Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Vietnam and Afghanistan

The way we were...

Saw a documentary on the Vietnam War last night. It is remarkable how memories of Vietnam, once such a pressing issue, at least to those of us who were young, have faded. For a time, the trauma of Vietnam seemed overwhelming, and the end of American domination in the world. It was, the Americans thought, the first war they ever lost. God had deserted them; or they had deserted God. When Reagan a decade later send a few thousand marines into Grenada, the world gasped at his recklessness. After Vietnam? Unthinkable!

And now Afghanistan has dragged on as long, and nobody notices.

My opinion of Vietnam has not changed; not since I read the Pentagon Papers in 1971. I don't think the Americans were wrong in any moral sense to go in. It would have been better for the South Vietnamese had they won. But it was foolish. Just look on a map. First off, they could never invade North Vietnam, or, the Korean War informed them, they would be engaged in a land war in Asia with China. That would be the world's worst-case scenario for American arms, it being a distant sea power. As a result, they were committed to a purely defensive war; they could not win, only hold the line. Unless the North Vietnamese decided to give up, they had to lose.

Worse, South Vietnam is little more than one extended border. Insurgents could slip over that border at any time, at any point. No part of the country could ever be secured. The only way the US could fix that problem was to invade and conquer Laos and Cambodia, which would be a clear act of aggression against neutral countries, a flagrant violation of international law, and would damage US prestige as badly as or worse than losing the war.

All of this was obvious before the US went in.

I do not blame LBJ for going in; he was already committed, and to pull out would have meant a huge loss of American prestige. I do not think you can blame Kennedy either. His hands were similarly tied by prior commitments. You can blame Eisenhower. First, at Suez, he kicked the slats out from under the French and British empires. He forced them out of the game, and so out of Indochina. Then he committed the US to preserving the status quo under which the French left. He put America's head in the guillotine, and pulled the cord. It just took a few years for the blade to fall, and by then he was out of office. Anything after that would have been a grievous loss of American prestige, with perhaps disastrous consequences: the domino effect everyone worried about. The US would have shown itself an unreliable ally.

So why doesn't Afghanistan provoke the same public angst as Vietnam did?

It was almost as obviously dumb from the start. Afghan conditions defeated the Soviet Union, when it was the second-greatest military power on Earth. And a heck of a lot closer for resupply than the US. They defeated the British, when they were the greatest military power on Earth. And a heck of a lot closer to their base in India. Why, other than insane hubris, would the US (and NATO) attempt the same folly? Afghanistan is mountainous—perfect for guerilla warfare, so good for it that local governments have never been able to maintain control. Back in the Sixties, Afghanistan was still famous, as it had been throughout history, for bandits. The roads were never secure. Its natural state is constant total war. It has no seacoast—a huge logistical problem for a sea power like the US. And this also means that it is all border, through which insurgents can always pass in and out. The long border with Pakistan works just as did the Ho Chi Minh Trail. And NATO cannot invade Pakistan to do anything about it. 

The American war aim, back in 2001, was to punish the Taliban for refusing to hand over Osama Bin Laden and for hosting Al Qaeda bases. That mission was accomplished within two months. The US should then have handed the reins of power, such as they were, to their local allies, the Northern Alliance, and pulled out. This is how the British or French used to do it back in the days of empire; this is good old “gunboat diplomacy.” Send in a mobile force, burn down the Summer Palace, and withdraw in good order. Lesson taught. If they go back and do it again, go in and do it again.

US White House after Royal Navy raid, War of 1812.

Anything else is, if you will pardon the term, colonialism. You really do not have to stay and take over the country, do you?

But Vietnam was a much bigger conflict: it required the draft, a lot of unhappy involuntary soldiers, and a lot more casualties. Afghanistan is far less fierce.

In fact, it is so relatively placid that there may be real, material reasons for NATO to want to stay, even if the conflict is unwinnable. It might still be useful as a live-fire training and testing ground for NATO arms and tactics. In case of and more serious conflict, having forces recently battle tested is a huge advantage.

Unfortunately, real people are dying. I'd still pull out. With a strike force waiting on Diego Garcia.

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