Extending Vietnamization to Afghanistan


The war in Afghanistan took a familiar turn this week, as the U.S. Marines began an Aghan “surge” to wrest the city of Marja in the opium-infested province of Helmand from the Taliban. The term “surge” kept coming up to describe the purpose and intent of the operation, presumably because of the widely advertised “success” of similar operations in Iraq in 2007. The surge in Iraq, however, was only the first step in a process of Iraqification that is unfolding in that country and will be fully implemented by the end of 2011, if current timetables are honored. Is the Afghan surge the first step in a policy of Afghanization? It sure looks like it.

Consider the prototype: Vietnamization. In 1969, the new Nixon administration finally realized that it was not going to be able to achieve a World War II-style victory in Vietnam and that the American public (in no small part because of the impact of the Tet offensvie of 1968) would not tolerate an indefinite extension of a war with no decisive ending in sight. The solution was to turn the war over to America’s South Vietnamese allies: Vietnamization.

To implement the decision to quit the war without appearing simply to bug out with our tails between our legs and leaving our erstwhile allies to the wolves, the policy of Vietnamization entailed two essential elements. The first was to train and equip the South Vietnamese (to “stand them up,” in a truly awful military term) so that they had a chance of winning the war themselves. The other element was to stabilize the military situation as best possible to give the ARVNs (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) the best possible chance of success. This amounted to “preparing the battlefield” and included such things as the incursion into Cambodia and extensive attempts to interrupt the Ho Chih Minh Trail through Laos.

In the process of formulating and implementing Vietnamization, the American political objective changed as well. During active American combat operations (1965-1973), the goal had been to guarantee the territorial integrity of South Vietnam. Under Vietnamization, that goal was modified to providing a “reasonable chance” the South Vietnamese could succeed.

How do Iraq and Afghanistan measure up in these terms. Remarkably similarly. In Iraq, the United States has spent a great deal of time and energy training and equipping the Iraqi armed forces, and the purpose of the 2007 surge was clearly to weaken opponents of the regime, thereby preparing the battlefield for the Iraqis once the Americans leave. The same process is underway in Afghanistan, although it is not as far along. The United States is currently trying to “stand up” the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), including the army (ANA) and has put additional human training and monetary resources into the effort. Whether that will succeed is problematical, for reasons discussed in this space. At the same time, the current, first surge in Marja looks and sounds a lot like “preparing the battelfield” for the ANA by rooting the Taliban out of places they have historically dominated.

How did Vietnamization work out? It is a fair question if the intent of Iraqification and Afghanization is roughly the same as the intent in Vietnam. In Vietnam, obviously, the answer is unhappy and negative, since the “reasonable chance” proved not enough to prevent the fall of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975. While some apologists continue to argue that had the United States not effectively left our South Vietnamese allies out to dry that this would not have been the outcome, The objection misses the point that the primary purpose of the policy was to extricate the United States from a no-win situation, which it accomplished. Our allies surviving was a hoped-for outcome, but not the heart of the policy and implementing strategy.

Will the outcome extend to Iraq and Afghanistan? The answer is that we do not know, since the policies of Iraqification and Afghanization are not fully implemented and won’t be until the final American withdrawal. Certainly, the process is further along in Iraq, and we should have some idea not too long after the final U.S. withdrawal scheduled for 2011. In Afghanistan, the process is less far along, with the first U.S. troop draw down not scheduled to begin until mid-2011 and no date for total withdrawal yet established. The answer in Iraq is closer than it is in Afghanistan, but in both cases it is a matter of conjecture.

The Vietnamization prcedent does, however, suggest a couple of probable parts of the outcome. The first is that the United States will leave before there is a definitive politico-military outcome in either country. If one assumes U.S. presence artificially affects the environment in both countries and is part both of the solution and problem and a barrier to natural internal process reaching fruition, the outcome cannot be decided until we leave. When that occurs, however, there will be no surrender by either side, no white flags waving, and nobody holding up one finger (presumably the index) crying “we’re number one.” The second is that since American withdrawal will only begin the process of internal settling of the war in an atmosphere in which the United States no longer has much leverage, there will be recriminations over leaving. These will be especially hysterical if our side fails (as it may well in both cases), but charges of “bugging out”–which, of course, is the ultimate purpose of the policy–will be frequent and shrill.

The current surge is almost certainly the first step in the policy of Afghanization of the war there, beginning a painful process of disengagement. It is not, of course, being advertised that way, for fear that admitting it to be the case would submit the administration to withering rhetorical fire from the right. It is, however, likely the policy in Afghanistan (and Iraq) for the same reason it was the policy in Vietnam: it was the only real option available. The only way to have avoided Iraqifying or Afghanizing those wars would have been to heed what many at the time thought was the lesson of Vietnam: to avoid those kinds of wars in the first place. If you ignore that entreaty, count on the same thing happening again and again.

Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations and national security topics.  This essay was originally published at his blog What After Iraq? Photo credit: AP.

Image: afghanistanization.jpg