To win in Afghanistan Obama must learn from Vietnam
A buildup of Afghan security forces is not easy.
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But these statistics – similar to those by which we might be tempted to judge the next year's progress in Afghanistan – glossed over three uncomfortable truths.Skip to next paragraph
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The US effort had stressed quantity over quality. It had allowed South Vietnam's forces to become dangerously dependent on US advisers and combat support. And it had assumed that a legitimate government would automatically emerge in the face of security gains, even though the very process of creating huge security forces worked against this goal.
The US grew the South Vietnamese armed forces to a much larger size than the government could sustain and administer. As in Afghanistan, South Vietnam's population was mostly rural with low literacy rates. There was little evidence that soldiers who had completed training actually mastered their duties. Years of operating under the tutelage of US advisers had left the South Vietnamese dependent on those advisers for key tasks like coordinating operations across combat arms and units – one of the crucial failures in 1975.
Sadly, these deficits had long been evident to those who looked hard at the country's few previous attempts to fight independently, such as the disastrous 1971 invasion of Laos.
The US also built the South Vietnamese military at the expense of legitimate political institutions. Though US metrics showed that the armed forces were growing, they failed to detect the relative emasculation of potential sources of civilian authority. As the military became the best-funded institution in South Vietnam, it also became more rather than less responsible for running most of the country's actual government. This distraction proved fatal when the final battles came, as many commanders had been promoted for their bureaucratic skills or political loyalty, not combat prowess.
Afghanistan is not South Vietnam. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not North Vietnam. And certainly Gen. Stanley McChrystal is not Gen. William Westmoreland. But the Vietnam experience should inspire humility about what can be achieved and how quickly. Building professional security forces is both the most crucial and the most difficult task that the US will face in Afghanistan. Without such forces, there is no way to achieve the most ambitious US goals without a large and lasting US presence.
Caitlin Talmadge is a visiting fellow at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University. She is also a doctoral candidate in the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and coauthor of "US Defense Politics: the Origins of Security Policy."