May 19, 2024

Vietnam and George Washington

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
Afghanistan, Vietnam, and George Washington
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
          WASHINGTON — The nation’s top generals testified on Capitol Hill about the defeat in Afghanistan and how the Afghan Army they had built over 20 years collapsed in just days. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley called it a “strategic failure,” waged under four presidents, that ended in defeat much like the Vietnam War because of wrong assumptions about friends and foes, the terrain, and the culture of a foreign land.
          There are many reasons why the post-9/11 intervention in Afghanistan failed, but chief among them was the failure to learn the futility of training a foreign army to mirror an American Army because the moment all those U.S. bells and whistles are removed, the indigenous army collapses in a New York minute. That’s what happened in Afghanistan. Without U.S. strategic and tactical air support, including bombers, jets, and helicopters, and without maintenance for tanks, trucks, and artillery, and without a steady flow of ammunition, rations, and – yes – regular pay, the Afghan Army could not function.
          After two decades of U.S. military support, Afghan soldiers were not trained to fight the Taliban on the Taliban’s terms. This is the lesson we should have learned in Vietnam where the South Vietnamese were taught to fight like American troops while their North Vietnamese counterparts operated with bicycles on bamboo jungle trails. When America shifted to a program of Vietnamization of the war and promises of continued funding and equipment began to dissipate, the South Vietnamese were left looking for helicopters to resupply and reinforce them and for F4 Phantom jets to reign fire down on their enemy.
          Napoleon said an army travels on its belly, and the armies the U.S. military built in these foreign lands collapsed once the U.S. support system was withdrawn. One military analyst likened it to building an army of Redcoats when Minutemen were needed. But even that analogy misses the point. Minutemen did not defeat the British. The Continental Army and its French allies did, and they did so by simply remaining in the field. After all, no American general lost more battles than George Washington, but unlike the British who were trained to fight with the support of regular supplies, regular supply lines, and regular pay, Washington’s army simply survived to fight another day, and another, and another. In fact, the North Vietnamese are said to have taken a page from Washington’s conduct of warfare.
          The Afghan people did not want the Taliban to regain power, yet that is what happened, and the Taliban did not have to fire a shot to take the capital, Kabul because the Afghan Army simply faded away.
          The generals said they would have kept a non-combat force of 2,500 troops in Afghanistan for the time being, advice President Biden rejected. General Milley was asked why he didn’t resign if he disagreed with the order to fully withdraw. Looking a bit aghast at the question, he replyied, “I firmly believe in civilian control of the military as a fundamental principle essential to this republic and I am committed to ensuring that the military stays away from domestic politics.”
          The mistakes in Vietnam and in Afghanistan are clearer now with the benefit of hindsight, and it must haunt the military strategists and civilian policymakers that these conflicts might have turned out differently if we, too, had learned the lessons from George Washington in the American Revolution. Creating a dependent army was creating no army at all. America was brought to its knees by these wars, with 58,000 U.S. lives lost in Vietnam and 2,500 in Afghanistan, numbers that do not begin to address the overall human cost and the hopes dashed when the promise of America ends in an embarrassing and unnecessary “strategic failure.”
          America went to war because the Taliban harbored al Qaeda terrorists who struck on 9/11. Our policy was valid. Our decision was correct. The execution was not.
          Douglas Cohn’s latest books are The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency and World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers).
          Twitter:  @douglas_cohn
          © 2021 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
          Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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