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Afghanistan—Winning Lessons from Vietnam

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There are many differences between our wars in Vietnam and in Afghanistan. There are also similarities we can’t ignore, including the vital need for an indigenous government that commands broad-based popular support. 

I know the Vietnam part of it pretty well. In Vietnam, I was a civilian officer in CORDS, a joint civilian/military command that led American nation-building efforts in the country. For eighteen months in the early seventies I was in charge of all US development and civil affairs work in Thua Thien Province, fifty miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separated South Vietnam from North.

CORDS was set up to do in Vietnam what the US is finally doing in Iraq and is now starting to do in Afghanistan—put major resources into “winning the hearts and minds” of people under intense pressure to hide enemy operatives, supply them with food and intelligence, and help them plan and conceal booby traps and mines.

I’m proud of the job that CORDS did. Operating under a security umbrella supplied by US and, for a time, South Vietnamese troops, CORDS built schools, health clinics and fish ponds. We gave training sessions in everything from public administration to farming. We built stable and honest relationships with local people. Our work not only brought people to support our side; it often led to actionable intelligence that helped root out enemy cadre hidden in plain sight. 

Yet neither US military might, nor CORDS, could prevent the collapse of America’s efforts in Vietnam.

That collapse was made inevitable by the pervasive corruption and incompetence of a succession of governments of South Vietnam—and here lies the lesson for Afghanistan. 

Corruption and incompetence kept any of the governments we supported in Saigon from gaining the minimal popular allegiance needed to make them viable. When I left Vietnam in 1972, the regime of Nguyen van Thieu was a house of cards, held together by a pervasive cronyism that put incompetents in key positions at every level, where many of them skimmed a good living off US aid funds. 

The culture of cronyism that governed South Vietnam did more than undermine the government’s competence to fight a war. Putting inept and corrupt people in positions of power drained popular support for the war from ordinary people in cities, town and hamlets all over the country—and built support for the Viet Cong. In Hué, the capital of Thua Thien, the people had every reason to hate the Viet Cong, who had killed 3,000 of them in the infamous Tet Massacre of 1968. But the citizens of Hué hated the Thieu Government almost as much as they hated the Viet Cong. Always a center of political unrest, the city was the scene of many protests against the distant government in Saigon, and that government responded with political crackdowns, arrests and worse. In 1971, when Thieu ran unopposed for another term, the people of Hué, knowing a rigged vote when they saw one, stayed home.

The situation in Hué may have been more fragile than elsewhere in the country but it was not unique. The Thieu government was hated and feared by many and loved by none. Without a permanent American presence to prop it up, its demise was certain—and therefore so were the war aims of America in Vietnam. 

I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of what’s going on in Afghanistan, but I can read.

The Karzai government seems eerily reminiscent of the corrupt, incompetent regime of Nguyen van Thieu in Vietnam 40 years ago. The recent election is widely judged to have been less than free and fair. Local officials who are honest and competent risk being sacked if they don’t go along with the clique in Kabul. Popular allegiance to a central government is feeble or absent. And in Afghanistan, opium money lubricates all of this. 

These conditions all but invite the Taliban to return.

General McChrystal’s initial efforts seem on the right track. At the strategic level, it makes sense to draw back from exposed combat bases and put resources into protecting and supporting CORDS-type efforts in villages and towns. But success at the local level will mean nothing if the corruption and incompetence in Kabul continue to generate hatred at worst and apathy at best.

The US must push hard for a government in Kabul with the integrity and competence to earn broad popular support. The current election process needs to be seen by ordinary Afghans as legitimate, even if that means doing the whole thing over. We should not be sorry if Karzai goes. We stayed with Thieu as the Devil We Knew—and went down with him.

The leadership of Afghanistan needs the skills to bridge factions and the toughness to face down or outmaneuver warlords who will not cooperate. There must be serious efforts to cripple the opium trade and the income it generates. 

Start this at the top and rely on CORDS-type operations to implement a nation-building strategy down to the village level. A more resolute focus on nation-building might also finally attract more help from our NATO allies. 

Is that even possible in Afghanistan? I don't know. And even if it once was, after seven years of neglect, it may now be too late. 

If that kind of government cannot be found or constructed in Afghanistan, then we should get out, focus on Pakistan and leave enough military might in the region to prevent Al-Queda from using Afghanistan/Pakistan as a base to attack us. 

It would be painful to leave Afghanistan to its feudal fate. But it would be even more painful to be forced out, five years and many body bags from now. 


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