Are we 'Refighting the last War' in Afghanistan?

The current issue (November - December 2009) of Military Review ("The Professional Journal of the U.S. Army") has a most interesting article on the Afghanistan War titled "Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template."  It is particularly interesting since coverage of the Afghanistan War has been so thin.  It outlines a possible winning strategy, but makes the case that we are not pursuing a winning strategy currently:

"Attacks of all types in Afghanistan have increased each year since 2003 and are up dramatically in 2009, the deadliest year yet for American forces."

The thesis of the article is that in many ways - in most important ways - the U.S. is repeating its mistakes in Vietnam.  It sees striking similarities between the two wars:

"Both insurgencies were and are rurally based.  In both cases, 80 percent of the population was and is rural, with national literacy hovering around 10 percent.  Both insurgencies were and are ethnically cohesive and exclusive.  In both cases, insurgents enjoyed safe sanctuary behind a long, rugged and uncloseable border, which conventional U.S. forces could not and cannot cross, where the enemy had and has uncontested political power."

The authors believe that in both wars we misread and are misreading the motivation of the local combatants and do not understand (a) the need for and (b) the nature of legitimacy of local rule.  Stressing the nature of legitimacy in Afghanistan as being historically dynastic and religious, the paper makes the striking statement:

"In essence, the Karzai government is illegitimate because it is elected." [emphasis in original] 

The paper says that it is impossible to create a strong army without a strong society, a point made by the Joint Chiefs to John Foster Dulles as far back as 1954(!).  Because of the self-interest of the officer corps and lack of motivation of the troops, there is high attrition (desertion), a phenomenon in both Vietnam and now in Afghanistan.  In Afghanistan, this puts a small upper limit on the potential size of the army regardless of the level of recruits trained.

The solution seen by the authors to our dilemma in Afghanistan is reempowering the village elders as the key source of legitimacy in the country.

It is well worth reading the whole thing.

Greg Richards    

The current issue (November - December 2009) of Military Review ("The Professional Journal of the U.S. Army") has a most interesting article on the Afghanistan War titled "Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template."  It is particularly interesting since coverage of the Afghanistan War has been so thin.  It outlines a possible winning strategy, but makes the case that we are not pursuing a winning strategy currently:

"Attacks of all types in Afghanistan have increased each year since 2003 and are up dramatically in 2009, the deadliest year yet for American forces."

The thesis of the article is that in many ways - in most important ways - the U.S. is repeating its mistakes in Vietnam.  It sees striking similarities between the two wars:

"Both insurgencies were and are rurally based.  In both cases, 80 percent of the population was and is rural, with national literacy hovering around 10 percent.  Both insurgencies were and are ethnically cohesive and exclusive.  In both cases, insurgents enjoyed safe sanctuary behind a long, rugged and uncloseable border, which conventional U.S. forces could not and cannot cross, where the enemy had and has uncontested political power."

The authors believe that in both wars we misread and are misreading the motivation of the local combatants and do not understand (a) the need for and (b) the nature of legitimacy of local rule.  Stressing the nature of legitimacy in Afghanistan as being historically dynastic and religious, the paper makes the striking statement:

"In essence, the Karzai government is illegitimate because it is elected." [emphasis in original] 

The paper says that it is impossible to create a strong army without a strong society, a point made by the Joint Chiefs to John Foster Dulles as far back as 1954(!).  Because of the self-interest of the officer corps and lack of motivation of the troops, there is high attrition (desertion), a phenomenon in both Vietnam and now in Afghanistan.  In Afghanistan, this puts a small upper limit on the potential size of the army regardless of the level of recruits trained.

The solution seen by the authors to our dilemma in Afghanistan is reempowering the village elders as the key source of legitimacy in the country.

It is well worth reading the whole thing.

Greg Richards