By Grady Hawkins
As the United States military and its mercenary forces blunder into the ninth year of the war in Afghanistan, the ghosts of history continue to haunt them. The specter of billions of dollars lost and thousands of lives wasted in a misguided foreign policy tragedy looms large indeed. As much as policy experts refuse to admit, the failure in Viet Nam so far in the distant past has resurrected here in the present. The parallels are undeniable, and the results likely the same.
Before the Americans, both the British Lion and the Russian Bear were routed by a rag-tag guerilla army that saw them beaten and humiliated. The Russians had the tanks, helicopter gunships, artillery and troops. They installed their own puppet government in Kabul as well. After 15,000 of their men were killed and thousands wounded, they pulled out, the army bitter and betrayed. The Soviets learned that Afghanistan is where empires go to die.
The United States followed them, seeking vengeance and victory, confidant it could succeed where the Russians failed. They stage was set for new American actors in the Great Game.
The French abandoned their colonial empire in Indochina after the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The cream of the French army was defeated by the Viet Minh after nine years of fighting. It was bloody and brutal, as all civil wars are. The Truman administration was funding 80 percent of the French War effort. But after thousands of casualties, the French went to Geneva and surrendered. It was now up to the greatest military power on earth to stop communist ambitions. Ho Chi Minh was a communist, but an accidental member of the party. After the First World War he wanted the French out of his country, and the victorious western powers ignored him. The only anti-colonial support he could get was communist. He took the help and Karl Marx.
The Viet Minh had fought the Japanese in Indochina, with help from the American Office of Strategic Services (the OSS). In Saigon they welcomed the Americans as friends and Allies. They could now be free. Ho again begged for help in freeing his country from the French. He was double-crossed, Freedom was only meant for those with white skin trapped behind the iron curtain.
The United States followed France into Vietnam, confident of victory. After all, the United States had defeated the Axis powers in World War II, stopped the communists in Korea. There was no way that the fire power of the greatest military in the world could not defeat a peasant army in a few short years. From Secretary of Defense McNamara to the lowliest private, there was never any doubt.
The Vietnam and now Afghan war strategy are remarkably similar. Each army is fighting from the concept of the strategic defensive. That is, there is no conventional enemy army in the field to engage and destroy. Conventional rules dictate that one army out kills the other until one of them quits. His territory occupied and his Capitol and government surrendered. There is no front line; there is no enemy army and no permanent territory to occupy. There is no country, no concrete objective from which to drive him. The only option you have is to defend what you hold and kill so many of the bad guys that he is compelled to surrender. Under these rules, the body count becomes the only yardstick for measure success. The body count becomes the means to some kind of end. “Anybody who runs is a V.C (Taliban) anybody who stands still is a well disciplined V.C (Taliban).” This leads to the worst sort of atrocity, being thousands of miles from home in an alien environment. The customs, dress, religion and everyday ways of life are difficult to comprehend. In such an environment everyone becomes the enemy, no one is to be trusted.
Southeast Asia was the testing ground for the so-called “limited war”. This dove tails with the Strategic Defense concept. Suddenly, there are rules of engagement that seem to give the enemy an even break. Front line grunts hate the orders, because they believe it gets them all killed. It probably does. Fire power is controlled and bombing targets restricted not all the fire power will be unleashed. Unfortunately, the enemy has no such handicap.
The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had no rules to obey. Neither do the Taliban in Afghanistan. Their road side explosive is a constant, deadly danger and targets everyone.
The Taliban will not fight by foreigner’s rules. They haven’t since Alexander and they are not about to change. They are farmers now. After the spring thaw, the new campaign will begin. Then they become fighters. No uniforms, no stand up combat. No email, cold beer, burgers or basketball for them. Just like the North Vietnamese before, they are in no hurry, they don’t have to be. They can fight forever.
The Americans and their allies have no time to spare.
The biggest complaint Army officers had in Viet Nam was that the enemy wouldn’t come out and fight. He wouldn’t play by the rules western soldiers were accustomed. The few times the enemy tried to shoot it out in the open he got pulverized by air strikes and artillery. He did learn from the experience and changed tactics when appropriate. But the obvious answer is why the hell he should? He knows he can’t compete, so he does what he can with booby traps, ambushes, sniping. The American army exhausted itself fighting an unseen jungle phantom.
Back on the home front Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and even Nixon had to deal with a vocal and hostile right wing that wanted war. They were quick to point out that the administration was “soft on communism” or afraid to fight, or would capitulate or appease the enemy: cut and run. This political pressure was real. This pressure is real today. It’s now Obama’s war and for this reason; he’ll fight it at least until re-election.
