Here we are in 2009 and the crucial national security debate revolves around Afghanistan. Is Afghanistan a domino or a quagmire? As the POTUS (44) deliberates, two books about Vietnam influence his military and civilian advisors. The Hawks like Lewis Sorley's view of the Vietnam conflict and the Doves like Gordon Goldstein's view of the same conflict. What is a Commander-in-Chief to do? Big question, big stakes. Today's NY Fishwrap featured battling Op-Ed pieces by Sorley and Goldstein. Will history repeat itself or is that babbling sound coming from historians mumbling to themseleves?
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The Vietnam War We Ignore
By Lewis Sorley
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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 CIA 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. Ω
[Lieutenant Colonel (U.S. Army, Retired) Lewis Sorley holds the following degrees: B.S. from the United States Military Academy, M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, and a a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. Sorley is the author of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (1999).]
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From Defeat, Lessons in Victory
By Gordon M. Goldstein
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President Obama recently told Congressional leaders something many of them did not want to hear. It was time to “dispense with the straw man argument that this is about either doubling down or leaving Afghanistan,” he is said to have declared, frustrating those on both sides of the aisle who have sought to portray the choices in Afghanistan as just such a simplistic dichotomy.
While the president continues to analyze his military options with senior advisers, some parameters of his new strategy for Afghanistan have begun to emerge. It is likely that there will be no big reduction in troops, but there may not be a significant increase, either. The priority most likely will be to destroy Al Qaeda’s leadership and support systems in Pakistan; fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan would be of less importance.
Particularly notable, there appears to be uncertain White House support for the ambitions of General Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, who has asked for 40,000 to 60,000 more troops and passionately argued that the military objective be the expansive one of “shielding” the Afghan people “from all threats.”
The emerging picture is of a commander in chief trying to chart a middle way through one of the most complex challenges of his young presidency. If so, instructive lessons can be found in the contrasting ways two of his predecessors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, navigated a perilous way ahead in Vietnam.
Kennedy’s Vietnam strategy was informed by a pair of harrowing foreign policy crises in 1961 that sobered him to his responsibilities as commander in chief. The botched Bay of Pigs invasion was a humiliation that Kennedy believed would have driven him from office if he had been a British prime minister. He vowed never again to be “overawed by professional military advice.”
That same year, Kennedy was shocked by the half-baked recommendation of his generals to use tactical nuclear weapons against the Communist Pathet Lao movement in Laos, a proposal he decisively dismissed.
In this context, Kennedy was deeply skeptical when his most senior advisers argued in the fall of 1961 that only substantial numbers of American forces could prevent the government of South Vietnam from collapsing. Kennedy nonetheless rejected the deployment of combat troops. But he also rejected the notion of abandoning Saigon. Instead, he chose to chart a middle course.
Kennedy favored a strategy of arming and reinforcing the South Vietnamese Army, and of teaching them new counterinsurgency tactics. He increased the number of military advisers assigned to Saigon but maintained a ceiling of about 16,000 men.
By October 1963, operations were deemed sufficiently successful for the White House to announce the withdrawal of 1,000 advisers and its expectation that the advisory mission would be concluded by the end of 1965. At the time of Kennedy’s assassination the following month, the Pentagon had recorded only 108 American military personnel killed.
Lyndon Johnson maintained Kennedy’s middle way until after his huge presidential victory in 1964, which gave him new latitude. He was also confronted in January 1965 with the most dire assessment yet of America’s prospects in Vietnam, delivered by two of his most influential counselors, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy. In what came to be known as the “fork in the road” memo, they insisted that the United States was on a “disastrous” losing course in Vietnam.
Combat forces soon poured in, approved and progressively enlarged with staggering speed. An initial deployment in March of 3,500 Marines grew to 33,500 and then to a force of 82,000, approved by late April. On June 7, the top American general in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, asked for an immediate increase of 41,000 combat troops, to be followed by 52,000 later. In all, he wanted a combined command of 175,000 soldiers, equivalent to 44 battalions “to give us a substantial and hard-hitting offensive capability on the ground to convince” the Vietnamese insurgent forces “they cannot win.”
What followed in July was a White House exercise in political stagecraft. Johnson wanted to appear deliberative but never seriously considered the “middle way” option proposed by William Bundy, an assistant secretary of state and the brother of the national security adviser, who called for a force of half the size recommended by Westmoreland.
Johnson, a consummate dealmaker, approached the problem as a political tactician rather than a strategist, seeking to approve the smallest troop increase possible that would maintain a consensus among his military commanders and civilian advisers. He concluded that the correct minimal number was precisely what General Westmoreland had proposed.
On July 17, Johnson communicated his approval of the 44-battalion force in a confidential cable to Saigon. Four days later he met with his war council in the cabinet to “debate” a decision that had been determined but not disclosed. Johnson and his advisers engaged in a deliberation over a number, not a rigorous evaluation of a strategy or its realistic prospects for success. It was another step on the way to disaster.
There are four lessons from these presidential decisions that remain relevant to Afghanistan today:
Counselors advise but presidents decide: Kennedy’s ability to execute a middle way in Vietnam led him to reject military strategies he did not find plausible or persuasive. It is the president as commander in chief who must rigorously evaluate and define strategy, not the commander in the field.
Politics is the enemy of strategy: In a polarized political environment, some constituencies will necessarily be left dissatisfied. Kennedy chose to antagonize the hawks in his administration. Johnson chose to antagonize the doves. Presidents should pick the loser in the debate on strategic grounds, disallowing politics from clouding military decisions.
Command the generals: A president does not benefit from public disagreements with the military, but his position may be worse if he backs down. Kennedy’s generals in 1961 tried, and failed, to box him in by publicly leaking their proposals to the press. Johnson, in contrast, was so fixated with avoiding a public rift with Westmoreland that he subverted the deliberative process. Dissent should be encouraged in debates about strategy but articulated privately.
Never deploy military means in pursuit of indeterminate ends: Westmoreland advocated a strategy of coercion in Vietnam in which American forces would inflict such disproportionate costs on the Communist insurgency that its leadership would eventually capitulate. That outcome never came close to occurring. Military force is the wrong instrument for achieving imprecise objectives based on unrealistic goals.
President Obama has already been challenged by the public release of General McChrystal’s recommendations, and his stated position on troop levels has angered those on the right who seek a major escalation and those on the left who advocate a rapid withdrawal.
If Mr. Obama seeks to engineer a middle way in Afghanistan, he can do so most effectively if he applies control and resolve mixed with realism and rigor — and if he absorbs the lessons, for better or worse, of his predecessors in Vietnam. Ω
[Gordon M. Goldstein received his BA, MA, MPhil, and PhD degrees in political science and international relations from Columbia University. He is the author of Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam (2009).]
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