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Monday, October 5

Threading the needle in Afghanistan: Is McChrystal's plan a replay of the Vietnam Strategic Hamlet Program?

Up until reading Stephen Diamond's latest post at his King Harvest blog I've resisted putting stock in attempts to draw significant parallels between the present Afghan conflict and the U.S. one in Vietnam.

One can always find similarities between wars in which guerrilla and conventional forces clash over prolonged periods. But to the best of my recollection there was no copper mining in Vietnam and in any event U.S. troops in Vietnam weren't helping to guard China's copper mining operations, as they are in Afghanistan.

And no matter how much I dredge my memory I cannot recall that the Vietnamese were sitting on huge reserves of oil, natural gas, gold, copper, iron ore, rare earths and just about every other coveted strategic natural resource you can think of. The Afghanis are sitting on such reserves; just about the only thing they don't have -- or which geologists haven't found yet -- are diamond lodes.

I've also been unable to recall that the Viet Cong made a fortune by guarding U.S. supply routes in Vietnam, as the Taliban have been doing for NATO supply routes in Afghanistan.

There are many other profound differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam, the eras in which the two wars were fought, and the peoples of the countries. But by gum after reading Steve's post I realized some things never change, including the famous human tendency to attempt to superimpose the past on the present no matter how much the present differs.

General Stan’s Afghan Plan: Déjà vu, all over again
By Stephen Diamond, October 4, 2009

images-1So this is the plan: move our troops back into Afghan population centers to break the link between the Taliban army and the local population.

And here I thought the one thing that Generals of the post-Vietnam War era had learned was not to repeat the mistakes of America's defeat in Asia.

But the proposal by General Stanley McChrystal about how to fight the war in Afghanistan sounds an awful lot like the "strategic hamlet" tactics the US tried and failed with in Vietnam in the 1960s. It's no wonder Gen. McChrystal is getting such strong support from the British military. They invented the strategic hamlet approach in their crushing of national liberation movements like that of Malaya back in the 40s and 50s.

Here is how the Vietnam era plan was described in The Pentagon Papers:

The Strategic Hamlet Program was much broader than the construction of strategic hamlets per se. It envisioned sequential phases which, beginning with clearing the insurgents from an area and protecting the rural populace, progressed through the establishment of GVN infrastructure and thence to the provision of services which would lead the peasants to identify with their government. The strategic hamlet program was, in short, an attempt to translate the newly articulated theory of counter-insurgency into operational reality. The objective was political though the means to its realization were a mixture of military, social, psychological, economic and political measures.

images3

But then as now we underestimated two things: first, the ability of the Viet Cong to resupply endlessly from the North and two, more importantly, the close family, ethnic and nationalist links between the VC and the local Vietnamese population.

The corrupt South Vietnamese regime tried to turn the program into its personal property thus further undermining its effectiveness.

The Pentagon Papers concluded: The weight of evidence suggests that the Strategic Hamlet Program was fatally flawed in its conception by the unintended consequence of alienating many of those whose loyalty it aimed to win.

Today, the Taliban are increasingly recognized as a Pashtun force, however reactionary, with deep ties in that entire region even on the Pakistani side of the border. Thus, barricading some Afghan villages may 'protect' them from the Taliban but they are not likely to lose touch entirely and it is hardly going to starve the Taliban fighters.

And who can guarantee that corrupt warlords in and around the Karzai regime, like the Diem regime in Vietnam, won't be able turn the program into a means to strengthen their fiefdoms?

Of course, more likely, the McChrystal 'plan' is a gauntlet thrown at the inexperienced inner circle surrounding Obama - Valerie Jarrett, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. McChrystal is saying it's time to make good on that campaign promise that got you elected. The Pentagon is cashing the check that Obama wrote in the campaign.

Joe Biden was right about that foreign policy challenge early in the Obama Administration - it's coming from the US military, however, not Afghanistan.
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