Tet by a Thousand Cuts

The United States is engaged in a counterinsurgency in a faraway Asian nation. The language, climate, social and political culture, religion, and terrain are foreign to the American generals, their units, and most of the diplomats, civilians, and contractors advancing American interests.

 The tide of the conflict is turning, a combination of optimistic senior leadership, steadfast political will, and commitment of the US forces bringing the thunder to unconventional forces in one village, while working to protect the population and bring development and legitimate governance in the next. Unexpectedly, the enemy plans and executes a cataclysmic episode that threatens to sap the political energy from the campaign, causing the United States to lower its expectations and learn to live with a suboptimal military and political outcome. 

Afghanistan? Perhaps. But the chronicle also describes another Asian conflict almost 45 years ago. In Vietnam, the occasion was the Tet Offensive, which led Walter Cronkite to his famous “stalemate” pronouncement, likely hastening the American withdrawal. In Afghanistan, the event is comprised of dozens of smaller events constituting a larger phenomenon–the green on blue attacks that have constituted one third of allied combat deaths in Afghanistan in 2012. Unless the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) finds a way to stop these attacks, restore trust, and invigorate training of Afghan security forces (ANSF), the attacks collectively could prove to be the Tet of the Afghan campaign.

In 1968, the tide had begun to turn in the Vietnam War, and victory might even have been foreseeable. The Tet Offensive changed everything. Almost literally overnight, Tet proved to be the strategic fulcrum on which the American war effort swung. The deadly blend of waning American appetite for the war, the looming 1968 presidential election, and a surprise demonstration of resolve by the communists proved to be the strategic turning point in the war. 

North and South Vietnam had contracted to observe a cease fire during the Tet Lunar New Year celebrations. Despite the agreement, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces launched a surprise attack on January 30, 1968. More than 80,000 troops struck more than one hundred population centers, including thirty-six provincial capitals and the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. Even though a cease fire was supposedly in effect, the North’s forces managed to launch the largest offensive of the war, taking US and South Vietnamese forces by surprise. 

The Tet Offensive itself was a major tactical failure for the communists, as the attack was decisively repelled, resulting in more than 110,000 casualities, including 45,000 enemy killed-in-action (KIA), compared to 46,000 South Vietnamese, US, and allied casualties and about 9,000 friendly KIA. 

Even so, the attack represented a colossal strategic failure for the US and South Vietnam, because the American public had been led to believe that the communists did not have the capacity to launch such a large-scale attack. Prior to Tet,  General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of US Military Assistance Command, had engaged in a campaign of attrition in Vietnam, believing eventually the North Vietnamese will to fight could be bled out by inflicting sufficient casualities to outweigh the North Vietnamese ability to recruit and replace troops. He believed that if a “crossover point” could be reached, South Vietnam and the US could prevail. 

Acutely aware of the declining American political will to continue the war, the administration began trumpeting statistics and indicators of success in the war – the so-called “Success Offensive” in which American political and strategic leaders began to push the message of progress in the war. Behind the scenes, however, Westmoreland’s military intelligence estimates of North Vietnamese troop strength were dramatically lower than CIA estimates. Westmoreland was concerned about American public perceptions  and he resisted embracing the larger numbers. Westmoreland recognized that the larger number “would create a political bombshell” because it represented proof that the North Vietnamese had “the capability and the will to continue a protracted war of attrition.” 

In the face of intelligence reporting suggesting a major North Vietnamese operation, military and political leaders unwisely continued to sound the trumpets of impending victory. In response to its claims of progress and the enemy’s dire straits, even in the face of considerable counterfactuals, the administration received a small uptick in approval ratings, buying the administration time to continue to press the attack. Tet reversed all that progress: American political will was irreparably damaged and its military and political leaders’ credibility was compromised beyond recovery. 

Forty-five years later, a similar asymmetry threatens to upset the strategic apple cart in another Asian nation. In Afghanistan, the strategic fulcrum could very well prove to be a series of one-off events that aggregate to have strategic effects, esclating in 2010 and coinciding with a significant slide in domestic political support for the Afghanistan campaign. Major civilian casualty events, combat atrocities such as the Marines who urinated on Taliban corpses, the “Kill Team” debacle, the alleged execution of sixteen unarmed Afghans by an Army staff sSergeant, and unfortunate events such as the unintentional Koran desecration may have all contributed to a decided downturn in American support for the war, but no factor may have influenced the perception of hopelessness in Afghanistan more than the so-called “green-on-blue” attacks. 

