As President Obama and his advisers contemplate a new course for Afghanistan, many commentators are suggesting analogies with earlier conflicts, particularly the war in Vietnam. Such comparisons can be useful, but only if the characterizations of earlier wars are accurate and lessons are appropriately applied.
Vietnam is particularly tricky. While avoiding the missteps made there is of course a priority, few seem aware of the many successful changes in strategy undertaken in the later years of the conflict. The credit for those accomplishments goes in large part to three men: Ellsworth Bunker, who became the American ambassador to South Vietnam in 1967; William Colby, the C.I.A. officer in charge of rural “pacification” efforts; and Gen. Creighton Abrams, who became the top American commander there in 1968.
A closer look at key aspects of how these men rethought their war may prove instructive to those considering our options in Afghanistan today. Among their principles were these:
Fight one war: Abrams, Bunker and Colby agreed that the war would be fought — and won or lost — in the villages. They decided to put equal priority on all key aspects of the war — thus the improvement of South Vietnam’s armed forces and the elimination of covert Vietcong bases and refuges in rural areas were given the same emphasis as large combat operations.
In Afghanistan, it is vital that American and NATO troops get out of their protected bases to work alongside Afghan forces and build trust with civilians. In some ways this may be trickier than in Vietnam, as our troops will have to navigate the tribal and ethnic rivalries that have long divided Afghan society.
Rethink combat operations: The early strategy in Vietnam was to use large units in “search and destroy” sweeps — often on ground of the enemy’s choosing in the deep jungle. Abrams decided instead to try “clear and hold” operations, in which small patrols were sent to villages to protect the populace. These troops were followed by South Vietnamese security forces — which Abrams made sure would get better training and equipment and were integrated into the regular army — to provide the “hold.”
In Afghanistan, combat does little good unless allied or Afghan forces remain behind to keep the Taliban from simply moving back in.
Restrain the use of force: Early on, Abrams said, “My problem is colored blue.” By that he meant that friendly forces (usually portrayed in blue on battle maps, as contrasted to the enemy shown in red) were causing undue “collateral damage” to the South Vietnamese people and their property. He reined in the use of heavy firepower like artillery and tactical airstrikes.
Allied forces in Afghanistan may have to accept increased risks to themselves as the price of protecting the population. There have been some grumblings that they are hampered by the rules of engagement, and perhaps in platoon-level operations that it true. But Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, is right that Western forces have to cut down on civilian deaths caused by air power and reckless use of force.
Create an effective central government: As Nguyen Van Thieu, who became South Vietnam’s president in 1967, gained experience and influence, senior Americans came to regard him as the “No. 1 pacification officer.” He traveled extensively, promoting and evaluating local programs. And by 1972 his “Land to the Tiller” initiative had achieved genuine land reform, distributing two and a half million acres of land to nearly 400,000 farmers.
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has no signature triumph like Land to the Tiller, nor has he made many efforts to reach out to average Afghans. Perhaps Washington should make some of its support to his government contingent on anticorruption efforts and delivering real services to his people.
Support local governments: In Vietnam, rural hamlets were able to elect their own officials, who were sent to training sessions in the port city of Vung Tau. President Thieu spoke to every class, emphasizing that they had to be “little presidents” and make good use of the resources that the central government would provide for economic growth, health care and schools.
Given the diversified population of Afghanistan there has been too much emphasis on central government — if the Karzai government lags in giving money and supplies to local and tribal leaders, the United States should consider doling out more aid directly to them.
Gather intelligence: “The intelligence is the most important part of this whole damn thing,” Abrams told a visiting officer. “And if that’s good, we can handle anything.” The best way to root out the enemy’s secret bases in Vietnam was to get good information from villagers and “ralliers,” former Vietcong rebels who had switched sides.
In Afghanistan, a continuing security presence in contested areas will be key to getting Afghans and former insurgents to aid the war effort. As long as they fear Taliban reprisal, locals will stay silent.
Build the economy: Vietnam depended on rice, and widespread fighting and enemy gains in early years took many acres of land out of cultivation. Pacification efforts put some of that land back into production and re-opened local markets, while the introduction of genetically engineered “miracle rice” greatly increased yields. In Afghanistan, finding viable alternative crops for farmers now growing opium poppies would seem to be a first order of business.
Improve security: Protection of the people (not body counts, as in the earlier period) became the measure of progress in Vietnam. The appropriate metrics to watch in Afghanistan are probably economic growth, the percentage of children attending school and health data, along with freedom of movement within and between population centers.
Control the borders: In South Vietnam, allied forces were never able to seal off borders with Cambodia, Laos or North Vietnam. The self-imposed prohibitions against going outside South Vietnam with ground forces allowed the enemy to use border areas for training, supply routes and sanctuary.
Similarly, the Taliban uses the Pakistan border as its own barrier, and American drone attacks can do only so much. Either Washington must find a way to get the Pakistanis to step up the fight against the terrorists, or consider operations across the border.
Maintain political support at home: All that was accomplished on the battlefield in the latter years of Vietnam was lost when Congress, having tired of the whole endeavor, drastically cut support for South Vietnam. Neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon was able to rally public and press support for the war.
President Obama has said that Afghanistan is a war of necessity. If so, he must put his political capital behind it. As he and his advisers plan the new course for the war, he must also come up with a new approach for selling it to Congress and the American people.
Lewis Sorley, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and the author of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam.