Now it’s Afghanistan’s turn to be Vietnam by mattsteinglass
October 31, 2008, 11:59 am
Filed under: Afghanistan, Vietnam, War

So back round about 1970 in 1966 Bing West embedded for some months with a US Marine CAP platoon working with South Vietnamese militia to defend their village against Viet Cong, and in 1972 he wrote a book called The Village, about how heroic and successful the CAP strategy was. Flash forward to 2005, and The Village is a favorite of new-wave counterinsurgency theorists like John “Eats Soup With Knife” Nagl and David “Surge” Petraeus. They’re the folks who have revolutionized Army strategic thinking over the past few years by forcing people to recognize that conflicts like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan are fundamentally political, not military.

Now, Bing West has written a very strange piece on Small Wars Journal attacking Nir Rosen for embedding with the Taliban in Afghanistan to write his excellent piece in October’s Rolling Stone. (Via Robert Farley at LGM.) West:

Rosen described how he and two Taliban fighters deceived the guards at a government checkpoint. Suppose during World War II an American reporter had sneaked through the lines with two German officers wearing civilian clothes. “When we caught enemy combatants out of uniform in the 1940s,” a veteran wrote in The American Heritage, “we sometimes simply executed them.” The Greatest Generation had a direct way of dealing with moral ambiguity.

“I am a guest of the Taliban.” Rosen wrote. Supposing in 1944 he had written, “I am a guest of the Waffen SS.” It is doubtful if Rolling Stone would have published Rosen’s article during World War II. The norms and values of American society have changed enormously in the past half-century.

Well, suppose, during the Vietnam War, Rosen had written: “I am a guest of the Viet Cong.” Such an article would have been invaluable. Indeed, journalists like Mary McCarthy did travel to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, doing their jobs and contributing to the vibrant market of information which makes democratic societies stronger than totalitarian ones. Wilfrid Burchett traveled with Vietnamese Communist troops while his fellow Australians were fighting them; lucky thing, since in 1967 when the US wanted to put out feelers towards direct negotiations with Hanoi, they had Wilfrid Burchett to pass the message through.

Bizarrely, Bing West, of all people, goes on to attack the Pentagon for taking a political rather than a military approach to winning the war:

Secretary of Defense Gates is a cool, detached official who reacts to events. He does not plot a course into the future. He does not project a determination or a vision about how to succeed in Afghanistan. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral William Mullen, calls for a strategic review – after six years of fighting! – laments that “we cannot kill our way to victory”, a vacuous absolution that transfers responsibility for failure to others. Why increase from 32,000 to 50,000 US troops, whose basic training is as riflemen, if the application of force – killing – is not the objective? A policeman protects the population by arresting criminals; a soldier protects the population by shooting the enemy soldier.

Spoken like a true disciple of Gen. William Westmoreland, whose “attrition” strategy enthusiastically lost the Vietnam War from 1965 through 1969. West’s name is generally invoked on the side of Gen. Creighton Abrams and his descendants in the sophisticated counterinsurgency, combined military-political school of thought — most notably its current avatar, Gen. Petraeus. Guess that’s the wrong way to invoke him.

Update: should have credited Spencer Ackerman as well:

And this guy is supposed to understand counterinsurgency? Recognizing the basic strategic fact that not all problems have a military solution indicates that Bob Gates and Mike Mullen and David Petraeus means “transfer[ing] responsibility for failure to others.” Could this myopia be any more self-refuting?


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Afghanistan has historically been a place where empire’s aspirations died. I keep reading that the Kabul government is really corrupt and heavily engaged in the drug trade; and that the country is fragmenting beyond the control of the US/coalition forces.

Is Afghanistan Mr. Obama’s Vietnam? This question nags at me.

Comment by MR Bill

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