Words by Nikolai Hernandez
Deep within the throes of a wide-ranging conflict which threatens to spiral into what could very possibly become America’s third major Middle Eastern ground war in sixteen years, an honest introspection about the way the United States approaches these conflicts is long overdue. It’s a conversation quite reminiscent of one that took place forty years ago.
The War in Vietnam stands today as one of the bloodiest conflicts in United States history. The hot, muggy, treacherous jungles of Southeast Asia laid claim to the lives of nearly sixty thousand U.S. military personnel. The region witnessed the systematic dispersal of over nine million active duty personnel between August 5th, 1964 and May 7th,, 1975. By the time the last American soldiers left Vietnam, the United States government had poured $173 billion (roughly $770 billion in 2003 dollars) into the war effort. America’s military intervention in Southeast Asia is considered by many to be one of the most severe U.S. foreign policy failures of the twentieth century. In the words of 1972 democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, it was an “utter, unmitigated disaster.”
It is this writer’s firm conviction that the United States military has implemented, institutionalized, and executed incredibly similar, if not identical, battlefield strategies that date back to Vietnam in the Iraqi and Afghan wars of the past two decades. The notion that the war in Iraq is over is a highly contentious one, but for the sake of argument, Afghanistan shall serve as the regional emphasis, seeing as it is indeed an ongoing conflict with active duty U.S. personnel serving in country. Let’s took a look at some similarities between the current Middle Eastern conflict and the Southeast Asian crusade from nearly half a century ago.
In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, United States troops trained, equipped, advised, and fought alongside the local national security forces. In Vietnam, it was the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and in Afghanistan it was the Afghan National Army (ANA). Two vastly different militaries, from two vastly different places; nonetheless, we shall see that they are similar in their drawbacks. Both the ARVN and the ANA suffered from crippling corruption, misallocation of money and goods, a stark lack of definitive leadership, and infiltration from enemy forces.
According to globalsecurity.org, The Republic of Vietnam, headed from 1954 to 1963 by Ngo Dinh Diem, was “venal, reactionary, inefficient, and corrupt.” The Diem government inherited a functional administration from its French predecessors, but they failed to pursue judicial and economic reforms or create government systems designed to prevent corruption at the source. By the fall 1963, the United States attempted to fix the problem by staging a military coup, further destabilizing the political environment of South Vietnam. This problem is akin to one that the U.S. encountered with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai during his tenure from December 2004 until September 2014. Like Diem, the U.S. and Karzai butted heads numerous times, and although Karzai did not end up being removed by office by a U.S.-sponsored coup like Diem, one should not underplay the shaky relationship between Karzai and U.S. officials. Perhaps the most infamous case of uneasiness between the two parties was the 2009 Afghan presidential election, in which U.S. officials insisted on holding a runoff election after Karzai failed to win the fifty percent vote as mandated by the Afghan constitution, to which Karzai responded by claiming that the United States was trying to intervene in order to unseat him from office.
The counts of corruption were far better-recorded for the ARVN than they are for the ANA, and the reason for that could be as simple as the fact that the war in Vietnam ended forty years ago and displacement of time allows for more scrutiny. Regardless, it is clear that both of them display the same severe issues which have the potential to impede progress of the U.S. agenda as well as hinder the battle-ready effectiveness of their forces.
In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the U.S. operation was highlighted by a conscious and deliberate attempt to win over the admiration and influence of the native populations. The term “winning their Hearts and Minds” has strong anti-Communist, Vietnam-era connotations. The U.S. military has utilized the “Inkblot” strategy in both battlefields. The “Inkblot” strategy is a systematic attempt to stem the flow of enemy fighters and influence by building and sustaining “safe zones” placed strategically throughout the country.
