Sunday, October 11, 2009

The real lesson of Vietnam

The conventional wisdom--indeed, the virtually unchallenged view--is that the US lost the Vietnam war. Permit me to differ: In grand strategic terms, the United States achieved its goal in Vietnam.

Dubious? If you think about it, what was the reason for the United States to get involved in Southeast Asia? It was more than denying South Vietnam to the Communists. The object was to keep South and Southeast Asia from being dominated by forces hostile to American interests--at the time, that meant Communists.

That goal may seem outmoded, even quaint today, but at the time it made good sense. The idea of an aggressive Communist movement that sought to control Southeast Asia was not just the currency of American ideologues. It was espoused by Communists themselves. Though largely forgotten, in the 1960's, Mao and his acolytes preached an aggressive form of Communism that sought to march across the Southeast Asian littoral, jump the straits of Malacca and control the Indonesian archipelago.

Could that have happened? In September 1965, there was an attempted pro-Communist coup in Indonesia. The army reacted with an anti-Communist offensive that essentially wiped out the Communist Party of Indonesia (and killed perhaps 200,000 Indonesian Chinese). At the time, I was a college junior, and was taking a course on the politics of Southeast Asia with Prof. Donald Hindley, whose specialty was the Communist Party of Indonesia. (His work on the subject--which quickly became of mainly historical interest in the early fall of 1965, is still available on Amazon.) Hindley, an Australian, was no particular friend of US involvement in Vietnam, but he declared that if American forces had not been involved there, the Indonesian army would have sided with the plotters--in essence, that the island nation would have been dominated by the Communists.

The ideal of an international Communist movement that would in its terms liberate the people of South and Southeast Asia remained current following the setback in Indonesia. For one thing the idea of an international movement appealed to a set of allies who would have been far less involved had the struggle involved only over Vietnam. In the 1960s, there were skirmishes along the Indian-Chinese border, and movements in Burma, Thailand and the Philippines that were anti-American (or, in their terms, anti-imperialist) and pro-Communist. (The Philippines had fought a Communist insurrection in the 1950's; it continued at a lower level into the next decade.)

Ultimately, as we know, Communist forces prevailed throughout Indochina: South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In large part, that was due to forces over which the United States had little control, principally the failure of the South Vietnamese to erect a regime that could offer a sufficient counterweight to the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies. Yet the end of the Vietnamese War in 1975 was the end of armed conflict in Southeast Asia for thirty years, until the Islamist violence of the Twenty-First Century. Communism never expanded further.

What happened? There is no simple explanation; the Communist attempt to undermine the Thai establishment faced substantial cultural and economic obstacles. The slogan, "Peace, land and bread" that worked so well in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia had little appeal to the Thais, who had all three. Similarly, Burmese--beset by their own problems--never took up the Communist cause in great numbers, and Chinese attitudes toward ethnic rebels in the north of Burma did not help the Communist causes.

But one factor was time: the Communist regimes of 1975 were not the same as the ones that had preached world revolution in 1965 and 1966. Nixon's trip to China signaled and intensified that nation's move into the world community. By the time that Nixon's plane touched down in Beijing, the stresses of China's alliance with North Vietnam had exacerbated traditional frictions and suspicions between the two peoples. The burden of ten years of war against the Americans, following shortly after almost a decade of combat against the French had sapped North Vietnam's appetite for conquest. Conflicts among Indochinese Communists also surfaced; it was the Vietnamese that overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. And the failures of the Communist model were becoming more apparent.

That is the true lesson of Vietnam: Things change. The passage of time leads to situational change, and such change justifies, or even demands, reassessment of the situation.

Changes over time are not always favorable. The South Vietnamese government's inability to become more efficient and responsive contributed mightily to its collapse. The failure to acknowledge that led to the death and wounding of thousands of Americans. At the same time, as suggested above, larger shifts worked in favor of America's larger interests.

The point is, it is vital to recognize and acknowledge that time does bring changes.

And that is one of the prime failures of American policy in Afghanistan. The war being fought now is not the war that we entered eight years ago. Then, we were supporting an apparently beleaguered Northern Alliance against a Taliban that dominated all but a small corner of the country and provided a unique safe base for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Now we support a corrupt narco-state that battles a movement based at least as much on tribal loyalty, selfish interest and opposition to the corruption in Kabul as upon Islam. Al Qaeda has several other safe areas in which to organize and train, and its main base is universally acknowledged to be in Pakistan.

(We should also note that the first Afghan campaign did not involve American combat troops on the ground, but special forces operatives and air support for the Northern Alliance; the collapse of the Taliban did not result from an American invasion, but from mainly homegrown opposition.)

