Sunday, November 21, 2010

Will there be a Vietnamization of Afghanistan?

America's longest war keeps getting longer, and despite the goal of a 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan, its end is not in sight. The signs of a possible Vietnamization of Afghanistan, or at least of a replication of the Soviet Afghan experience, seem to be increasing.

The US had already set the goal for ending "combat operations" in Afghanistan by 2014 (the same semantic bait-and-switch that allows for 50,000 US troops to remain in Iraq, often still very much involved in combat) ahead of last week's NATO summit in Lisbon. The NATO consensus was similar, calling for a transfer of security responsibilities to Afghanistan in 2014, while NATO forces will remain in an advising and monitoring capacity.

That is all well and good, but does not actually suggest when the American public can expect the return of US troops and an end to the violence of our nine year war in this barren corner of the world. And in order to make a 2014 drawdown realistic, things may get worse before they get better. Mark Sedwill, NATO's top civilian representative in Kabul reminds us that "2014 is a goal and not a guarantee) and that events could conspire to push that date back. Furthermore, the war in Afghanistan could involve "eye-watering levels of violence by Western standards."

What that might entail is not clear, but the intent of the statement is. With Americans far more indirectly related to the goings on of the military--even with the modern media--than they were in the era of Vietnam conscription, the violent measures dictated by the situation on the ground are unlikely to receive the analysis of public discourse they are due. This is especially true as Americans become ever more war weary and the conflict in Afghanistan becomes more unpopular with time. The present state of affairs, where Americans are complacent with the fact that their country is involved in two, long-term, ongoing wars in distant countries is unprecedented in American history. That the state of the economy has completely overshadowed foreign policy concerns in a wartime country such that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in no way meaningfully factored into the recent Midterm elections would likely shock and possibly repulse previous generations of Americans.

It seems that complacency is likely to continue even as the level of violence in Afghanistan trends upwards, validating Mr. Sedwill's warning. For one, the air war--all but suspended by McChrystal due to its capacity for alienating local populations--has come back with a vengeance in Petraeus's Afghanistan. October was the most active month in the skies of Afghanistan for missile and drone attacks since the beginning of the war, with over 1,000 strikes. This air war and its undeclared extension into Pakistan (analogous to the secrecy of Operation Menu, though the massive air war in Cambodia remained obscured in the days before the 24-hour news cycle) has already created adverse side effects. Sixty-nine of the 223 civilian deaths attributed to coalition forces this year have been from air attacks, and the first six months of 2010 were the deadliest yet for Afghan civilians, up 31% (though most civilian deaths have been due to suicide attacks and IEDs; though sectarian violence may be a response to more intense coalition measures).

This rise in violence occurs as the posturing of American forces comes to resemble some of the measures that were denounced during Vietnam and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Due to the sheer number of booby-trapped homes in Kandahar, NATO forces have taken to demolishing neighborhoods wholesale, compensating inhabitants whether or not they were interested in being relocated. The use of 16 M1 Abrams tanks in Helmand for "awe and shock" as much as for their military utility will be uncomfortably similar to lumbering Soviet armor to former mujahideen. As though these similarities weren't enough, the sheer amount of manpower--100,000 US personnel, roughly 130,000 in terms of all NATO forces--certainly echo the manpower used by the Soviets during their occupation. In fact, Defense Secretary Gates cautioned that we should avoid such similarities just a year ago:

"The Soviets were in there with 110,000, 120,000 troops. They didn’t care about civilian casualties. And they couldn’t win. If there’s ever an example that military power alone cannot be successful in Afghanistan, I think it was the Soviet experience. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from that."

So now the US-led war in Afghanistan has gone on longer than Vietnam with no end in sight; is starting to see the use of some of the same tactics in that war; and in size, scope, and the use of armor is beginning to resemble the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan--the results of which (and the unintended consequences of our support of the mujahideen) we are still cleaning up. One might have hoped that the NATO Lisbon summit on Afghanistan would provide answers about how the war will be drawn to a close, but it left only greater uncertainty and warnings that the violence could continue to escalate. The war in Afghanistan, once overshadowed by that in Iraq, is threatening to roar back with a vengeance (though it truly never left). Will a complacent American populace notice? And if they do, what political action will they take to affect the course of history? The answers to these questions hold significant implications for the futures of both the US and Afghanistan.


Marshal Davout said...

I would caution heavily against the tempting relationship between American tactics in Afghanistan with those of the Soviets in the 80s. The author cited American forces destroying hundreds of houses wholesale as if it were a proven fact, while the blog that mentioned it as "according to local Afghan authorities." A bit of a weak reference if we are gong to make such a wide claim against American forces.
As for the reference to tanks, once again, this should not be considered proof that we have taken on Soviet tactics. Studying their tactics will show how spurious this is (see "The Bear Went Over the Mountain"). Mechanized forces have become available as the OPTEMPO in Iraq has drawn down. Tanks and heavy vehicles, when used properly, are valuable assets in a COIN/CT fight.
The "Vietnamization" reference is legitimate, but necessary. Side Comment: funny that anything to do with Vietnam just CANNOT be right. The concept, steady transition of authority from one force to another, is the fitting and proper way to finish our operations in both theaters.
To wrap up: Comparing ISAF tactics to the Soviets', I believe, is a weak argument. And "Yes" there will be "Afghanistanization." It is the right thing to do.

RoareeTheLion said...

I did not mean to suggest anything having to do with Vietnam "just cannot be right." Especially late in that conflict lessons were learned that would be vital for future COIN operations, but unfortunately certain organizational obstacles prevented those lessons from becoming part of US military canon. The primary resemblance to Vietnam comes in some of the tactics adopted (regardless of what one assesses their value to be) and the scale and length of the conflict. I am primarily concerned that the use of consistent and meaningful metrics for determining relative success may be lost over time.

Further, I maintain that the Soviet comparison is valid to some degree. I did not mean to suggest that NATO forces truly resemble the sheer violence and monolithic force of the Soviet occupation. But I am concerned that any NATO tactics that bring to mind still fresh memories of Soviet aggression will prove counterproductive. To that extent, if David Kilcullen is to be believed, the use of armor not only brings images of Russian tanks to mind, but are ill-suited to a COIN campaign as they serve to alienate the population from coalition forces. Further, their antipersonnel uses are relatively limited, so the risk of such alienation may outweigh the benefits of their use. That said, I believe the generals know better than I what kit is best-suited to a particular operation. However, I do think that some consideration must be given to how the image of American tanks roving across Afghanistan may negatively impact our mission.

RoareeTheLion said...

I should also add that though the scale of home demolitions suggested by the quoted Afghan officials have not been confirmed by US forces, the fact that some 174 homes have been destroyed since September has been verified officially. Perhaps the scale is not as important as the public perception of the tactic. In that article one quote attributed to a district governor supportive of the policy should give anyone pause: "We had to destroy them to make them safe.” While not an American serviceman, an ally making a statement that bears more than passing resemblance to arguably the most famous quotation to come out of Vietnam is disconcerting. It is not that Kandahar will actually resemble Ben Tre, but it is certainly not in NATO's interest to offer such an easy comparison for the enemies' public relations war.