Ironically, “safe zones” are anything but safe; many times they turn out to be some of the most contested arenas of the battlefield, with both sides recognizing their symbolic power. Bullets hail, rockets scream overhead, lives are lost on both sides. Today, the overarching plan behind the Afghanistan Ink Blots has hardly deviated from their Vietnam-era predecessors. U.S. and national security forces move into an area, set up defensive positions, and produce a concerted effort to improve infrastructure, security, education, welfare, and the overall socio-economic status of the people who inhabit them, the idea being that if we could improve their living conditions and keep them safe, we will foster their support for our mission and turn them against the enemy, whether it be the Communists or the Taliban. In Vietnam, the Ink Blots usually surrounded intensely populated areas, and their degree of effectiveness were oftentimes dictated by how well the war of attrition went. In Afghanistan, the waters are far murkier. This is due in part to the fact that roughly eighty percent of the population are spread throughout the country, with a large majority of that figure inhabiting various villages and enclaves in the mountainous regions of the northeast, bordering Pakistan. Ink Blots are fewer and farther between, and their effectiveness suffers as a result.
Another way in which we can examine the correlation between U.S. strategy in Vietnam and Afghanistan is to take a look at how our enemies fought (and continue to fight) against us. The Viet Minh, Viet Cong, and the Taliban are renowned experts at guerilla warfare. They refrain from brass, full-on confrontations with the security forces; instead, they work in the shadows. They submerge themselves within the local population, retaining a figurative cloak of invisibility that allows them to move freely within “safe zones” and other areas under the control of U.S. forces or the local military. They utilize hit-and-run strikes, often under the cover of nightfall, to derail infrastructure operations and confuse U.S. forces. They use stunning violence against those who support the United States to strike terror into the hearts of the locals. The relatively outmanned combatants employ ambushes, sabotage, raids, and petty warfare to take on the more traditional, larger, less-mobile army.
I had an opportunity to sit down with U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Clinton Alexander, head of Florida State University’s ROTC program. His commentary offered dazzling insight into the complexities of the questions that face our involvement in the war.
Regarding the similarities between the fighting tactics of the Taliban and Viet Cong, he had this to say: “I think you can certainly draw a lot of comparisons. On surface level Communists are going to take over, the Communists are bad, so if they take over we lose. Insert Taliban, if they take over we lose. Yeah, I think from a security standpoint, yes, you certainly have a similar enemy in that there’s booby traps, IEDS, and people you’re fighting. Again maybe it is very similar, because some of the things we’ve come to a conclusion right from the get-go is that it’s more about killing whack-a-moles, killing all these guys.” Whether it be shit-covered Punji sticks deceptively placed on the jungle floor or craftily-produced improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted on a desert road, the tactics that our enemies used to fight against us in both Vietnam and Afghanistan retain more similarities than they do differences.
In both conflicts, the U.S. began intervention with “advise and assist” forces before eventually resorting to “boots on the ground.” But what exactly constitutes “boots on the ground?” Who makes up which groups? If a unit is in country as advise-and-assist group but comes under enemy fire and is forced to partake in combat, are they then to be considered the “boots?” What differences lie between the two? Let’s be clear: if the term “boots on the ground” refers to U.S. personnel as a whole, we most certainly have boots in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria and they are most certainly on the ground. But the phrase takes on a whole new meaning for Afghanistan in particular, seeing as how the current administration has insisted that U.S. forces are in a transitional period to reverting back to operating solely as advise-and-assist units.
At this juncture there are several key questions I believe require the greatest amount of attention due to their potential impact. What steps have we taken over time to accommodate an invisible enemy on an ever-changing battlefield? What makes Afghan security forces more inclined to cohesively carry out the combat operations we are currently running once we’re gone? What is the long-term plan?
