistan, once the Soviet threat was gone, the US walked and could not care. The Clinton's were ready to make a pipeline deal with the Taliban, until Women Lib lobby groups forced them to stop. Both started out as "Not our fight", but when the worlds superpower, it's always your fight.....

As for letting the Soviets bomb South Vietnamese docks, highly unlikely they could or would go that far. The US would have to give the Soviets warning to ensure their ships had time to get out, but once the docks and cargo handling equipment is destroyed, Soviet resupply would slow. Likely they would need to be bombed every 6 months to ensure no proper repairs are completed. Also bombing other areas off limits would have helped. No doubt those "Russian speaking, Slavic looking" Vietnamese pilots would be trying to shoot down the bombers. 
 
Colin P said:
Another similarity is that the US did not want to get dragged into either conflict. When approached by guerrillas that fought the Japanese alongside the Allies to support Indochina Independence, the US balked and choose to let France move back in, when France made a mess of it, the US were sucked in to help them. In Afghanistan, once the Soviet threat was gone, the US walked and could not care. The Clinton's were ready to make a pipeline deal with the Taliban, until Women Lib lobby groups forced them to stop. Both started out as "Not our fight", but when the worlds superpower, it's always your fight.....

Yep, and there's got to be a lesson in there somewhere.  Something about "must-do's" that look more like "shouldn't have done's" in hindsight indicating requirement for a more critical analysis of the core U.S. national interest up front, or perhaps accepting that they are "must-do's" and making a more honest analysis of the conduct of the wars to see how we could do better. 

However, the institutional culture seems be retreat to the "conventional" world the moment the "dirty" war is over.  I view the effort in some circles to characterize the conclusion of the Vietnam war as a conventional fight that the U.S. could have won but walked away from as a part of that proud tradition.  As LGen McMaster has written on Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, we as military professionals do ourselves a great disservice when we ignore the political dimensions of conflict.

Colin P said:
As for letting the Soviets bomb South Vietnamese docks, highly unlikely they could or would go that far. The US would have to give the Soviets warning to ensure their ships had time to get out, but once the docks and cargo handling equipment is destroyed, Soviet resupply would slow. Likely they would need to be bombed every 6 months to ensure no proper repairs are completed. Also bombing other areas off limits would have helped. No doubt those "Russian speaking, Slavic looking" Vietnamese pilots would be trying to shoot down the bombers.

My point there is that it was not politically feasible for one reason or another at the time, and that you are going to find those kinds of limitations in a limited war.  That said, there were Soviet and Chinese flagged ships in port when the U.S. Navy mined Haiphong harbour in 1969, so I'm not sure that the U.S. had any real compunctions about disrupting that traffic another way. 

The broader issue is what Journeyman has alluded to above.  The narrative of "if only we could have bombed this target or had that ROE" doesn't hold water in either conflict, especially in Vietnam.  Ultimately, the NVA with very limited (compared to what the U.S. had put into the south) Soviet and Chinese assistance won the day without disrupting the ARVN's strategic supply lines.  There is a reason for that, and that reason is fundamentally political.

The NVA and North Vietnamese government enjoyed significant, though by no means universal support in the south, which provided them with local resources and personnel.  I have read accounts that 40-50% of the NVA fighting troops and upwards of 80% of their support personnel (porters, scouts, etc.) were from the south.  Meanwhile, support for the South Vietnamese government fell apart as the NVA gained momentum, which contributed to the disintegration of the lavishly equipped and thoroughly trained ARVN*.  That political issue led to the strategic failure, and that is what the U.S military and associated diplomats should have been focused on.  Instead, the military adopted a largely conventional approach (reducing the local popular support in the process), while the diplomats backed a losing horse. 

*There is a striking parallel there with the Iraqi Security Forces breaking in the presence of a small number of ISIS fighters in in Mosul in 2014.  If that doesn't serve as a cautionary example, I don't know what will.   

 
Another similarity that Afghanistan and the RVN shared was rampant corruption. If the enemy appears more honest than the government thats not good.
 
Is stalemate a viable strategy? It certainly is for the insurgent: wage a long war drawing on deep reserves of will while attriting the will of the foreign powers that intervene (The War of the Flea). For the counter-insurgent I suppose it can work to prevent defeat as long military stalemate is used to buy time and space for political victory. I suppose it can also work if the counter-insurgent has the will to sustain the conflict. You don't win, but you don't lose and you accept the losses.

I think that a crucial difference between the US involvement in Vietnam and the US involvement in Afghanistan is the reason for US intervention and subsequent ability to maintain the necessary level of motivation. The reason for the US to be involved in the Vietnam War was hard to explain to Americans. This is because it was a rather thin reason. Who really cared if the Communists won in Vietnam? Its not that American voters wanted the Communists to win, but after a while they didn't think that it was worth more American lives, especially not their own or their sons.

Afghanistan is completely different. The US was attacked, and although 9/11 is now over 15 years ago and the nature of the fight has evolved, I think that Americans can still understand on a visceral level why they must fight there. Add to that the volunteer nature of the US military and it is much harder for the enemy to erode the will of the counter-insurgents. How long can this will be sustained?  Perhaps for a whole generation.
 
