The American experience in Vietnam and Afghanistan exit strategy
The US needs help in withdrawing from Afghanistan
By Ghulam Farouq Azam
The American experience in Vietnam and Afghanistan are almost similar and teach us some positive lessons. But in the case of Afghanistan, the Americans still have the opportunity to take the benefit of those painful experiences. The similarities of the two wars (Vietnam and Afghanistan) are:
•According to the top US officials, the US attacked Vietnam claiming it was the bastion of Communism. The Americans claimed such an attack was necessary for the security of the United States, Japan and other US allies in the region. Similarly in the case of Afghanistan, the US attacked this country claiming it was the bastion of terrorism. The occupation of Afghanistan was necessary for the security of the United States and its allies in the region and the wider world, the US claimed.
•The Vietnam War continued for 10 years (1965-75) and over 3 million people were killed with villages and cities destroyed. Similarly, almost 12 years have passed and at least 2 more are to be consumed in Afghanistan with the loss of many souls and huge treasure.
•The US supported the corrupt government of South Vietnam whose supporters were killing apparently everyone seemed Vietcong and looted the nation’s resources. Similarly in the case of Afghanistan, the US supported an institutionalized corrupt government and has punished the entire Pashtun population as the majority leadership of the Taliban were the Pashtuns. To trace Mula Omar and Osama Bin Laden, thousands of Pashtuns who seemed like Mula Omar or Osama Bin Laden in clothes and beard were imprisoned and tortured to death.
•The Americans claimed they were there to stop the interference of North Vietnam in the internal affairs of South Vietnam, but actually precipitated such interference. Similarly, the US utterly failed in stopping the interference of Pakistan and Iran in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, but actually paved way for their interferences.
•Robert McNamara (the US Defence Secretary at the time of the Vietnam War), presented in 1997 his view of ‘missed opportunities’, saying: “what were the opportunities we missed, why were they missed and what lesson can we drive to prevent such tragedies in future?” The first mistake we did, he said, was asking the Vietcong to surrender under the name of negotiation for peace. “We did not give a way to a sincere diplomacy and did not listen to the opponents to understand their concerns.” Similarly in the case of Afghanistan, the US asks the Taliban to accept Karzai’s corrupt rule, lay down arms and surrender to their bitter local rivals and accept the Afghan constitution that is daily ignored by the Afghan Government.
•As in the case of the Vietcong who did not have a choice other than to fight, the Taliban were also not left any choice for survival other than to fight.
•In both cases, there was not a matter of victory but of no alternative.
•In both cases at the beginning, the proud US generals on the ground over reacted against every incident and this sprung enemies among friendly nations.
•The Americans encouraged other friendly countries to open negotiation channels with the Vietcong in the midst of heavy military operations to show to the world the US wanted peace and the Vietcong did not. Similarly in the case of Afghanistan, peace negotiation is part of the war agenda and actually it is re-integration. There is no clear vision and mechanism for peace in the parts of the Kabul Government. President Karzai's National Security Advisor, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, told a session of the Lower House of the Parliament on Saturday (3 July 2013) that “there is no peace process with the Taliban at the moment. All recent contact with the insurgent group is sporadic and solely based on personal ties. Yet President Karzai is refusing to send representatives to the American-organized talks in Qatar until he has a promise that the Taliban will not be given a share of power. He is also refusing to finalize the US-Afghan Strategic Agreement until he gets his way. He thinks the Americans are forced to follow what he dictates. But as in the case of Vietnam, Karzai will not get his way, and the U.S. will do whatever it seems good for the Americans.
•The US Undersecretary of State at the time of the Vietnam War, Nicolas Katzenback, claimed the Americans were there to promote democracy and human rights. But, in practice they were supporting a corrupt government in Saigon. Similarly, in Afghanistan, the US have put warlords, human rights abusers and drug businessmen in power for 12 years and there is fear the Afghans will continue to be hostage at the hands of these thugs till 2024.
•On the resistance side, the Vietcong did not try to understand the US concerns, seeking a face saving for the American military and assuring they would have a relationship with the US based on mutual respect and business partnership. Similarly the Taliban in Afghanistan needs not to be proud, illusive and unrealistic about the International Community. The Taliban needs to assure the Afghans, the regional and global powers that they want a comprehensive internal political settlement; taking on board the legitimate interests of the countries in the region and be a reliable, trusted and viable business partner of the International Community.
•As in the case of Vietnam, the fighting will continue while the diplomats are talking.
•As in the case of Vietnam, the US cannot win the Afghan war by military means; there is the need for a political solution before it is too late. It is difficult to talk to enemies but that's how insurgencies end. Once Henry Kissinger, national security adviser to U.S. President Richard Nixon, wrote: “We are ready to withdraw all of our forces (from South Vietnam) by a fixed date and let objective realities shape the political future....We want a decent interval. You have our assurance.” The same stand may adopt the US in Afghanistan today.
•The US was to get out of the Vietnam War without admitting defeat. North Vietnam could collect its victory in the end, but it must allow a “decent interval” to pass so that the US could distance itself from blame for the ultimate collapse of its local Vietnamese allies. Similarly, the Obama administration realizes that the occupation of Afghanistan is a grim failure, but it needs some semblance of success, though temporary, to console the families of the 50,000 American dead and wounded in the war, and to save America’s face internationally.
