A Vietnam Strategy For Afghanistan

(U.S. Navy Photo/ Petty Officer First Class David M. Votroubek) www.army.mil

Lawrence Sellin Retired Colonel, U.S. Army Reserve
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According to Bloomberg, the Trump Administration’s soon-to-be-unveiled Afghanistan strategy

would tie the U.S. to the success of President Ashraf Ghani’s ambitious plan to build up an inclusive government and regain territory from the Taliban. While the strategy envisions eventually forging a peace deal with the Taliban, in the meantime it would increase the pace of strikes — to encourage the Taliban to negotiate.

The new strategy, according to these officials, is not cheap. There would be a baseline of at least $23 billion a year to support a variety of initiatives in Afghanistan, not only subsidizing Afghan police and military forces but also funding anti-corruption programs and other priorities.

Like Afghanistan, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam was predicated on a single proposition:

 The American ground forces in Vietnam would be reduced through the policy of Vietnamization and the war turned over to an improved ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] and government capable of defending its territory and its people.

As we know, that never happened.

We have been trying to do the same thing in Afghanistan for over 15 years, longer than we failed to do in Vietnam. As recently as Autumn 2009, the U.S. government announced that after eight years and $27 billion, the results of the Afghan Army and Police training program were so bad that it was declared a failure.

For anyone interested in the cost-ineffectiveness of our investments in Afghanistan, the reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) make for depressing reading; billions of dollars have been disbursed, but no one knows what that money has bought and there remains no clear way to track the spending.

The website despair.com defines “incompetence” as “When you earnestly believe you can compensate for a lack of skill by doubling your efforts, there’s no end to what you can’t do.”

Similar to the proposed Trump Administration policy, President Richard Nixon’s Vietnam strategy included bombing as a means to encourage North Vietnam to negotiate. Yet, it was clear 50 years ago that “withdrawing American forces unilaterally while attempting to negotiate mutual withdrawal of forces was not a strong negotiating position for the United States.”

The Trump Administration, unlike the Nixon Administration in Vietnam, may propose programs to make the Afghan government more competent, effective and corruption free, but that may not be enough.

As in Vietnam, the U.S. in Afghanistan does not now control the pace of the war.

Similar to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Vietnam War, the free flow of insurgents and supplies, particularly from Pakistan, will doom any U.S. strategy in Afghanistan to have a Vietnam ending.

There are also limits to the utility of strengthening the Afghan central government and fighting a top-down, conventional-based war in a tribal, bottom-up insurgency.

Perhaps, a personal anecdote would be illustrative.

In 2004, I was senior officer at a joint U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps and German Bundeswehr camp and an advisor to the Afghan Army Central Corps, the country’s first.

At every Afghan battalion (“kandak”) formation that I attended, when the order to “fall out” was given, the approximately 600 soldiers congregated according to their Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups.

It is possible that, unlike Vietnam, a combination of military action and negotiation could work in Afghanistan, as long as the Trump Administration, which will now own the war, does not run out of time and public support.

In the end, it is less about absolute troop levels than how an agreed-upon strategy is being executed. More precisely, is there a realistic probability that the expected results will fulfill that strategy within a reasonable time frame?

I wrote that about Afghanistan 7 years ago when there were 100,000 troops there. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Vietnam-era Secretary of State Henry Kissinger just visited the White House.

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at lawrence.sellin@gmail.com.