To win in Afghanistan Obama must learn from Vietnam

A buildup of Afghan security forces is not easy.

In debating the future of Afghanistan, Americans often overlook one crucial fact: It's not about us.

A prompt exit from the country – and attainment of many of America's more ambitious strategic goals there – ultimately depends on the viability of Afghan security forces, not on the US military's tactics or force levels. Unfortunately, building Afghan forces is likely to be much more difficult than often recognized.

To be sure, US choices during the next year will be critical. But US strategy is fundamentally predicated on the notion that the Afghan army and police will soon be able to secure their population and defend national borders. If they can't, then no matter what the United States does over the next 12 to 24 months – the window during which various metrics must show results – any gains will likely fall by the wayside once US forces inevitably draw down.

It is now common to hear that Afghanistan is "Obama's Vietnam." But such a claim usually focuses on US military performance in the two wars. And it misses the crucial lessons that Vietnam offers about trying to build the armed forces of other nations, especially those like Afghanistan with low levels of economic development, extensive corruption, and little tradition of centralized self-governance.

After all, just think how different the legacy of Vietnam would be if only the US had been able to build an effective South Vietnamese military, one that could turn back the North's final invasion of 1975. Whatever other mistakes the US made in the war (and there were plenty), it was this battlefield defeat – years after US combat forces had left – that made all the sacrifice of blood and treasure seem so tragically pointless.

What went wrong in the attempt to build an indigenous army that could defend an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam?

It wasn't lack of resources or effort. South Vietnam had a smaller population than Afghanistan and was a quarter the size, but the US poured in five times the number of troops that Washington is considering for Afghanistan.

As they are now doing in Afghanistan, US military advisers helped the South Vietnamese write doctrine and ran enormous training programs. These efforts expanded in the early 1970s under "Vietnamization," infusing the country with today's equivalent of billions of dollars in military equipment.

When the US departed, the metrics all seemed to point in the right direction. The South Vietnamese armed forces had grown to over 1 million men. Ninety-seven percent of villages and hamlets were rated secure. A National Intelligence Estimate from 1974 indicated that the South Vietnam's army was "strong and resilient," and even North Vietnam's own leaders did not believe they could conquer the South until 1976.

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.

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."

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