The Vietnam War’s Lessons Went Unlearned in Afghanistan

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Four months from now, the last 2,500 American troops will have left Afghanistan. The British, Australians, Canadians and other allies will be in the same boat, figuratively if not literally, having also sacrificed blood and treasure in the 20-year struggle first, to remove Kabul’s Taliban government, thereafter to sustain its successor regimes. Why has President Joe Biden lost patience, the West essentially thrown up its hands in despair? We should recall a significant conversation, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“We want to be a benevolent and humble presence,” said U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, as U.S. troops forged through teeming crowds to enter Baghdad. Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson, embedded with Petraeus’s 101st Airborne Division, captured the scene in his book, “In the Company of Soldiers”:

A distinguished elderly man in a white robe emerged from the throng and identified himself as Abdul-Razzaq Kasbi, a teacher at the Saddam Secondary School. He spoke English with slow formality, enunciating each syllable…. ‘Mr General,’ he said to Petraeus, ‘we are afraid you will control us, as he has done.’ There was no need to specify who ‘he’ was….

‘No,’ Petraeus said, ‘we won’t.’…We will show you by our actions.”… He offered the teacher a brass division coin to seal the bargain, but Kasbi politely refused the token.

‘I can’t have anything of you unless I am sure you have come for the sake of our people. We want to live in peace. We don’t want to substitute one bad person for another bad person.’

Petraeus took the rejection gracefully…. ‘I understand the intellectual aversion to nation-building,’ Petraeus mused. ‘On the other hand, I don’t see how you avoid it.’

The failures in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, through the ensuing two decades have not been battlefield defeats. They have been caused, instead, by our inability to establish, within a timeframe acceptable to chronically impatient Western politicians and electorates, a sustainable local system of governance that also supports Western interests.

Petraeus, smartest of modern American generals, understood from the moment he entered Baghdad at the head of his “Screaming Eagles” that an army cannot accomplish the re-ordering of a society. Nation-building is much more difficult than winning battles, and we are not very good at it.

Some American strategy gurus are at pains to argue that 21st century wars in far-flung places have nothing in common with Vietnam. As the author of a history of the latter struggle, I disagree. I see many parallels, as do distinguished veterans.

The first Vietnam message is that the Northerners won that war not because they were communists, but mostly because they were Vietnamese. Almost everybody hates being bossed around by foreigners. Throughout the war years, Vietnamese knew that no representative of the Saigon government could leave his bed in the morning without asking his American paymasters which side to get out. A Southerner named Chau Phat said: “The communists could ceaselessly remind us how humiliating it was to be occupied.”

This is the same message that, for the past 20 years, the Taliban have been delivering to a thousand Afghan towns and villages. Responses from our side must be seen to be home-grown, not foreign. Australian counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullen has written that an insurgency “derives its morale, its physical strength, its freedom of action, and its will to act [from] its connectivity with the local population in a given area. Insurgents ride and manipulate a social wave of grievances, often legitimate.” In Afghanistan it exasperates Westerners that many communities choose to seek domestic arbitration from Taliban courts dispensing Islamic justice, rather than from those of the government.

On a visit to Kabul some years ago, I was invited to meet a government minister, who proved to be a bright young man, with imaginative ideas for his country. But he had spent most of his own life in West Coast America: I suspect that his English was better than his Pashto. Many prominent members of recent Afghan governments have kept a substantial part of their assets outside their country, against the contingency of being obliged to flee for their lives. They have thus — albeit with prudent realism — been less than wholly committed.

The operations of Western armies place a cripplingly heavy footprint upon primitive societies. Flying low in Blackhawks over both Iraq and Afghanistan, I have often speculated about how housewives beneath us must feel about Westerners, as dust storms whipped up by our rotors swept through their washing on clotheslines. I wrote in my Vietnam book that, even before considering the kinetic consequences of the military presence, “American decision-makers failed to realise the economic and cultural impact of a huge foreign army. A Vietnamese secretary at USAID earned more than a South Vietnamese colonel. Bulldozers and conexes, antennae and armoured vehicles, watchtowers, sandbags and concertina wire ravaged the environment even before guns began to fire, helicopters to swirl overhead, huge soldiers to purchase the sexual attentions of tiny local women.” The U.S. sought to conduct the sort of conflict that suited its armed forces, rather than the one it was stuck with, against a foe who set the lightest imaginable footprint.

All this has happened again in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who would want to serve the Kabul government, for a fraction of the pay available to those who work for foreigners? Only a tiny number of Westerners can communicate directly with local people. As a journalist accompanying a British patrol through an Afghan village, I do not think it was a figment of my imagination to discern hatred in the eyes of watchful local men. Western warriors in body armor and sunglasses look more like robots than humans. 

I urged on a British army chief the need to make more soldiers Pashto-speakers. He responded that it would be unreasonable to interrupt men’s professional careers to learn a language that had no application outside Afghanistan. The U.S. Army has run an energetic language program, but the number of deployed troops who can talk to local people is still very small.

In 2012, TV journalist Ben Anderson was embedded with a British unit. Back home, he got a translator to transcribe conversations he had filmed, conducted through interpreters. These revealed that much of the language reported by the latter to the soldiers was false, softened to mask the rudenesses of the Afghan original. There was little authentic intercourse.