Just reading the "War of the Running dogs" about the Malay Emergency, it speaks to the need of the political/civil side of the fight, but that it's not enough to say "political side first", the political and civil service must step up and be robust and efficient to succeed. I always felt that the political/civil side was ignored in non-Pastun areas and allowed to wither and become vulnerable to insurgency. Perhaps building up those areas might have helped counter Taliban/Pastun influence on the region and maybe make the Pastun tribes more willing to come to the table?     
 
Colin P said:
Just reading the "War of the Running dogs" about the Malay Emergency, it speaks to the need of the political/civil side of the fight, but that it's not enough to say "political side first", the political and civil service must step up and be robust and efficient to succeed. I always felt that the political/civil side was ignored in non-Pastun areas and allowed to wither and become vulnerable to insurgency. Perhaps building up those areas might have helped counter Taliban/Pastun influence on the region and maybe make the Pastun tribes more willing to come to the table?   

ME, and many other, cultures don't 'do civil service' very well. I attended a fascinating presentation by a long time diplomat who argued persuasively that the reason the 3rd World is destined to stay 3rd World is mainly because of cultures and systems that do not support a professional, objective civil service.
 
I think that any successful counterinsurgency will have to fought on the political level to attain victory. The military can buy time.

I think that insurgencies are based on grievances. Defeating the insurgency relies on resolving the grievance or grievances that fuel the insurgency. This does not have to mean sitting down with the insurgents, but it does mean that we need to understand their motivations and try to address them.

Success in Malaya was not simply good jungle tactics and population control. It was also changing the political system to include the ethnic Chinese. The successful resolution of the Huk insurgency in the Philippines was based on addressing the land reform issues that caused young men to take up arms instead of farming, combined of course with some effective tactics based on excellent intelligence.

If we cannot stomach addressing the grievances then we are stuck with military means, which likely means stalemate on some level. Perhaps we have to accept stalemate in some cases.
 
Yes the Ethnic Chinese in Malaysia were squatters and the British High Commissioner negotiated with each Sultan to allow land transfers to the "new villages" so the Chinese could become established, which removed a particular grievance point that the CT played upon. From my previous statements on Afghanistan, I get the impression that had we invested more into the other groups there, we would have gotten far more effect for our money than focusing mainly on the Pastun. Ensuring the stability and increasing the prosperity of those regions would have made them better able to resist Taliban incursions. For the Pastun areas it seems the Allies over extended themselves in a genuine attempt to make life better and at the bequests of the ruling class. I am aware to an extent how complicated life is in tribal areas, I think we owe a debt to the Romans and others in successfully smashing our own tribal systems early on.   
 
Colin P said:
Yes the Ethnic Chinese in Malaysia were squatters and the British High Commissioner negotiated with each Sultan to allow land transfers to the "new villages" so the Chinese could become established, which removed a particular grievance point that the CT played upon. From my previous statements on Afghanistan, I get the impression that had we invested more into the other groups there, we would have gotten far more effect for our money than focusing mainly on the Pastun. Ensuring the stability and increasing the prosperity of those regions would have made them better able to resist Taliban incursions. For the Pastun areas it seems the Allies over extended themselves in a genuine attempt to make life better and at the bequests of the ruling class. I am aware to an extent how complicated life is in tribal areas, I think we owe a debt to the Romans and others in successfully smashing our own tribal systems early on. 

Build them all into the supply chains for Costco, Amazon, big oil/mining etc, and a host of other industries, and then watch the problems go away along with the poverty.
 
Colin P said:
Yes the Ethnic Chinese in Malaysia were squatters and the British High Commissioner negotiated with each Sultan to allow land transfers to the "new villages" so the Chinese could become established, which removed a particular grievance point that the CT played upon. From my previous statements on Afghanistan, I get the impression that had we invested more into the other groups there, we would have gotten far more effect for our money than focusing mainly on the Pastun. Ensuring the stability and increasing the prosperity of those regions would have made them better able to resist Taliban incursions. For the Pastun areas it seems the Allies over extended themselves in a genuine attempt to make life better and at the bequests of the ruling class. I am aware to an extent how complicated life is in tribal areas, I think we owe a debt to the Romans and others in successfully smashing our own tribal systems early on. 

What did the Romans ever do for us?

The insurgency had its roots in Pashtun areas and had a clan aspect as well. Trying to smash the tribal and clan system was pretty much what started the whole Afghan mess in the late 70s. Moscow-educated elites from Kabul were trying to break the traditional rural power structures and those power structures struck back. To break them you need deep reservoirs of will.  Maybe we shouldn't try to break those tribal power structures?

Some of the very things we were/are offering are contributing to the grievances. Combine that with corruption and you have fertile ground for insurgency. People will tolerate poverty, but they will not tolerate unfairness. Nor will they tolerate outside threats to their intrinsic belief systems.
 
It was always limited what we could achieve in the Pastun areas, but I suspect the other regions were more receptive and I remember one governor begging on TV for any help, warning her area was at risk because the west was ignoring it, because it was already "safe".
 
Back
Top