These attacks, in which Afghan security forces (ANSF) or insurgents operating under the false flag of ANSF uniforms, have engaged NATO military forces and, occasionally, civilians with lethal force. These  attacks have resulted in over fifty-five dead allied military personnel and dozens more wounded. One source notes that “[t]he pace of green-on-blue attacks has accelerated sharply: between 2007 and 2009, just 14 coalition troops fell victim to insider attacks, but since 2010, according to a tally by The Guardian, 106 coalition troops were killed in 63 attacks.” Other sources tally slightly different figures – the New America Foundation published one study that identified 116 friendly KIA and 88 friendly WIA since 2003, and Reuters estimates that green on blue attacks have accounted for one fifth of allied combat deaths in 2012. The shocking Taliban double-agent suicide strike that killed 8 CIA agents in Khost in December, 2009, and the calamitous Taliban assault on Camp Bastion in September, 2012, while wearing US uniforms, loom large. Moreover, these tactics threaten to shift the entire strategic environment — particularly if one of these insider attacks succeeds against a particularly prominent strategic target, such as the ISAF Commander, the NATO Senior Civilian Representative, the US Ambassador, or the Afghan president. 

Predictably, allied commanders have engaged their Afghan counterparts to effect better vetting, training, force protection, psychological tests, and biometric screening, earning the attention of the highest levels of US and NATO political and military leadership. Even so, NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has admitted the attacks are “sapping trust and [have] already forced the US military to limit joint operations with Afghan troops,” in an environment where training and mentorship, joint patrols and operations, and handing off security to Afghan forces are cornerstones of the NATO strategy. Center for Strategic and International Studies defense and strategy expert Anthony Cordesman even has opined that “green on blue an other politically oriented strikes on both foreign and Afghan targets may be giving the insurgents back the overall momentum in the war.” Cordesman notes that while the overall numbers are relatively small compared to the overall allied military and civilian presence in Afghanistan, “their political impact is very significant. The Taliban and insurgents are fighting a political war to influence and dominate the Afghan people and drive out the US and other ISAF forces, as well as aid efforts. The insurgents know that the actual numbers involved are not the issue; what counts is their political impact. And this impact is having a major effect in influencing media coverage of the war, the US Congress, the American public, and the attitudes of other ISAF and donor countries.” 

Cordesman’s ultimate observation on the political impact of the attacks is the lesson we should have drawn from Tet almost a half century earlier. Individually, each blue-on-green attack is a minor tactical event, in terms of the overall campaign. Collectively, they breed allied war fatigue and contempt for the Afghans who have benefitted in no small measure from our national sacrifice. One narrative that boils below the surface of the Afghan policy debate asserts, after having failed their national obligation to the international order by permitting the Taliban to host Al Qaeda within their borders before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Afghans have been, at best, unreliable partners, welcoming allied contracts, development, and largesse, while failing wholesale to make good on their end of the bargain. Now, in the eleventh hour of the campaign, the very security forces the allies work diligently to equip and train to secure their own nation to permit governance to take root, setting conditions for economic and social development, cannot be trusted in the same room or on the same patrol with loaded weapons. 

How much more will the American and allied bodies politic suffer the indignity of inside attacks from the very people our forces, diplomats, and civilian enablers are in Afghanistan to support? What if the green-on-blue attacks become this generation’s Tet Offensive in slow motion? Failing to identify the aggregation of individual green-on-blue attacks as a potential Tet “moment” in terms of strategic effect could signal campaign failure. Quoting figures about the insignificant numbers of attacks compared to the millions of monthly interactions between allied forces and ANSF sells the issue short by underestimating the psychological effect of individual attacks on the entire campaign. Stopping insider attacks cannot be just another competing priority in the overall campaign; it must be a primary concern because the narrative of betrayal threatens to shake the strategic and political bedrock underwriting allied efforts in Afghanistan. Like Tet, it could portend political defeat in the shadow of prospective military victory. Unlike the whirlwind of Tet, it remains within our power to influence the outcome – but perhaps only for a little while longer. 

Butch Bracknell is a Marine Lieutenant Colonel on active duty assigned within OSD and former Commandant of the Marine Corps Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Opinions herein are his own and are not assignable to the US government.

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