In Viet Nam we had allies. And their contributions were trumpeted by the administration. But their numbers were small, it was an American show. U.S. military commanders were loath to use them. They wanted the victory and the glory for themselves, and shared with no one. In Afghanistan, the same is true. Allied units from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were designed to fight Soviet Tanks in Europe, so it’s a natural choice for Afghanistan. But the allied units are small part of the war effort. And those commitments are being reconsidered. The European Union does no wish to reinforce failure.
The use of mercenaries in Viet Nam was common place. Cambodians and Filipinos were some of those employed. Many of them were hired and trained by our own Central Intelligence Agency to infiltrate into North Viet Nam. Few if any came back. U.S. Special forces used them to man base camps along the Laos and Cambodian borders. They were paid, armed, fed, clothed and trained, their families provided for and protected inside the camps. When the Americans abandoned them, they were ruthlessly hunted down and killed.
In Afghanistan, we have what a euphemistically described as private military contractors. These companies often sub-contract their work to these same third world soldier’s sons.
They are unregulated, and outside the military chain of command and congressional oversight. Many of these shadow companies have close ties to political movers and shakers and with those in the pentagon and State Department. There numbers are not reported and their casualties ignored. The cost of their contracts is not revealed.
Of course, in both countries there is a national army or police force. The Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) was theoretically fighting against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. Some ARVN units fought well, but they in the minority. Corruption was rampant. Their soldiers were underpaid, or not paid at all, officered and officials stealing at will. Many officers were ordered by Saigon not to fight at all. Why get their own soldiers killed when the Americans were so willing to kill their own men?
The United States spent billions equipping the South Vietnamese. But many of the weapons and equipment was stolen, lost or supplied to the enemy. Side walk vendors were hawking American cigarettes, booze, electronics, helmets, flak jackets, rifles and ammunition to anyone with cash. The dozens of private armies fielded by political leaders were unwittingly supported by U.S. taxpayers.
We have spent at least six billion dollars on Afghan defense, but the national army and police are still years behind fighting for themselves. The ordinary Afghans are more afraid of the national forces than the Taliban. Desertions are rampant, weapons and equipment disappears into the black market. More theft, bribery and graft plague the Afghan administration. President Karzi goes through the motions of reform, but the ugly truth is that the corruption keeps him in power. If he turns off the flow of American dollars, he is dead. As in Vietnam, the corruption has become institutionalized. It’s part of the cost of fighting the war.
In order to keep fighting these corrupt administrations have to be propped up and their most flagrant excesses overlooked.
In Viet Nam it was Ngo Dinh Diem. He was hand picked by U.S. authorities to be South Viet Nam’s Premier. He was an anti-communist with few ties to the previous French administration, and a Catholic as well, both of which satisfied his U.S. patrons. In the nature of all empires, the United States ignored the fact that Viet Nam is a Buddhist country. Naturally Diem promoted only his Catholic friends into positions of influence and power in government and the army. Since Diem’s primary concern was holding onto power by annihilating everyone, his ordinary Buddhists subjects soon learned to hate him. When Buddhists monks began to burn themselves alive in protests, some in his government were heard to offer them gasoline and matches.
If Diem actually fought the war, his crimes would have been overlooked. But he refused, and wound up shot to pieces in the back of an armored personnel carrier. The American ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge supported the coup. But the next Junta was just as bad, as were the nine that followed. But the United States believed it had invested too much to quit.
The rulers in Washington City must subject the American people to constant propaganda.
The phrases become tired, worn-out and maintain a ridged black and white simplicity. It was our “vital interest” to keep our “commitment” to maintain “credibility” for our “National Security” in Viet Nam. The United States had “no choice “but to fight. Just months before the final defeat in the South, Henry Kissinger was still claiming that there “was a fundamental threat over a period of time to the security of the United States.”
None of this was true. And the same language is being used today to justify another undeclared war. When the Americans left, Saigon fell, and it would have been the same if the United States had never been there. Except for the butcher’s bill of 58,000 and 300,000 wounded. No one knows how many Vietnamese died. The peasants weren’t important enough to count.
There were no falling dominos; no one fighting commies in the streets of Los Angeles, our empire remained secure. Our fiefdoms in Japan and the Philippines remained unmolested.
But the tragedy was the United States betrayed itself. Washington was seen as nothing more than an out of control military superpower brutalizing a helpless third world peasantry that was no threat to anyone. Air Force general Curtis LeMay did say that we should bomb them back into the stone age. But they were already there, and happy to stay.
What will the U.S. military leave behind from Kabul to the Khyber Pass?
Just newer ghosts to haunt us in our next foreign adventure.