Despite the success of U.S. troops on the ground — a success repeated in battle after battle — we lost the Vietnam War. Military historians and counterinsurgency experts cite two major reasons for that defeat:
1.) Our opponents had a sanctuary in North Vietnam that we could never effectively close down for fear of starting an even larger war in the region. We bombed its factories and mined its harbors; we tried to shut down its supply lines to the South. But North Vietnam remained a constant source of new manpower and new resources for our enemies.
2.) The South Vietnamese government was corrupt and ineffective, incapable of and actually not all that interested in winning the allegiance of its own people. That’s fatal. The U.S. military’s field manual on how to conduct a counterinsurgency (COIN) — a document drafted under the leadership of Gen. David Petraeus, and which led to his appointment as U.S. commander in Iraq — highlights its importance: “The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.” Note those two words: “primary objective.”
In the Vietnam War, we never came close to solving those two central problems. And we are even farther from resolving them in Afghanistan.
Earlier this week, the Obama administration released a five-page unclassified summary of its internal strategic review regarding Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. The document is an exercise in strained optimism.
“Specific components of our strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan are working well and there are notable operational gains,” it claims. ” … in Afghanistan, the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, although these gains remain fragile and reversible.”
All of that is undoubtedly correct, but almost beside the point. In Pakistan, the Taliban enjoy a sanctuary that is even more secure than North Vietnam provided, and that situation shows no sign of changing because Pakistan has no interest in changing it.
Sure, Pakistan is nominally our ally, and is the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. military and development aid. But Pakistan sees the Taliban as useful allies as well, and it will continue to frustrate U.S. efforts to defeat them. From an American perspective, that is a maddening, frustrating betrayal. From a Pakistani perspective, it’s just smart strategy, and nothing we can say or do will change that conclusion.
But the real problem is the Afghanistan government, which is even less effective and as least as corrupt as our allies in South Vietnam were. It is beyond our power to change that, no matter how hard we try. Only the Afghans themselves can change that, and again, they have shown no capacity or interest in doing so.
As long as effective host-nation governance — “the primary objective of any COIN operation” — is a hopeless cause, the larger battle is hopeless as well. And there’s little sign that our national leadership is ready to come to grips with that reality.
In Vietnam, of course, American public opinion eventually forced a withdrawal of U.S. forces. And U.S. public opinion about the war in Afghanistan has turned decidedly negative. In a poll released this week by ABC News and the Washington Post, 60 percent of Americans said the war has not been worth fighting.
Ordinarily, such low public support for a war would be enough to end it. But the sad truth is that the American people just don’t care enough about it to force a decision from their leadership. They’ve concluded that yes, it’s a stupid war to still be fighting and it’s too bad that American kids are still dying and we really ought to be finding a way out of there but then there’s the deficit and unemployment and Blake Edwards just died and wasn’t he married to Julie Andrews and I don’t know what to get the wife for Christmas and I sure hope cousin Eddy can save his house from foreclosure by the bank.
What was that about Afghanistan again?