•As in Vietnam, American generals and diplomats must go on claiming that the Afghan National Army is capable to defend and the victory is in sight, though the American generals are not so stupid to really believe the Afghan army is capable of defending the regime against the threat it is faced. The Afghan Army is weaker than the South Vietnamese Army as the former is factional and sectarian. The US special inspector general on Afghan reconstruction, John Sopko, says (4 July 2013) that after more than a decade and nearly $93 billion spent on reconstruction and security programs, there are still worrisome lapses in accountability, management and effectiveness. Just 7 of 47 Afghan pilots assigned to the air force unit are fully qualified to fly counterterrorism missions, which is the primary objective. The unit has a quarter of the 806 personnel needed to operate at full strength, and there is no plan for reaching that goal. On the Pentagon claim that 194,000 Afghan national security forces have received some level of literacy training, Sopko says the data provided don’t prove that the effort has materially improved the overall literacy rate or battlefield effectiveness. A huge building built by US military in Helmand, is claimed to be destructed because the Afghan National Army is not capable to defend it from insurgency.
•When the South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu realized his American masters would abandon him, he tried to portrait as he was not a puppet of the United States. Similarly, President Karzai is now panicking as the US prepares to abandon him. He portraits that he is not Shah Shuja or Babrak Karmal and therefore acts as the president of an independent country. He criticises the US sharply in every forum and says he is enough clever not to be cheated by colonial power of our time, the US – recalling Amir Yaqub Khan that was forced to sign the Gandomak Treaty with British Raj in 1879. Karzai considers himself as a national hero and liberator of the country from the US imperial power. President Thieu of Vietnam and the pro-Soviets Dr Najib in Afghanistan acted the same in their last days.
•In the case of Vietnam War, the Americans pledged repeatedly they would not abandon Saigon. In Afghanistan too, the US and its NATO allies reiterated they would not abandon this country. Finally, the US withdrew from Vietnam and Saigon collapsed on 30 August 1975. The same the US will leave Afghanistan sooner or later.
•The Soviets and their puppet regime in Kabul armed ethnic minorities in Afghanistan and thus imbalanced the ethnic power in the country. This created a chaos and civil war after the Soviets withdrew; but finally the Pashtuns won under the banner of Taliban. The same will happen after the US withdraws in 2014. Maybe the Taliban will be patient enough to give the U.S. time, believing that they can collect their victory a few years after the American troops have gone home. Or perhaps they will reject anything short of immediate and total victory, knowing that the American troops will leave anyway. To avoid such a chaos and civil war after 2014 there is need for a political move sincerely and wholeheartedly.
•In 1997, Robert McNamara and Gen Hiep met and exchanged their views and notes about the Vietnam War. “We (Vietnamese) and those Americans who wanted peace won the war. Now both of our countries need to look forward,” Gen Hiep said. McNamara said: “We could have avoided war if we could have approached the matter wisely, understood each other and had communication. We did not work sincerely and systematically for peace and negotiations. We realised too late the importance of the matter. We must not repeat it again.”
Let us learn from our experience in Vietnam, the Russo-Afghan experience in 1980s and our past 12 years heavy involvement in Afghanistan. There is need for a viable political transition if we wish to see a meaningful security transition. Otherwise, it will be the ‘transition of corruption’ that will defeat all of us. To avoid another tragedy let us listen to Robert McNamara by giving an opportunity to a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. Peace is in the interests of all parties concerned, except few groups of mafia. To achieve a genuine and viable peace in Afghanistan there is need for:
•To find a credible Afghan mediator who believes in peace and has experience in peace-building to mediate between the Afghan Government and the Armed Opposition. This mediator who can go to all warring factions may adapt the principle of Afghan owned-Afghan led peace negotiation. This peace mission must include in its team reps of the Afghan tribal leaders, religious scholars, intellectuals, OIC and UN. MPTA has a concrete proposal in this regard and has approached President Karzai, Mr Rabbani and the Armed Opposition. The current problem with Qatar office is due to the lack of a mediator.
•Election is the source of legitimacy for any democratic government. However, there is consensus that the 2014 election will neither be fair and free and nor accessible to all. The solution would be to find, through consultation, a candidate for the coming presidential election in 2014 who has vision for the country, has credibility among the Afghans and capability to coordinate the interests of the regional and global powers to the interests of the Afghans. No warring party including the Afghan Government and the Taliban is afraid of him, but never worked for AG and/or AO. Only in this case election may find meaning - used as a stamp to give legitimacy to the coming government.
•The introduction of a ‘Care-Taker Administration’. Due to the past 10 years elections history in Afghanistan and realities on the ground, very few Afghans may believe the presidential election of 2014 will be fair, free and accessible to all. Many foreigners have reached the same conclusion. In such a case, there is an urgent need for a ‘Care-Taker Administration, to take control of the situation in Afghanistan to:
oPave way for a fair and free presidential election accessible to all;
oRemove blocks currently standing on the way for peace and reconciliation including the Qatar process. Here, the Armed Opposition will find no excuse anymore for not talking directly with new administration.
oCurb corruption and use the donors’ money in right place.
oReturn the confidence of the Afghans over the government and election.
oKeep gains of the past 12 years by paving way for a government having legitimacy among Afghans.
The introduction of a ‘Care-Taker Administration’ is practiced in many countries where people have doubt upon the fairness of election under their current government. Pakistan recently can be an example; though the country was not in such a bad situation as Afghanistan is. The Egyptian case is another example in which the solution of the internal trouble was seen in giving opportunity to a Care-Taker Administration. Afghanistan needs more urgent an administration as very few Afghans trust the government for conducting a fair and free election accessible to all.
The writer is Ph.D Doctor, Member of WIG, University of London, UK & Chairman of Movement for Peaceful Transformation of Afghanistan
The American experience in Vietnam and Afghanistan exit strategy
The American experience in Vietnam and Afghanistan exit strategy