Afghanistan: Forgetting the lessons of Vietnam

Anyone who has paid much attention to 20th-century warfare should be getting nervous about Afghanistan. The war there is developing the ominous characteristics of other modern unconventional conflicts. These wars have little in common with traditional ones, the kind where the proper objects of military action are straightforward targets like beachheads and bunkers.

For us, the prototype for these unconventional wars is Vietnam. In whatever ways Iraq and Afghanistan may differ from Vietnam, the similarities overwhelm the differences. A powerful, technologically advanced army pursues an uncertain strategy in the middle of an impossible stew made up of civilians with divided loyalties, a corrupt unpopular government, a complicated, poorly understood historical context and diminishing support at home.

In general, the results haven’t been good for the United States and the other countries involved.

I spent a recent evening reading most of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Aug. 30 “Commander’s Initial Assessment” of the situation in Afghanistan — a redacted version is available on the Web. The experience was instructive, but not at all encouraging.

Certain sentences leap from the page: “The situation in Afghanistan is serious …”; “… the insurgents currently have the initiative”; “…many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating.”

And perhaps most ominous of all: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

Nevertheless, McChrystal says that “Success is achievable.” But “Additional resources are required…”

However, remember that generals are wired to believe that success is always achievable, that the mission can always be accomplished if enough resolve and resources are applied to it. If they were not wired this way, they would not be generals. If they become unwired and express their doubts, they won’t be generals for much longer.

My guess is that McChrystal is an excellent general, but his report is undermined by unwarranted optimism and vague language. He calls for “redefining the fight,” offering the adoption of classic counterinsurgency tactics as though they were an inspired solution that will turn the war around, rather than the obvious tactic of choice from the beginning.

He says that we must “connect with the people,” “gain the initiative” and “focus resources.” The key to success is “balancing resources and risk” at this “unique moment in time.” For support, he quotes at length Afghan Defense Minister Wardak, who assures us that “Victory is within our grasp.”

None of this is reassuring. McChrystal’s report assumes a long slog ahead, one that he says will be “enormously difficult.”

The war in Afghanistan may have noble goals, and it may have once been a “war of necessity.” But the question of whether it’s still a war of necessity needs skeptical reconsideration. There’s little reason to believe that whatever “success” was achieved in Iraq can be duplicated in Afghanistan. In both cases, the process has been enormously destructive, the results dubious.

In the meantime, casualties continue to mount in Afghanistan. Today, Sept. 26, my local newspaper devotes a single sentence at the bottom of Page 4 to the deaths of five more American troops killed in southern Afghanistan.

One sentence, with no names and no details. We don’t know how they died or how old they were. We don’t know where they grew up or whether parents and siblings and wives and children are left behind. We don’t know if they saw the Army as a career or if they had other aspirations after their hitch in the service ended.

All we really know is that they’re dead. And that Afghan Defense Minister Wardak assures us that “Victory is within our grasp.”

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)