Afghanistan: echoes of Vietnam

The operational resemblance of aspects of the Afghan insurgency to the guerrilla campaigns against French and American forces in Vietnam is ominous for Washington.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
10 February 2011

Even as the United States focuses much of its diplomatic and security efforts on the crisis in Egypt, events elsewhere in “greater west Asia” reveal the persistence of the wars it began to wage a decade ago.

In Iraq, a series of bombs in the contested northern city of Kirkuk on 9 February 2011 killed at least seven people  and injured eighty. In Pakistan, the suicide-bombing attack on a military recruitment-centre in the northwest town of Mardan on 10 February took at least twenty lives. This comes against the background of a new round of conflict between the Pakistani army and paramilitary groups in the Mohmand district, also just across the border with Afghanistan, which has displaced 20,000 local residents.

The army describes what it is doing as a “search-and-clearance” operation”, though even with the heavy use of helicopter-gunships it is doubtful that paramilitary groups so embedded in the region can be “cleared”.

In Afghanistan, the war’s intensity has again eased during the winter months, but violence continues. The bombing of a branch of the prominent Finest supermarket chain in the upmarket embassy district of Kabul on 28 January, which killed nine people, is but one example.

Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, is undaunted. He intends to announce on 21 March 2011 - the start of the country’s new year - the identity of the areas (districts, cities and even provinces) his government will assume control of from Nato during the year; and he voices strong criticism of the foreign-run Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) that commonly operate from military bases and use a large part of the foreign aid coming into the country. 

These comments chafe with Nato officials, with secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen characterising the handover pledge as “premature” (see Susan Sachs, “Karzai set to name areas Kabul will take over from NATO control”, [Toronto] Globe and Mail, 8 February 2011).

The drone illusion

The US’s military surge in Afghanistan ordered by President Obama in 2010 is now complete. Its military casualties are rising - the killing of two soldiers on 9 February 2011 brings the total to 1,475. But the deputy commander in Afghanistan, Lt-Gen David Rodriguez, has chosen the moment to give a surprisingly upbeat assessment of US achievements and prospects (see Elisabeth Bumiller, “U.S. General Sees Success Even if Pakistan Doesn't Act”, New York Times, 1 February 2011).

The most interesting part of Rodriguez’s comments is his argument in relation to the vexed issue of “safe havens” in western Pakistan that success against the Taliban does not require direct control of the border regions where these are located. This view contrasts with that from other senior Pentagon sources such as the chair of the joint chiefs-of-staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who said on 12 January 2011 that “we cannot succeed in Afghanistan without shutting down those safe havens”. The logic of Rodriguez’s assessment is that the extensive use of armed drones in western Pakistan can inflict greater damage on the Taliban from a distance. But on two counts their long-term effect imay be counterproductive (see "The AfPak war: failures of success", 8 April 2010).

First, the Taliban and other paramilitary groups appear to have no difficulty in replacing senior commanders killed by the drones; the new leaders often have both recent combat experience and reportedly even greater determination to fight the foreign occupiers. Second, the very use of drones has a cumulative negative impact on public opinion across the larger region of southwest Asia and the middle east (i.e. not just Pakistan), fuelled by Al-Jazeera and other satellite news-channels’ regular coverage of resulting civilian deaths and injuries.

The local-central nexus

A trend that might equally concern alert United States strategists is the ability of the Taliban and other military groups to maintain their territorial control against a foreign-troop contingent now numbering 150,000. A key question in this respect is how far the insurgents are able - as General David H Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan, anticipates - to intensify their campaign in coming months, especially after the hard work of harvesting the opium-crop (which in the past has so often diverted young men from combat).

An indication here is evidence gathered by United States units operating out of forward operating base (FOB) Andar in Ghazni province, eastern Afghanistan. This is hardly a core region for the Taliban (unlike Helmand and Kandahar provinces) but is still an area of considerable importance (see CJ Chivers, “In Eastern Afghanistan, at War With the Taliban's Shadowy Rule”, New York Times, 6 February 2011).

The third battalion of the 187th infantry regiment arrived in the area September 2010 in order to extend Isaf influence. It has made a determined effort - through extensive observation, radio intercepts, interrogation and other means - to get a clear idea of the extent of Taliban penetration. The results of this effort cannot simply be extrapolated to other Taliban-dominated areas in Afghanistan, but they do contribute to a deeper understanding of the movement's strategic influence. For example:

“The picture is of an underground government by local fighters, organized under the Taliban's banner, who have established the rudiments of a civilian administration to complement their shadowy combat forces. They run schools, collect taxes and adjudicate civil disputes in Islamic courts. And when they fight, their gunmen and bomb makers are aided by an intelligence and support network that includes villagers, who signal for them and provide them shelter, and tunnels in which they elude capture or find medical care.”

In the Andar and Deh Yak districts covered by the third battalion, the Taliban can muster about 400 fighters. These can rely on support from as many as 4,000 civilians, who provide both food and shelter but also in many cases reporting to Taliban units on the US patrols (while passing false information to the US military).

There is further evidence of direct collusion of local police and citizens with the Taliban. It includes the latter’s use of the AMD-65 rifle (with which the police had been supplied by the US), and - in an even more revealing episode - the discovery by a US patrol conducting a surprise sweep through a village of an accurate terrain-map of their own base whose details included information that had to be the work of inside informants.

Indeed, the most revealing aspect of the Taliban’s organisation (in these districts at least) may be that almost all its operatives are local, thus making a nonsense of any idea that the movement is composed of “outsiders”. The battalion's commander, Colonel David G Fivecoat, is clear: “We haven't seen foreign fighters. We know that because we've killed fighters and followed it through to the funerals. They are all being buried in local villages by their elders.”

But it would be equally wrong to conclude that the campaign is composed merely of a very localised series of insurgencies, for US intelligence also shows that the vast majority of Taliban operatives in these districts are loyal to the Quetta shura (council). This is centred on Miramshah, in Pakistan, and is under the overall leadership of Mullah Omar.

The far friend

This combination of elements - an effective campaign with local roots, using its own initiative and reliant on community support, but connected to and answerable to a central authority - is, in the context of the whole field of insurgency and counterinsurgency, the most potent aspect of the Afghanistan war.

The system of organisation involved has strong echoes of that employed by Vietminh units fighting against the French in the early 1950s and by their successors who opposed the Americans in the 1960s (see “Afghanistan’s Vietnam portent”, 17 April 2008).

The main military architect of both those insurgencies was General Vo Nguyen Giap (see Peter Macdonald, Giap: The Victor in Vietnam [Fourth Estate, 1993]). Giap survived both wars; today, at the age of 99, the revered figure still lives in Hanoi. His assessment of the American predicament in Afghanistan would make interesting reading.

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