Wissot: Lessons not learned from Saigon to Kabul
David was the first successful proponent of asymmetrical warfare. He nailed Goliath.
Goliath’s ancestors failed to learn from his defeat. Whether it was the Chinese, French and Americans in Vietnam or the British, Russians and Americans in Afghanistan, superior fire power is often subdued by a well-placed slingshot. It’s the reason both countries have served as the graveyards of empires.
Ideologies don’t succumb to armies, navies and air forces. Ideas are ethereal; military might is material. You can’t demolish a demented idea with a bomb.
The American military was in Vietnam from 1959-1973 primarily to stop the spread of communism. In 1973, after 58,220 Americans had lost their lives, we ended our military involvement in Vietnam by signing the Paris Peace Accords. Less than two years later, Saigon fell to the Viet Cong. Vietnam’s civil war, called the “American War” by the Vietnamese, was over.
The Chinese- and Russian-backed North had defeated the American-backed South. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the Viet Cong leader. Vietnam was reunited as a communist regime. It still is today, along with four other nations in the world: China, Cuba, North Korea and Laos.
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We wasted all that blood and treasure to try and defeat a country that is now our eighth largest trading partner. The U.S. military did not stop the spread of communism. Communism converted to capitalism, albeit a highly autocratic version of it, in order to successfully compete in the global marketplace. The country that Gen. Curtis Lemay famously threatened to bomb “back into the Stone Age” is now the subject of talks for a $1 billion Disney theme park 180 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City.
Today is the 20th anniversary of the worst day ever for civilian casualties caused by an enemy attack on American soil. What did we not learn in our failure to stop the spread of communism in Vietnam that contributed to our 20-year-long, costly and ultimately unsuccessful effort to prevent Afghanistan from reemerging as a Taliban-controlled haven for terrorism?
In Vietnam, we backed a ruthless and corrupt government in the South, the Diem regime, followed by a succession of generals who assumed power, but never fully had the support of the people. The South Vietnamese army, who we spent billions of dollars to train, lacked the will and desire to lay down their lives for governments that were inept at best and rotten to the core at worst.
We saw the same outcome in Afghanistan where the Afghan army refused to fight for the sake of keeping in power a rancid central government in Kabul for whom they felt no loyalty. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, reportedly fled the country before the Taliban takeover in a plane carrying himself and several suitcases filled with $169 million in cash looted from the Afghan treasury.
Given the choice of dying at the hands of the Taliban or shaking hands with the Taliban in order to save their lives, the choice was an easy one. Dying for a government that is not worth saving is not the same as dying for a country that is. Living to fight another day for that country under more worthy circumstances was what the Afghan military and security forces chose to do.
The United States has had only one undisputed military victory since World War II ended in 1945: Operation Desert Storm in the 1991 Gulf War.
Why were we clearly successful in that war where we haven’t been elsewhere? The mission assigned to the military was straightforward and clear cut: drive Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait and back to Iraq. Victory was achieved in 42 days and less than 150 American service men and women lost their lives in action.
Training an army and rebuilding a nation are nearly impossible tasks when you invade a country and place your military in the middle of sectarian strife, be it religious, as in Iraq, or tribal, as in Afghanistan.
Time is always on the side of the country that has been invaded. A favorite Taliban expression was, “The Americans have the watches; the Afghans have the time.”
The electorate in a democracy do not have the patience, the will or the stomach for endless wars that lead to inconclusive outcomes at best and defeats at worst. No politician or military leader in this country could dare say what Ho Chi Minh said to the French colonialists in 1946: “You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” History proved him right.
The American Goliath is ill-equipped to fight wars against the Davids of the world who will use their slingshots to thwart our vastly superior ground and air forces. Going into combat against enemies who use their jungles, deserts and mountains to asymmetrical advantage is a surefire recipe for disaster.
Are we safer now than we were on 9/11 after spending trillions and losing thousands of lives in Afghanistan? We don’t know, but we will soon find out. It all depends on whether the Taliban allow Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorists as it was when we invaded the country two months after 9/11.
The American evacuation of Afghanistan was badly flawed, but not nearly as flawed as the occupation which drifted over time into a textbook example of mission creep.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.