Who will be left standing when the Afghan war ends?

May 18, 2008

                                                                            U.S. marine in Afghanistan/Goran Tomasevic

“War does not determine who is right — only who is left.” (Or so said the British philosopher and anti-war activist Bertrand Russell.) So who is going to be left standing once U.S. and NATO forces have finished battling it out with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan?

Republican presidential candidate John McCain came out with some interesting comments in a speech in Ohio last week on where he sees Afghanistan at the end of his first term in office in 2013, if he were to be elected president:

“The threat from a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan has been greatly reduced but not eliminated. U.S. and NATO forces remain there to help finish the job, and continue operations against the remnants of al Qaeda. The Government of Pakistan has cooperated with the U.S. in successfully adapting the counterinsurgency tactics that worked so well in Iraq and Afghanistan to its lawless tribal areas where al Qaeda fighters are based. The increase in actionable intelligence that the counterinsurgency produced led to the capture or death of Osama bin Laden, and his chief lieutenants. There is no longer any place in the world al Qaeda can consider a safe haven.”

Optimistic or realistic?

U.S. marines in Afghanistan/Goran TomasevicDigging around on the internet, you can find a different view. Back in April Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan Bureau Chief of Asia Times Online, wrote that the Taliban were taking their inspiration from the Vietminh who chased the French out of what was known as Indochina in the 1950s.  He wrote that they were inspired by the Vietnamese commander General Vo Nguyen Giap, who successfully employed guerrilla tactics against the French before crushing them in the battle of Dien Bien Phu  in 1954.

Taking up the theme, the website openDemocracy  followed up by saying that the west tends to assume that it alone is watching the lessons of Vietnam. ”It is as if “only” the United States (and by extension western forces or combatants in general) have the capacity or the interest to draw lessons from the past,” it said. It called the reference to the Taliban looking for  inspiration in Vietnam ”startling and ominous”.

“In the early 1950s, the Vietminh – faced with an imbalance between their own forces and conventional French military power – concentrated on attacking isolated garrisons in the northern part of Vietnam well away from the main colonial centres of control…  This strategy, combined with attacks on French supply-lines, gradually wore down the French military and political leadership’s resolve. Now, it seems, the Taliban aim to do the same against an equivalently “asymmetrical” enemy: Nato, and the International Security Assistance Force forces in Afghanistan.”

So do we go with McCain, who has his own experience of Vietnam? Or the historical parallels with France, which like the United States today in Afghanistan and Iraq, was struggling to cope with guerrilla warfare, did not know how to win over the hearts and minds of the local population, and faced economic crisis at home and a general public which was tired of war in faraway places?

U.S. Marine holding position as Taliban fighters open fire/Goran TomasevicI thought it would be interesting to ask one of the retired Reuters correspondents who had covered Vietnam whether it was legitimate to compare it to Afghanistan and got the following reply from Bernard Edinger, a French reporter who was sent in from Paris before the fall of Saigon in 1975 and also covered Kabul when the Russians first went in with ground troops in 1979:

“Yes, America’s opponents all dream of seeing the US helicopter its people out of Kabul the same humiliating way they flew out of Saigon. I stood on a rooftop opposite the embassy and watched the last choppers go as thousands of local Vietnamese clamouring to be evacuated were abandoned. As you know, the Communists did not win the war, the Americans lost it – at home. The press and much of the public had turned against the war to the point that the politicians just no longer thought it was worth fighting,” he wrote.

“Obviously domestic opposition to US involvement in Afghanistan is far less than that over Vietnam because the horror of the Taliban regime is already known and the Western public has seen the execution by rifle fire of kneeling women in midfield at half-time at Kabul soccer matches , the condemned men hanging from the goalposts etc … Also, opposition to Vietnam was led by students who had the threat of army service before them if the war lasted whereas the US only commits pro soldiers to the war today.”

“An outright Taliban victory over the US is out of the question … But in asymmetric warfare, ‘the strong lose if they don’t win and the weak win if they survive.’ I’m quoting others. The Pathans outlasted Kipling’s British Indian army (and even slit the throat of the British ambassador in his residence) and the Soviet Army. All they have to do is hang in there.”

 Any other views out there?


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