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Commentary: Apply lessons of Vietnam to Afghanistan

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 29, 2009 - A close friend of mine was recently diagnosed with leukemia. According to the VA, his disease is the result of exposure to Agent Orange during his tour of duty with the Marine Corps in Vietnam.

Thirty-six years after the conclusion of American combat operations and we're still taking casualties from that ill-fated mission. You would think that we'd have learned our lesson. You would be wrong.

One guy who attempted to profit from experience was Colin Powell. As a general, he developed what came to be known as the Powell Doctrine:

  1. Only deploy troops when absolutely necessary.
  2. If you're going to go in, do so with overwhelming force and a clear objective.
  3. Once you've attained your ends, leave.

This strategy served us well in the first Gulf War. In fact, it worked so well that we subsequently abandoned it.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it became clear that the Taliban government in Afghanistan was providing safe haven to Al-Qaeda terrorists. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in the process of remaking the Pentagon in his image. He dispatched a light, swift 21st-century military that relied heavily on Special Forces and the recruitment of locals to do much of the fighting.

Rumfeld's plan minimized American casualties but regrettably failed to accomplish the mission. Though the Taliban was sent packing with relative ease, there was insufficient manpower to close the door on the trap at Tora Bora, thus allowing Osama bin Laden and his confederate, Mullah Mohammad Omar, to escape. They are presently in hiding somewhere in the wilds along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Or not.

For the past eight years, we've tried to accomplish what the British and Soviets failed to do before us: install a stable and effective government in a tribal wilderness. We've pursued this goal with varying degrees of enthusiasm. George Bush tired of the task and invaded Iraq. Barack Obama has adopted the crusade as his own.

In June, Defense Secretary Robert Gates replaced Gen. David McKiernan with Gen. Stanley McChrystal and dispatched an additional 21,000 troops to augment forces already in country. Apparently hoping to duplicate the illusionary success of the "surge" in Iraq, Gen. McChrystal has now requested additional soldiers and Marines to supplement his present 67,000-man force.

Though the general's request is still classified, it reportedly contains plans for as few as 10,000 more troops and as many as 80,000, with a compromise option of 40,000. To say nothing of the hardship such an increase would impose on our already over-extended military, it is estimated that it costs $1 billion to deploy 1,000 troops, or $1 million per GI. This is money that we don't have. What, exactly, do we hope to gain with this massive investment of real blood and borrowed treasure?

For the first time since 2003, American casualties in Afghanistan this year have out-numbered those in Iraq. Though some attribute the improving figures in Iraq to W's famous "surge," recent car-bombings in Baghdad suggest that the reduction in casualties is more the result of curtailed operations than an outbreak of democratic tranquility. It's hard to kill troops who are locked down in highly fortified bases -- but it's also hard for such troops to have much of an impact on the domestic situation.

The case can be fairly made that the time for massive troop commitments in Afghanistan has passed. Had we gone in big and decimated al-Qaeda initially, the campaign would now be over. Instead, our lingering presence has spawned a widespread Taliban insurgency. We seem to have transformed these erstwhile oppressors into gallant freedom-fighters in the popular imagination. And we know these guys know how to fight because we taught them.

Operating on the oft-discredited theorem that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," we armed and trained the mujahedeen back in the '80s to resist their Soviet occupiers. Now that we have replaced the Soviets as the unwelcome invaders du jour, our former allies are using the skills we taught them to kill our troops. Catch-22.

In one memorable scene from the Vietnam epic "Apocalypse Now," the film's narrator, Capt. Willard, and an enlisted man called "Chef" leave the patrol boat in which they're traveling up the Mekong River to forage for mangos in the jungle. During the course of their excursion, they are attacked by an enormous Bengal tiger that had been lurking unseen in the dense foliage.

The message the men take from their brush with death is a simple one: "Don't get off the boat" -- a metaphorical warning to keep your head down, survive your tour and rotate back to the world in one piece.

After the failure at Tora Bora, the mission in Afghanistan dissolved into an amorphous and ill-defined effort at nation-building/pacification. Once again, we find ourselves trying to "win the hearts and minds" of an indigenous population by killings its members who don't want to get with program. Unfortunately, after you've killed a man's brother, it's difficult to win his affections with Hershey bars and text books.

Gen. McChrystal's plan to carry the day by deploying more troops is vaguely reminiscent of William Westmoreland. Pakistan now reprises the role of Cambodia -- a sovereign nation adjacent to the theater of operations in which our adversaries take refuge.

If the lesson the grunts learned in Vietnam was "don't get off the boat," its corollary in Afghanistan may be "don't get on the damned thing in the first place unless you know where you're going."

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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