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Afghanistan: Obama's quagmire?

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted September 28, 2009

Thanks to the publication of the McChrystal report, we're beginning to see that the Afghan conflict isn't working out the way it should. According to the report, the insurgency is gaining ground. The Afghan people are becoming more alienated from the Afghan government; corruption is growing; the Quetta Shura Taliban is also growing, in influence and reach; said Taliban are well on their way to setting up a shadow government; momentum has shifted to the insurgents. The prime weaknesses in the NATO International Assistance Security Force is its ignorance of local customs and even languages, soldiers' tendency to distance themselves from the populace, and over-concentration on tactical victories at the expense of counter-insurgency strategy.

Although it hasn't hit the general media yet, there's undoubtedly grist for anyone who'd like to make the now-stereotypical comparison to the Vietnam War. I have to admit to being fooled by that comparison when the Gulf War unfolded. The speed of the victory in '91 has left me skeptical ever since. This one might be the wolf, but there have been three other wolf sightings (The Gulf War, Kosovo, Iraq) that proved to be exercises in ghost-tracking.

Why Afghanistan Is Not Another Vietnam
There's a crucial difference between the Vietnam War and all four of those more recent conflicts, one not mentioned in the regular media. The North Vietnamese sized up the United States' strategy and counteracted it in a way that the Iraqis, Serbs and Afghanis did not. The only strategic similarity I can think of is the Algerian insurgency against France.

The strategy of the International Assistance Security Force is essentially the same as the U.S.'s strategy in Vietnam, so there is a pole on which the next-Vietnam crew can hang their hat. It's nation-building. The difference between the North Vietnamese and the Afghani insurgents, though, is a profound one.

The Vietnamese Communists directly attacked the U.S.'s strategy. To put it succinctly, the North Vietnamese were nation-destroyers. When President Kennedy was still around, the Vietminh and Vietcong were busy assassinating South Vietnamese minor officials and other worthies, the more moderate the better. The aim was to make sure that no competent South Vietnamese would serve the Saigon government in an open and accessible manner. By slaughtering the "cadres" of the South Vietnam regime, the North Vietnamese forces assured that the South Vietnam regime would become more oppressive. The blend-in strategy used by the Vietcong all-but assured that there would be a lot of civilian-killing. As a result, the nation-builders were caught between a rock and a hard place. Civilian casualties became almost unavoidable; so did an appearance of weakness. Remoteness from the South Vietnamese population was all-but inevitable too, as the butchered bodies of less-remote South Vietnamese officials, dignitaries and other worthies made plain. Hoping that the South Vietnamese people would understand – a not unreasonable expectation, given the Vietcong's carnage – was euchred out by the further understanding that U.S. forces and the South Vietnam government couldn't guarantee their safety. As is usual in times of threat, the South Vietnamese government had become more corrupt and oppressive; that reaction made the nation-building look more and more pointless. The left-wing claim that Ho Chi Min was "the George Washington of his people" became more and more credible in the United States itself. Had this claim not been widely accepted, the Tet Offensive would have been a lot harder to cast as a North Vietnam victory.

The main reason why the Afghani conflict is not another Vietnam is the Quetta Shura Taliban, and two other allied insurgent groups, are not another Vietcong. There has been insurgent intimidation, violence and murder, but not the systematic slaughter employed by the North Vietnamese in the early 1960s. The insurgents are not nation-destroying. Instead, they're trying to build up a shadow government that hopes to take over from the current Afghani one. The fact that the insurgents have not gone for cadre-slaughtering suggests that the International Security Assistance Force's strategic position is better than the U.S.'s was in South Vietnam.


That being said, will the insurgents prevail? Gen. Stanley McChrystal's report indicates that they will, unless counter-insurgency forces encourage ordinary Afghanis to identify with the current Afghani government. Also, insurgents that end up disidentifying with the insurgency should be welcomed if possible. These goals are at the heart of the nation-building aim.

That being said, how is the Obama Administration responding? The McChrystal Report was sent in near the end of August. The only reaction so far from the Obama Administration has been to tighten the rules of engagement to the point of additional risk to ISAF's soldiers' lives, as this item indicates. The lack of air support detailed by that story smacks of the Bay of Pigs.

More recently, the Administration has asked Gen. McChrystal to hold off on a request for additional troops. I don't know why, but it does suggest a certain H.Q. indecisiveness that doesn't exactly square with the ISAF's sub-goal of confidence-building.

One approach that would bear fruit, if not done already, would be a fleshing-out of the ways that the Afghani insurgent groups differ in tactics and strategy from the North Vietnamese. We all know that counter-insurgency is like fighting with one's hand tied behind one's back; when the enemy is blended in with the general population, it's inevitable. That's why counter-insurgencies can be credibly compared to the proverbial draw to the inside straight. The fact that the insurgents have not gone cadre-slaughtering, though, suggests that the insurgents have a hand tied behind their own back. The report notes that the Quetta Shura Taliban's shadow government includes procedures for disciplining errant shadow-officials, suggesting that the QST has to take steps to not alienate the populace also. From a blood-and-guts perspective, this care suggests that the insurgents are too weak to implement a nation-destroying strategy. Their own actions may be constrained in ways we don't know about.

The insurgents' decision to compete instead of destroy has left a real opening. In order to win, IASF forces and the current Afghani government don't have to live up to an abstract standard of nation-building; they just have to be better at it than the insurgents. A close examination of the insurgents' own constraints would aid in that goal. Surely, it would be better than the kind of dithering that makes pulling out look sensible.  ESR

Daniel M. Ryan dances with the Grim Reaper.


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