Studying Vietnam Doesn’t Really Help

Evan Thomas and John Barry at Newsweek take a look at (a) revisionist history of Vietnam, now popular in some circles of the military and how it is influencing the current debate on Afghanistan.

I’ve written about this topic before, and I continue to think that the prime lesson to be learned, if there is one, is that the host government matters AND that the US can’t really influence any such government to become what it is not (i.e. a co-dependent shaky edifice).

But we need to back up a theoretical level first before approaching diving in more fully into the Thomas/Barry article.  A construct I find very helpful is the distinction (made by Thomas PM Barnett) between War and Peace.  If we take the Iraq II example, the War phase was the period of the invasion and the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein.  In Afghanistan it was the (very quick) routing of the Taliban from power with aid from the Northern Alliance.

The Peace (or Stabilization/(Re)construction) phase is much harder and much longer lasting.  Basically everything starting from the rise of the insurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  It’s a little tricky in that the “peace” phase requires a great deal of military might, so the peace phase is not simply civilian reconstruction, infrastructure building, economic recovery, and the growing capability of a national government (complete with national army/police, etc.) though those latter points are really the sign of ultimate victory in the peace phase.

I’ll come back to that in a second, but first the Thomas-Barry article:

One that he [Gen. McChyrstal] has read—and reread—is a 1999 book called A Better War, written by Lewis Sorley, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Sorley argues that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the United States could have won in Vietnam—if only the U.S. Congress hadn’t cut off military aid to South Vietnam…

Not until Gen. Creighton Abrams replaced Gen. William Westmoreland as U.S. commander in 1968 did the Americans smarten up and begin to fight a true counterinsurgency, focusing on protecting the population by a strategy of “clear and hold.” Instead of shoving aside the South Vietnamese Army, Abrams built up the local forces until they could stand and fight largely on their own—as they did in 1972, repulsing North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive with the aid of American airstrikes.

Sorley argues however that by this point in the game, even though the US was winning, the civilian population back home had already given up and were pushing the politicians (in this case Nixon who had run a pledge of winding down Vietnam).

In 1973, President Nixon and the North Vietnamese signed a peace treaty that allowed Hanoi to keep 150,000 troops in South Vietnam, just waiting on orders to march. In 1974, breaking Nixon’s promises of continued support to Saigon, the U.S. Congress cut off all aid to South Vietnam. Without logistical support or air cover, the South Vietnamese Army collapsed in 1975 and the communists swept into Saigon.

All of which sounds logical enough to me.  I can easily imagine that had the US Congress not cut off the air power to South Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government could have stayed in some stalemate scenario, certainly not in any sense winning against the Vietcong but at least not losing or being overrun.

Arguably as it stood the US won neither the War or Peace phase of Vietnam.  Though it seems they were doing at least somewhat better by the end.  As a result of that reality, the Vietnam era military adopted the Powell Doctrine which emphasized overwhelming force and a quick exit so as not to get bogged down in foreign countries.

By the Barnett reckoning, The Powell Doctrine over-emphasized (or only emphasized) the War phase to the exclusion of the peace phase.  We saw this in Somalia, Haiti, Iraq War I and so on.  The Powell Doctrine later got merged I would say with Art Cebrowski’s notion of Net-centric Warfare.  Netcentric argued that much smaller forces (than originally imagined by the Powell Doctrine), through the use of increased communications technologies and platforms, could achieve overwhelming victory….in the War phase note.  The Netcentric theory lay at the heart of The Rumsfeld Doctrine of light footprint and massive air/logistical power combined with special forces on the ground.  This guided both the Iraq and Afghanistan War phases.

And as per the War phase, it born fruit.  But it completely missed the Peace phase and there neither the Powell Doctrine nor the Net-centric Warfare was of any use and as a result the US lost the peace in both countries for a number of years.

Into that peace breach has bolted counterinsurgency doctrine–now called population-centric (versus net-centric) warfare. Names like Petraeus, Nagl, McMaster, and now McChyrstal.  Unfortunately as the Sorley book and the Thomas-Barry article demonstrates, the COIN crowd still thinks in terms of war and not peace.  The consequence of which is the threat to the President that if he doesn’t follow McChyrstal’s prescription fully then he (Obama) is at fault for losing the war in Afghanistan.  This actually gives the ideological spin ground to groups like The Taliban who will similarly claim that they won the war against the US.  They didn’t; they won the peace. Or at least they haven’t lost, which for an insurgency is all they need to do…not lose.

