“Now we can see [success in Vietnam] clearly, like the light at the end of a tunnel.”
— Gen. Henri Navarre, commander French forces in Vietnam, May 20, 1953
“A new phase is starting…we have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view…there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
— Gen. William Westmoreland, commander U.S. forces in Vietnam, November 1967
“Yesterday’s attack [in Kabul] was a fleeting event; it came and it went. The insurgents are on the defensive.” The performance of Afghan security forces should tell Afghans “they can sleep well at night.”
— Gen. John Allen, North Atlantic Treaty Commander in Afghanistan, Sept. 14, 2011
Dear Lord, what is about generals that seem to make them so particularly immune to history’s lessons?
Gen. Navarre had a sure-fire plan to draw the Vietnamese insurgents into a great battle that would end the war. Worked like a charm. On May 7, 1954 the French army surrendered at Dien Bien Phu.
In November 1967, Gen. Westmoreland was making the rounds in Washington, talking up “body counts” and “pacification,” and how the U.S would have this little matter in Vietnam wrapped up pretty quickly. Ten weeks later, on Jan.31, 1968, the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive that put the U.S. Embassy in Saigon under siege, seized the city of Hue, and shattered the myth that the U.S. was winning the war in Vietnam.
And now Gen. Allen says the attack on Kabul indicates the Taliban are on their last legs.
For NATO this year has been the deadliest in the decade-old war, and the Kabul assault suggests that the Taliban are hardly on the ropes. As Matthew Green of the Financial Times put it, “The attack was among the most sophisticated insurgents have launched on the capital and exposed the inability of Afghan forces to guarantee security even in the most heavily defended districts.”
A “fleeting event”? I suppose that depends on how one defines “fleeting.” Seven Taliban pinned down NATO and Afghan security forces for 20 hours, scattering Embassy officials, and pretty much paralyzing a major part of the capital. It was the 26th major attack on Kabul since 2008, assaults that have killed 225 people.
What generals don’t get (it tends to be above their pay grade) is that wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan— wars of occupation—are political, not military affairs. The U.S. military continues to claim that the Tet offensive was a huge military victory because it killed lots of insurgents, and the U.S. took back all the cities it lost. But Tet was less a military offensive than a political undertaking aimed at derailing the myth that the U.S. was “winning” the war in Vietnam. And that is exactly what Tet did. Regardless of what the generals thought, the American people concluded that they had been lied to, and that the war could not be won.
During the Paris peace talks to end the war in Southeast Asia, an American colonel confronted his North Vietnamese counterpart and told him that the U.S. had won every battle in the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese officer nodded, “Yes, that is true, but also irrelevant.” I doubt the American officer got the point.
General Allen’s line about “the insurgents are on the defensive” can now join former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s dismissal of the growing Iraqi insurgency as nothing but Saddam Hussein “dead-enders.”
As for Kabul residents being able to “sleep well at night” because of the performance of the Afghan security forces:
“The nature and scale of today’s attacks clearly proves that the terrorists received assistance and guidance from some security officials within the government who are their sympathizers,” Naim Hamidzai, chair of the Afghan parliament’s Internal Security Committee, told the New York Times. “Otherwise it would be impossible for the planners and masterminds of the attack to stage such a sophisticated and complex attack, in this extremely well guarded location without the complicity of insiders.”
The Afghan Army saw its desertion rate more than double in the first six months of this year. Between January and June, some 24,590 soldiers deserted, compared with 11,423 who left in the same period in 2010. The Afghan army is supposed to reach 195,000 by October 2012.
The Afghan army has also been unable to recruit Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan, the heart of the insurgency. According to a recent study by the New York Times, Pashtuns from Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan, Zabul, Paktika, and Ghazni make up 17 percent of the population but only 1.5 percent of the army. In short, the Afghan Army in the south is essentially a northern army of occupation, which explains why no one in the southern provinces will join the army, and virtually no Taliban have switched allegiances to the government.
To shore up security, the U.S. has been recruiting and arming militias that, according to a recent Human Rights study, have killed, raped and stolen from local villagers. U.S. Special Forces recruit the militia members, who then shift their loyalties to local warlords. This should hardly come as a surprise. The Soviets tried exactly this tactic during their occupation, which ended up fueling the growth of the warlords and led to the devastating 1992-96 civil war.
Of course General Allen might have had something else in mind when he talked about getting a good night’s sleep.
According to the United Nations, this year will be a bumper crop for opium. Prices for dry opium increased 306 percent this year, from $69 a kilo to $281 a kilo. As Jean-Luc Lemahieu, an official of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, told the New York Times, “This is not business as usual. There is no crop that can compete with those prices.”
Smoke enough opium you can sleep through anything.
For the last 10 years we have bombed, shot, incarcerated, and water-boarded a lot of people in Afghanistan. We have allowed opium to become the country’s major source of income, and we are currently bringing back the warlords and their armies. Afghanistan is a far more dangerous place today than it was a decade ago, and the only tunnels are the ones in which the Taliban store their weapons and supplies.
It seems time to resuscitate a line from another decade and another war: “Out now!”
More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.