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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The speech by Senator McCain is bizarre. “The counterinsurgency tactics that worked so well . . .” — If these tactics work so well, why, after five years, is Iraq still an anarchic shambles? To claim that in another five years time the “Iraq war [will have] been won” is electioneering hyperbole, not reasoned assessment.

Even the egregious General Petraeus said to Congress last month that “it is just flat not responsible to try to put down a stake in the ground and say this is when it would be or that is when it would be” concerning Iraq.

McCain’s comments can be judged in the wider context of his claim concerning health care in the US. Astonishingly he stated in the same speech that “Health care has become more accessible to more Americans than at any other time in history.” The fact is that 47 million Americans cannot afford health insurance and live in painful misery when struck by illness or disability.

There are few distinct parallels with Vietnam, and Mr Edinger is right when he says that the Taliban will not overcome US military might. But the war in Afghanistan has much wider implications and consequences, not least in Pakistan which has suffered grievously from the effects of the US invasion. It is the inability of the Bush administration to appreciate international reaction to its crash ’em, smash ’em approach that has resulted in world-wide distrust of the United States.

Posted by beecee | Report as abusive

This was a very interesting analysis. It is just sad to read news still using the weak idea of “west” and related terms. This is far from an oversimplification of the world… How about Latin America, is it part of the “west” in the sense used? And Australia, is it west? This article seems to be well informed, but badly framed.

Posted by Eduardo | Report as abusive

What scares me is that the US and it’s allies may actually believe what they say.
They are not winning here in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not cooperating as much as is needed.
The Taliban, other militant groups, warlords and crime gangs — all often mixed together — are growing stronger.
It’s not because of any welling of public support, it’s because the Afghan government and the foreign troops can’t provide security. And it’s because the Afghan government and its international backers have failed woefully to deliver better living standards, jobs, health care, widespread education or a sustainable economy.
Much of the billions of dollars in aid has been wasted.
Even Kabul itself still does not have proper electricity, water, sanitation or roads. And Afghans are getting angrier and more disillusioned by the day.
Who will be left standing? The Afghans. It’s just a question of what they will be left standing in.

Posted by Boot | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Reader…

In the first place, no counterinsurgency can outlast an insurgency. I keep saying this, and am about out of breath doing so. However, I will repeat it. ANY insurgency WILL outlast ANY counterinsurgency.

The VM insurgency in the north of Vietnamese Indochine proved the preceding by 1954 against the French, and the North Vietnamese-backed VC insurgency in the south proved the preceding yet again by 1973 (actually 1968) against the U.S. The difference is that the French were defeated on the battlefield, whereas the U.S. was defeated politically back home.

Contrary to popular left-wing belief, the U.S. has NEVER lost a war on the battlefield ANYWHERE at ANYTIME.

In the second place (as I understand it), Navy Captain and Flyer John McCain did not participate in the U.S. counterinsurgency in South Vietnam (Cambodia or Laos). He was shot down during conventional military operations over the north, imprisoned there, survived horrific torture and other circumstances while in North Vietnamese hands…and returned home to learn everything he was to then know about the U.S.-Vietnam Counterinsurgency Experience at senior service college in an academic setting.

I’m open to the previous paragraph being corrected. However, I think that I am essentially right.

What is sad to me is that Mr. McCain is just like all right-wing believers. They believe that as long as “war” is inevitable, that the U.S. and its privileged class and super privileged class war profiteers might as well get a “piece of the action”.

While this alone is a sad commentary on republican “ideology”, what is saddest of all is that it is “old man talk”. In other words, old privileged class men send young middle class & working class boys and men to die for their (the old men’s) “ideologies” and monetary profits, pretending that the young men are “ideologically” in concurrence with said old men.

What old men like to forget is that the motivations for young men in foxholes generally have nothing to do with “ideology”…and certainly nothing at all to do with war profiteering.