To wit:

Now, in Afghanistan, McChrystal is implementing a strategy that draws on the lessons of Iraq—and looks an awful lot like the “pacification” program adopted by General Abrams in Vietnam in 1968. By ratcheting back the heavy use (and overuse) of firepower, McChrystal has reduced civilian casualties, which alienate the locals and breed more jihadists. At the same time, U.S. Special Operations Forces use the intelligence gleaned from friendly civilians to find and kill Taliban leaders. That is precisely what the Phoenix Program was designed to do 40 years ago in Vietnam: target and assassinate Viet Cong leaders. McChrystal is focusing on recruiting and training Afghan Army and police so they can take over the job of securing Afghanistan as soon as possible. “Afghanization” of the war is much the same as “Vietnamization,” the strategy adopted—successfully, Sorley argues—before Congress voted an end to aid to the South.

All of which, like in the Vietnam example, still believes that the way to win the peace (though incorrectly called war) is through the creation of a national government.  And here Vietnam I think does have something to tell us, something the COINdinistas are missing:

A more immediate observer, NEWSWEEK correspondent Ron Moreau, recalls patrolling with South Vietnamese infantry in 1973. The South Vietnamese troops, Moreau says, had become utterly dependent on U.S. air power. Without it, they were reluctant to venture forth against the enemy. Moreau, who now covers the war in Afghanistan for NEWSWEEK, sees the same rickety, corrupt power structure in Kabul that he recalls from Saigon and doubts that America can prop it up indefinitely.

So I can imagine a ramped up COIN in Afghanistan having some tactical success as insurgents will do what they have always done in such situations and blend in with the crowd, put down their guns, and/or flee to the sanctuary next door in Pakistan (!!!!), just waiting out the occupiers because they know the host government is a fraud. In the Vietnam example, per Sorley’s assertion of winning the war, the entire sanctuary for the Vietcong in Cambodia and Laos would have to have been eradicated.  Instead of course we got Nixon’s air raids like we have now in the tribal lands of Pakistan-Afghanistan.  We definitely were not going to invade and try a population-centric war in Laos and Cambodia, and even less so in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state that is officially a US ally.

But The Taliban don’t have tanks and are not the Vietcong. They are not even The Taliban of the 1990s who ended the Afghan civil war (those Taliban did have tanks for example).  As I’ve highlighted before, if you wanted to really win peace against the Taliban in the south and east it would require a third way between state-based COIN favored by the current crowd (Nagl, Exum, McChyrstal) and withdrawing/muddling through looking for the exits, you would have to do so at the tribal (not state) level.

So per Sorley’s thesis, I cannot in any manner imagine a replay of the Congress (even one that wants the US military out of Afghanistan) cutting off funds for military trainers and air power in Afghanistan.  So I imagine a shaky largely corrupt not particularly effective Afghan government with essentially no reach beyond Kabul could continue for some indefinite period of time even without a surge of troops and a new COIN strategy in Afghanistan.  With some more troops and a new COIN strategy I imagine more battles we will be won but there will be no followup.

Here the better contrast is Iraq which had a history of a strong central state and even there the state has been seriously weakened and power has shifted out in many directions.  Afghan has a (short) history of only a very weak central state and that was before the brutal Soviet invasion/occupation, a bloody Civil War, another war and now insurgency over the last decade.  Getting back to that even weak central state status seems totally impossible given that scarred 30 year history. If COIN is implemented, it will achieve some initial tactical wins–which will be proclaimed by pro-COIN right-wingers in the US as “turning the corner”, “approaching victory”, “within reach of success”–which will go on for some period of time, with no real followup, i.e. no real victory in the Peace phase.  Eventually then the eventual scale-back, scale down will have to take place at which point the right will say the left “lost the war just like they did in Vietnam.”

All of which is completely stupid but will I imagine be politically sell-able given the stupidity of our foreign policy commentariat and the media.

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4 thoughts on “Studying Vietnam Doesn’t Really Help

  1. If the war would have been won, what would have been gained? How would a continued division of Vietnam into two countries have helped?
    Would the Soviet Union have collapsed one day sooner?
    Would the current reasonably cordial relationship with unified Vietnam have developed faster?
    By losing in Vietnam, what did we lose?
    I am told that we won in Iraq. What did we win?
    What is there to win in Afghanistan?

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  2. It might seem like a nit, but you really need to distinguish between the “Vietcong” (~NLF) and the PAVN in discussing the later stages (roughly post-Tet) of the war. My understanding of the literature is that the command structures were not unified at the operational level.

    I remember reading COL Sorley’s book a few years ago, but I don’t remember it well enough to argue its points in detail – my recollection is that he didn’t address the deep state breakage caused by Diem’s exteme favoritism to Catholics.

    I wouldn’t lean on Vietnam experience much either way re Afghanistan, although studying our higher level failures (e.g. the US’ collective overreaction to the Tet offensive) is probably a good idea, if difficult.

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