On the question of whether or not we’ve taken the appropriate steps to morph our blueprints of war, Lt. Col. Alexander, without hesitation, displayed his convictions: “Absolutely.” He goes on to describe the fundamental differences:
“In fact, I would say the majority of the operations and missions that people are doing over there aren’t necessarily related to fighting at all. Building roads, building schools, hospitals, supporting the Afghan government, training the Afghan army and the police.” So, according to the Lieutenant Colonel, it would appear that the current plan places more emphasis on nation-building, as opposed to total war. Recall that in Vietnam nation building was also a primary objective. It was the inability of the South Vietnamese government to exert control over its territory and population that gave rise U.S. intervention to begin with. The U.S. finds itself in nearly the same situation in Afghanistan; the purpose of the war is to not only defeat the Taliban insurgency, but to help the government form the necessary legislative and judicial bodies that will bolster its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. That legitimacy will also help prepare the country for the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops.
Above all, the most critical key to success in Afghanistan lies firmly upon whether or not the Afghan National Army displays the willingness, competency, and adeptness to take on the fight to the Taliban once all international troops withdraw from the country, much like the operation in Vietnam depended on the effectiveness of the ARVN. I brought this point up with the Lieutenant Colonel. He didn’t hold back:
“That is definitely going to be the real question. I think when you look at Iraq and ISIS – and again, you don’t how much is coming from the news media and how much is actually real – it looks like the Iraqi security forces basically folded. And I don’t know if that’s true. But certainly there’s been large chunks of towns that have been taken over by ISIS that would lead you to believe this guys weren’t as ready as we thought to defend themselves. So I think it has caused us to look. You can see the President said that we’re going to stay longer, originally we were supposed to pull out in 2014, so you can see the thought process of ‘we need to stay there and make sure these guys are good to go because we don’t want the Taliban to come in,’ insert ‘Taliban’ for ISIS, insert ‘Afghanistan’ for Iraq, we don’t want the Taliban to take it right over and the security forces to just melt away. I think that’s a huge concern of everyone, to make sure the Afghan security forces are ready. And I’ll tell you, I think it’s harder in Afghanistan. In Iraq it’s pretty much one people, but you have so many different cultures and tribes within Afghanistan, like the Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Aimak, Turks, Arabs, and others. All these different cultures thrown together into the security force mix, some of which may not normally play well. It’s a tougher one to do in Afghanistan.”
It’s pretty obvious what the Lieutenant Colonel is getting at. The multiple ethnic groups in Afghanistan make it difficult to attain the same level of regional ethnic homogeneity that could be found in Vietnam. For the U.S. operation to succeed, it must take into account those differences. Have we learned from our mistakes? Enter the Decade of Transformation.
The Decade of Transformation is a very enticing phrase. It inspires visions of a not-too-far-off future, where Afghanistan is nation of wealth and success. A revamped infrastructure. A new and improved political system. A population of nationalist countrymen that have bought into the ideals of cooperation and compromise, a land where social status is not indicative of one’s place in society. A place of harmony. A success story. This is something that’s easy to buy into, which is probably why the government chose to name it something that sounds so grandiose.
Burning Tree Magazine: And has the understanding that the Afghan security forces are at risk of not having “the will to fight” related to any tangible changes in our policy?
Clinton Alexander: I really don’t know that. I don’t know the latest policy on what we’re doing in Afghanistan. But I can tell you it’s probably making us take a hard look. Even when I left in 2012, one of the things they talked about was that “combat troops would leave in 2014,” but they had this thing called the “Decade of Transformation.” The Decade of Transformation goes from 2014 to 2024. Which means there’s still military there, their whole job is to advise and assist the Afghan forces. So the current plan has us staying in Afghanistan until 2024.
CA: Yeah. A lot of people don’t even know that. So they hear these sort of “Hey, combat troops are leaving.” Well, on the next day after all combat troops have left, it’s the same troops and the same people still on the ground, the same guns, same vehicles, they’re just now “advisor” troops and they’re wearing advisor hats. It’s the same exact people. In some ways it’s semantics, but the current plan is to stay there until 2024. You can even look up the Decade of Transformation in Afghanistan. That was a plan that came out probably 2011, 2012. It was dealing with just this: when the majority of forces leave, what stays behind to transform the Afghan security forces?