True, the Taliban remains a brutal movement, but not more so than the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, the Janjaweed in Darfur or any number of other movements that seek victory through untamed violence and terror. If we don't send combat troops in against those agents of death, why do we continue to battle in Afghanistan?

Perhaps the best answer to that question is that we need to continue fighting the Taliban, because it is spearheading an assault on the Pakistani state, and we cannot afford to have that nuclear-armed power become a fundamentalist Islamic nation. (There is little danger that Pakistan would actually fall to the Taliban and its armies, but it could disintegrate to the point that the security of its nuclear weapons and facilities would be seriously compromised.) There is also the fact that, having made a commitment to the people of Afghanistan--at least the ones who actively or nominally support us--we cannot abandon our role in the nation without substantial damage to our position around the world.

But if we know what we are fighting against in Afghanistan, what are we fighting for? The Times had an article about Joe Biden's change of heart over the war in which he recognizes how matters have shifted. An enthusiastic supporter in 2001, he has come to realize that the government in Kabul has lost most of its claim to our support. Tom Friedman, who still has not acknowledged his error over Iraq, nonetheless gets it just right on the hollowness of the Afghan regime, and the impossibility of succeeding there if the government does not reverse course at once:
I am not sure Washington fully understands just how much the Taliban-led insurgency is increasingly an insurrection against the behavior of the Karzai government — not against the religion or civilization of its international partners. And too many Afghan people now blame us for installing and maintaining this government.
(We should also be aware of the danger that we are failing in Afghanistan because we do not recognize that the Afghan people do not have our standards and may not want to be governed by them. What to us is simple corruption may be tribal loyalty to those involved. Narcotics trafficking--increasingly seen as a menace in the country, as more Afghans become addicted--is based on the need to survive in a harsh agricultural environment. A centralized army is not congruent with Afghans' tradition of dispersed fighting forces. And parliamentary democracy is not necessarily a comfortable fit in Central Asia.)

Yet we should also recognize that the changes time has brought have not all been in one direction. Unlike 2001--and due in large measure to the incompetence of the Bush administration, Pakistan is now a central front, perhaps the central front, in the war against the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance; there are many more al Qaeda operatives in that country than there are in Afghanistan. So far as al Qaeda is concerned, it need not rely on Afghanistan or Pakistan for a secure base, as Somalia and Yemen also provide opportunities for the network to operate with little or no interference.

At the same time, the appeal of al Qaeda shows signs of weakening among Muslims, all too many of whom have been its victims. Any campaign based on suicide bombing consumes its adherents and is bound to fail. More important, moderate Muslims are finding their voices to oppose the extremism of al Qaeda and its ilk. This is entirely expectable; militant fundamentalist movements typically have a limited life. The war on the West that made bin Laden and his disciples world figures is proving an insufficient attraction to make their extreme strand of Sunni Islam dominant, and so more and more of the movement's energies are aimed at their fellow adherents.

What, then should we do in the theater named Pak-Af (or Af-Pak)? I could easily pontificate (see above), but I do not pretend to have the answers. Well, I do pretend to have the answers, but I am sufficiently aware of the limitations of my knowledge not to post them here. However, it is clear that on the military and political fronts we need major changes in the Afghan government, and that without them sending additional troops will be useless if not actually harmful. Americans tend to prescribe the changes that should be made in the Afghan government (rooting out corruption is high on the list), but we should consider whether we are taking a realistic view of the way that Afghans view government and the state. Trying to build a western-style democracy may be almost as much of an invasion as sending in troops. We should consider whether we cannot induce reform that Afghans will find familiar and comfortable. Rebuilding the nation's infrastructure is also vital, as well as a fine means to "win the hearts and minds" of the Afghan people. Or at least to convince them to support our friends by giving them jobs and thus a stake in the government. Here again, the use of foreign contractors may well the counter-productive. Wherever possible, Afghans should be employed in the building of their nation.

Above all, modesty and honest are called for. We must understand and acknowledge that we cannot "save" Afghanistan. We should admit that we pursue our interests in Afghanistan, and that those interests may not always be seen as the same as those of the Afghan people. We should declare that our goal is to prevent our enemies from having free rein to attack us. Above all, we should make it clear that we have no interest in permanent bases in or permanent occupation of Afghanistan, but rather that we look forward to the day when that nation can stand on its own. If we do that, we have a good chance to join the growing tide of anti-extremist Muslims to contain and neutralize those who want to harm us. That is all we can hope for.

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