Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Repeating the Mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan

If you aren't reading Nightwatch, you should be.

I've absolutely no power to change any of the strategic mistakes Nightwatch identifies, but at least I won't be surprised when our foreign adventurism blows up in our face.

Afghanistan: The new NATO Secretary General Rasmussen said there is no purely military solution to Afghanistan, and to win, the core of the new NATO strategy is to provide Afghan people with better opportunities in life, to win their "hearts and minds." Rasmussen also said in several weeks NATO field commanders will submit reports on the situation, which will be used to formulate a plan on how to proceed.

NightWatch Comment: The Dane has been preaching the NATO gospel all week, but it is time to raise a red flag to the pontification about winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. First, the hearts and minds of the Afghans in general are probably less significant as targets than ensuring the tomato harvest and bringing in the other food crops before winter without having to dodge bullets.

Second, how does a “hearts and minds” strategy work with the Durani Pashtuns vs the Ghilzai Pashtuns vs the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, gypsies, and Nuristanis plus the hundreds of clans. What makes modern people think Afghans are all cast of the same mold? They pride themselves on being the world’s greatest tribal society, according to Dupree, extolling difference not similarity.

The evidence that one idea fits all Afghans is an insult to a tribal society that was ancient and honorable before the time of Alexander the Great. There could never be one hearts and minds program for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The tribes are culturally too diverse. Ask them.

As for the Western capability to understand the hearts and minds of the pre- and semi- modern ethnic groups, history is not on the side of success. Southeast Asia after World War II featured a succession of blunders owing mostly to profound ignorance and arrogance. Events in South Asia and Palestine after World War II and Sub-Saharan African in 1960 are testaments to western misunderstanding about the importance of security over “being liked,” paid for in the lives of local populations.

Older experts, every bit as educated, insightful and sensitive as modern experts, failed to understand the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese a generation ago. The evidence is lacking that a new generation of theorists, strategists, planners, experts and generals have superior knowledge, scholarship and insight about a still more primitive people than the Vietnamese. The results of so much “human terrain” study are not apparent on the ground in Afghanistan after nine years. Expertise is never enough.

And, do serious minded people today really think the enormously complex actions of living systems are comparable to the study of geography, as implied in the term “human terrain? “

Somehow the US society at large, including the defense establishment, has forgotten the lessons of Vietnam. One judgment they forgot is that the Veterans of Vietnam universally judged the hearts and minds program of that era to be a source of ridicule and shame. And does anyone today seriously believe that all government resources were not applied to the Vietnam conflict? The US was at war then, not just the Defense Department.

It is hard for the older generation of ex- and retired soldiers and government officers to believe that their younger successors would actually “swallow” slogans as a substitute for serious problem solving. One wonders who dug up this slogan of past failure.

The NightWatch suspicion is that the politicians’ continual references to the need to win Afghan hearts and minds are a shallow strategem to deflect blame onto the NATO armed forces in the event the Afghanistan adventure miscarries. |Nightwatch|

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