Atrocities have taken place, which attracted little attention back in our own countries but rendered more difficult a relationship of trust. Some members of U.S., British and Australian special forces have engaged in deplorable and indeed murderous treatment of local people, for which retributive justice has proved elusive. I do not mean to detract from the courage and skills of most special forces personnel, who do fine things. Memories of the murderous ones, however, linger longer in Afghan and Iraq minds than do the heroes. It is hard to cure some Western warriors of the mindset — which of course prevailed toward so-called “gooks” in Vietnam — that “what’s one towelhead the less?”.

You cannot kill your way out of an insurgency, even if some killing must play a part in achieving an acceptable outcome. Sensible strategy demands the elimination of a minority of irreconcilable enemies, but also the persuasion of a majority that they will gain more by talking than fighting.

Most Westerners deployed in Afghanistan have served tours of duty too short for them to understand either the place or the people. U.S. soldiers complete a year, but the British have run six-month rotations. Their units have thus spent the first two months in-country learning their business; the last month, packing up.

Such a policy may have been necessary to sustain the morale of young troops, to whom a year overseas can seem an eternity. But contrast that with the policy of European imperial forces stationed abroad in the 19th century, or even of Americans in the 20th century Philippines: Their generations expected to spend half their careers in overseas postings, and to become imbued with local cultures and languages.

A subsidiary problem is the weakness of grass-roots “humint” — human intelligence about local conditions. At its higher levels, Western intelligence can be formidably empowering, especially in exploiting electronic interception. It is much less impressive, however, in fathoming the tribal and family issues that play a critical part in determining behavior in Muslim societies. I have heard many officers complain that, whatever their commanders may know about the activities of Taliban or Islamic State leaders hundreds of miles away, their own briefings reveal pathetically little about what is happening on their patch, in the next village.

Whatever fig leaves of pretense are placed on commitments for propaganda purposes, our recent campaigns have been conducted — as in Vietnam — to serve Western interests. Of course every nation that goes to war has selfish motives. But the consequence is that, however much material aid is lavished on local people, it is hard to persuade them that our interests and theirs coincide.

In the years ahead, Islamic terrorism is likely to remain a chronic problem. Western governments will again feel obliged to intervene in faraway places, perhaps including Afghanistan. We must simply learn to do this better, and to think much longer. Kilcullen urges the importance of “higher levels of cultural understanding…[which] is difficult within the culture of regular armies.” In his 2010 handbook on counterinsurgency, he argues passionately that Western interventionists can prevail, but only provided that “victory” is sensibly defined, as it was not by the administration of President George W. Bush after 9/11.

Well-intentioned Westerners are often mystified by how Afghans and others can bring themselves to spurn the security, prosperity, women’s advancement, education and health care that the incomers offer. Yet success can only be achieved by convincing the population that their government and its representatives are identified with themselves, and not with foreigners in Washington or London. To reassert the Vietnam comparison: The Taliban are close to victory because they are Afghans, whereas the present Kabul government is identified with the U.S. and its allies.

Moreover, our enemies unfailingly display more patience than ourselves. In 1966 in Hanoi, North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong taunted the visiting New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury: “How long do you Americans want to fight, Mr. Salisbury? One year? Two years? Three years? Five years? Ten Years? Twenty years? We shall be glad to accommodate you.” As history records, the communists bore the pain, and the vast casualties, of sustaining that war until the U.S. tired of it. Again and again since, America and its allies have committed to a five-round fight, only to discover that their opponents propose to stay in the ring for ten.

In Afghanistan, let us recall Kilcullen’s phrase about definitions of victory. We cannot extinguish the Taliban, nor indeed militant Islamists anywhere; we can only aspire to contain them. This aspiration is by no means a bad one, but it does not suffice for President Biden. He is only the foremost among Americans who are weary of stalemate. Afghans have always been opportunists. Some time ago, most concluded that the Taliban were likely to outlast the West, and placed their bets accordingly.

Yet if Washington and its allies displayed the will to keep a very modest stake on the table in Afghanistan — small numbers of troops and quite large amounts of cash—they might not win a “victory,” but they could probably frustrate a Taliban triumph that otherwise seems almost inevitable. It would be naive to anticipate that the Taliban will respect the terms of its February 2020 agreement with the U.S. not to allow Afghanistan to become again a base for international terror. The country is overwhelmingly likely to rewind the clock: to drag the more than 3.5 million Afghan girls who now attend school back to a future as domestic and sexual servants; to remove women from the modest but growing number of responsible posts they occupy; to restore to the imams the power that they exercise to such baleful effect in Iran.

Maybe the war was always unwinnable. Maybe the U.S. president is merely displaying a realism that his predecessors lacked. But it is depressing to acknowledge before the eyes of the world that the 47,000 civilians who have perished since 2007 died for nothing, not to mention the Afghan, U.S., British and other foreign troops who have lost their lives. If we cannot teach ourselves to intervene abroad with more skill, sensitivity and conviction than we have displayed in Afghanistan, we had better stay home.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy" and "Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943."

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