BTM: So, just to be clear, it seems that the current plan is to extend what has already become America’s longest war?
CA: It’s not a war anymore. We’re transforming, right?”
The Decade of Transformation identifies three major areas of financial support: humanitarian operations, development of infrastructure, and security spending. It is framed in such a way that reports are conducted every two years to track the progress of the transformation. What is not said of this plan is the enormous amount of good faith that it places on the people of Afghanistan, because all this fancy phraseology won’t accomplish a single thing unless the Afghan people buy into it.
For this plan to work, they need to work together and be successful on multiple fronts: ensure predictable and sustained support to the private and security sectors, continue to support needs-based humanitarian responses, focus on pro-poor development projects to build resilient populations that stand a chance against poverty and war, and above all, work as one nation to increase the accountability of their leaders and the effectiveness of their army. If that sounds like a lot to accomplish for a nation that holds over 13 major ethnic groups and, for the better part of the last twenty years, has lived in state of distrust towards the national government, that’s because it probably is.
According to the Lieutenant Colonel, all the dialogue that comes from White House officials, foreign policy experts, and Pentagon officials suggesting that combat troops are on an effective time table to return home for good may not be entirely accurate. Once the last of the “boots on the ground” return home from the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, there will still be a plentiful number of boots on the ground doing boots-on-the-ground-type things. American troops will still be fighting in country, still dying, and still training the Afghan National Army well into the next decade.
And like the Lieutenant Colonel mentioned, that’s just the plan that came out a few years ago. Who’s to say it won’t change? Who’s to say that American personnel won’t stay in Afghanistan well into 2024, 2027, 2030, and beyond?
“It’s all in the phrases and how you dress things [regarding Middle Eastern foreign policy]. Really what caused us to leave [Iraq] was that Iraq wouldn’t sign another Status of Forces Agreement. Which meant if an American soldier or personnel committed a crime he would be subject to Iraqi criminal law. And we said no, we’re not going to do that, he’ll be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And they didn’t want that. So as soon as they didn’t sign it we left. There’s nothing we really could do. It’s certainly interesting time tables, sometimes you run into people that say, ‘Wait, we’re still in Afghanistan?’ Yes, we are. And we’ll be there until 2024.”
Are the American people willing to continue sending troops to fight and die in a country that most U.S. citizens couldn’t even place on a map of the world? How much more money will be spent? How much more equipment supplied? How many more lives lost? If there ever existed a quota that said “spend X amount of money, send X amount of troops, do X amount of this, and victory will be yours,” the United States has met those measures. But the questions still remain. What other choice do we have? Abandon Afghanistan much in the same manner that we abandoned Southeast Asia 40 years ago? Simply allow Afghanistan to devolve into Vietnam 2.0, forsaking the thousands of American lives lost and overriding the several milestones we have reached? Stand by and watch as the nation gets torn apart at the hands of extremists? War-weary or not, none of those options are compatible with our values as a country. I doubt that the generals and commanders that have orchestrated America’s longest war are prepared to accept such notions.
For Afghanistan, the Decade of Transformation holds the hope of a fledgling nation and the millions of people whose collective future will depend on the success of this new nation, forged in American armories and fertilized with the blood and sweat of American and Afghan soldiers. When the sand and dirt of the old Afghanistan fades from the view of the last American soldier to leave on the last American plane, will it be an Afghanistan buoyed by democracy and freedom, or will it be like the final evacuation of Saigon, with American pilots fleeing as the NVA overruns the last American position in Vietnam? We are a strong and just nation, driven despite our faults by an unceasing courage and honor. The future of Afghanistan lies in our hands. A failure in Afghanistan would be a failure of the American mission: that of the extension of the rights we hold dear to people the world over. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are a fundamental right which we now owe to the Afghan people. It is up to the soldiers of the American army, and the men who now fight in the new Afghan army, to ensure that this right is afforded the people of Afghanistan, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
-Sam Levine, Editor-in-Chief, Burning Tree Magazine