Young soldiers and marines “down where the rubber hits the road” are dedicated to personal survival, looking out for their buddies, getting the damn job done as soon as is possible, and getting home to their loved ones in one piece. It’s that simple.

No old privileged class man like say, George W. Bush, can tell me otherwise. Of course, Mr. Bush is a well known draft dodger of the 1960’s anyway, as is Richard Cheney, who is not only a right wing privileged class ideologue but also openly (and perhaps even proudly) connected to war profiteering through Halliburton.

In the third place, and in response to the question, “Who Will be Left Standing When the Afghan War Ends?…I can tell you this. If by “war” the reporter means “insurgency”, it will never end. If by “war” the journalist means “counterinsurgency”, the last man standing within the confines of Afghanistan will be an “insurgent”.

The fallacy of the question is that whether or not NATO (primarily the U.S.) remains in Afghanistan (and I hope that at least the U.S. has the sense to get out sooner than later)…the so called “Afghan War” will NEVER end.

Likewise, the so called “Iraq War” (insurgency or insurgencies, take your pick of singular or plural) will NEVER end either.

Best Regards,
Oklahoma Jack
Vietnam 1966-67

Posted by Oklahoma Jack | Report as abusive

Dear Sir/Madam,

Is USA our Friend or Master ?

Since the creation of Pakistan our ruler have turn their faces toward a mighty democratic regime of USA who never proved a real friend of Pakistan, keeping Pakistan as backward state depending on USA and never encourage or help the country in becoming basic industrial state while providing debt in billions and supplying the readymade product in Pakistan, mean the Pakistan was developed as the market place for American products,
and an instrument to protect American interest in the region, which our ruler are doing with full loyalty but perhaps the master is not satisfy.

Therefore, USA continues to influence our internal politics and dictating our leaders and institution as well. USA was supporting the feudal politician and weakening the institution, ignoring the real democracy in Pakistan.

At present they (US/NATO) are fighting their war of military/political interest in the region, involving the dependent country like Pakistan, under intimidation of sever consequences to bear, if refuse to support them; The current demand draft of 11 points, submitted by the so-called democratic imperialistic state of USA is a clear sign to a sovereign government of Islamic Republic of Pakistan to accept and obey as matter of master’s voice. This act is a kind of intimidation and direct involvement in the internal matter of a sovereign state. This act create a question as if we are really a sovereign state or part and partial of USA,Because, they want Pakistan to fight and kill his own people under one ploy or another, want to drag them in to the chaos and uncertainty, so that they can further impose more condition on the Pakistani Government to follow them, dip and dip until armed forces of Pakistan loose the trust of the Pakistani people and come openly to fight against his own people like they did in east -Pakistan, this is the movement they (USA) are waiting for, so that their, in time financial help to the traitor can play the role to disintegrate the strength of the nuclear country.

This is a moment invite us all for serious consideration weather to keep our independence in tact or bow down before this mighty evil, democratically bullying to accept the terms and condition of his interest, or in other words be ready to loose our independence for ever.

This act create a question as if we are really a sovereign state or part and partial of USA,This is a moment invite us all for serious consideration weather to keep our independence in tact or bow down before this mighty evil, democratically bullying to accept the terms and condition of USA or in other words be ready to loose our independence for ever. Now a days there are so many elements within the country influenced by the mighty, to work for money and benefit even at the cost of our freedom.

This moment in time invites serious concern of all patriotic forces and peace loving citizen in the country to think and start to join the rank and file before it is too late, for the protection of dignity, respect and sovereignty of this country, considering these demands as prior warning for the adverse events to happen.

Ilyas khan Baloch
Organizer Islamic Democratic party

Posted by Ilyas khan Baloch | Report as abusive

[…] (pdf) (h/t Alex Strick van Linschoten). Then maybe go back to this old (2008) blog post about the Taliban studying the lessons of Dien Bien Phu if you need to be reminded that they are just as capable as of thinking strategically – or […]

Posted by Towards a settlement in Afghanistan; on terms and timing « Read NEWS | Report as abusive