Lessons not learned, from Vietnam to Afghanistan
“The end of the road is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased,
“And the epitaph drear ‘A fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.’ ”
— Rudyard Kipling
Surely the most astonishing rationalization given for the murders of American and other NATO advisors in Afghanistan, murders committed by Afghan soldiers and police officers the advisors were assigned to train, is that the “stress” Muslims are subjected to by having to fast, sunup to sundown, during the holy month of Ramadan is at least a “contributing factor” for them.
This year Ramadan came in August, one of the hottest months of the year. Heat-related stress no doubt will also be cited as another contributing factor by those inclined to look for such things and compelled to ignore the elephant in the room.
Marine Gen. John R. Allen, commander of NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan, recently said that while the reasons for the killings are not fully understood, the effect of Ramadan fasting “is likely among the causes.” As of this writing, there have been 33 attacks on advisors in 2012 by nominally friendly Afghan forces, and 42 advisors, almost all of them Americans, have been killed. In all of 2011, there were 21 attacks with 35 killed.
Has it occurred to no one responsible for American exit strategy in Afghanistan that it is the nature of the advisory effort itself, in this fruitless war that is now in its 11th (!) year, that may be to blame for Afghans turning their U.S. furnished weapons on American soldiers and Marines?
Think of what we expect them to accomplish as advisors. With little or no command of local language and customs, we send them to the other side of the world (“other” in terms of both geography and culture), post them with small Afghan units in remote parts of the country with little outside support, to advise Afghan counterparts who almost never have knowledge of English or Western customs.
And what sort of advice do we expect them to give?
How to win a counterinsurgency war our country signally failed to win in an earlier decade-long war in Vietnam?
Or our nation-building one in Iraq, a country that after our late 2011 departure is now clearly falling apart at the seams?
Do not think for a moment that the Afghans we presume to advise are not aware of this, or that they are ignorant of their own history.
They have outlasted and defeated a series of would be foreign conquerors and “reformers,” the most recent being the Soviet Union, whose Red Army was deemed to be the most powerful land force in the world. Nor are they unaware of the pending departure of the Americans who constitute the overwhelming majority of NATO forces assigned to train Afghans to be what they are not and likely never will be under foreign tutelage.
Regardless of who captures the White House this November, our troops and our advisors are coming out.
Whose side would you want to be on in such circumstances? The soon-to-be-gone Americans or the increasingly resurgent Taliban?
It did not have to be this way. President Obama, intent on distancing himself from “George Bush’s war” in Iraq, made Afghanistan Obama’s war.
Foolishly, his surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops was accompanied by a pledge to withdraw all American combat forces by a date certain. Presumably, if Congress does not rule otherwise (as Congress did during the end game in Vietnam), U.S. advisors would remain in Afghanistan indefinitely after all other troops are gone.
There is one word fitting for such a strategy — stupid. If there is a lesson to be learned from Vietnam, it is that when you commit troops you fight to win, not to advise others how not to lose.
I have never been to Afghanistan and have no personal knowledge of our advisory effort there. I concede that. I do have personal knowledge of our advisory effort in Vietnam, and knowledge through academic research of our near 20-year advisory effort in Haiti. What came of both of these is clear to whoever takes the time to look.
In 1992, I wrote “From the Rivers to the Sea,” a book about the Navy in Vietnam published by the Naval Institute Press. The passage that follows is taken from that book, and seems to me to be relevant to our advisory effort in Afghanistan today.
“The admirals and captains our navy sent to Saigon were not stupid or deceitful men. They were, almost without exception, capable and highly motivated officers. They knew the structural changes required to make the VNN [the Vietnamese Navy] a viable organization, the improvements to command and control, training, promotion, pay, and dependents’ care that should have been made before ships and boats, more bases, and operational responsibilities were thrown at the Vietnamese. Our lieutenant commanders and lieutenants in the field were not blind to these things either, nor to the graft and corruption that all too often had become a way of life for those they were sent to advise.
“The advisory system (‘show them how the job must be done, don’t tell them or do it for them’) was to blame, not the advisors. The system simply did not permit the kind of prompt, corrective action that circumstances clearly cried out for. The heart of the problem was political and not peculiar to the Vietnamese Navy nor to the Vietnamese armed forces as a whole. It spread its roots through virtually every sector of Vietnamese society. It was a bitter pill for a whole generation of ‘nation-builders’ to swallow, but the brutal fact was that no Vietnamese government in Saigon ever inspired in its people the loyalty, the unhesitating support, the patriotism, and self-sacrifice essential to the creation of effective armed forces and the successful prosecution of war. The wonder is not that the advisory effort accomplished so little, but that it accomplished anything at all.”
Would anyone like to make a bet that when the curtain falls on America’s advisory effort in Afghanistan, as it surely will, what we leave behind will be much different than what we found when we decided to remake in our own image a far-off country of which Americans knew but little, but now know far too much in terms of wasted blood and squandered treasure?
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.