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Afghanistan is not Vietnam

If President Obama learns from Britain’s mistakes in 1943 with Albania and meets Afghan warriors on their terms, the United States can end the war and win the peace in Afghanistan, honorably.

By Michael L. Galaty / January 8, 2010

Jackson, Miss.

Contrary to recent popular comparisons, Afghanistan is not Vietnam.

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But it is a lot like Albania.

About 70 years ago, Albania – a small, mountainous country in the Balkans, was still populated by numerous “fanatical” warrior tribesmen. During World War II, Germany occupied this land. Given the strategic importance of the Balkans, the Allies, led by the British, sent in covert operatives to try to organize an indigenous Albanian resistance.

These Allied operatives were unable to think like tribal warriors and that is why they failed. If President Obama learns from Britain’s mistakes and meets Afghan warriors on their terms, the United States can end the war and win the peace in Afghanistan, honorably.

Albanian tribal culture was, and still is, founded on kinship. Loyalty was rendered, first and foremost, to family and tribe.

In 1943, the nation of Albania was scarcely 30 years old and tribesmen felt little or no loyalty to the state, which they believed was corrupt. On top of that, Albanian tribal culture was a feuding culture. Some tribes were friendly while others were sworn enemies.

This created an ever-shifting, almost incomprehensible network of tribal coalitions and factions, much akin to that in Afghanistan. As one Allied officer noted, “To spend hours trying to make an Albanian see the British point of view is a waste of time; the only possible method is to persuade him that some project desired by you is desirable from his point of view as well.”

In the end, the Albanians were not persuaded. The costs were high: At least 14 Allied operatives and untold numbers of Albanians died and tons of equipment were lost. By 1945, the Germans had departed, leaving Albania in the hands of a ruthless Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha.

It doesn’t have to end similarly in Afghanistan.

What was true for Albanian tribesmen in 1943 is true for Afghan tribesmen in 2010; they will act first in their own self-interest and that of their family and tribe. Their primary loyalty is not to a government or ideology. It appears that Mr. Obama and his military commanders understand that. But the lessons of the Allied failure in Albania go deeper.

The first lesson: Traditional Albanians depend on a centuries-old system of customary law called the Code of Lekë, which is based on the concept of honor – ndera. The Afghan equivalent is nang. An Albanian warrior would rather die than dishonor himself and his family, and Afghan warriors are no different.

This made things very difficult for British operatives, who could not convince Albanians to act dishonorably – to betray family or friends who worked for the Germans, for example – and no amount of money or shame could sway them. Likewise, American soldiers must take seriously the Afghan customary law code, the Pashtunwali. In every joint action we take, in every negotiation, honor is at risk, and without honor an Afghan, just like an Albanian, is nothing.