Good war commanders are ready for a foe to use battlefield deception. Great ones watch for an enemy to create the illusion of military success – one that might trick the public to demand a hasty retreat from a war.
That lesson was learned by the United States in Vietnam after Hanoi launched the Tet Offensive in 1968. American TV portrayed the attacks as a US defeat, catching President Johnson off guard. A similar ruse may be happening now in Afghanistan as the Taliban change tactics to conduct bold, highly visible attacks. Will President Obama, as commander in chief, be as unprepared as Johnson?
Since last year, the Taliban have been losing the war on the ground, largely because of Mr. Obama’s surge of troops. Now it is opting for bold “psych ops.” On Tuesday, it launched a made-for-media suicide attack on the prominent Kabul InterContinental Hotel, a favorite place for foreigners.
It took only a few hours for NATO and Afghan forces to retake the city landmark. But that was long enough for Western media to send out images of a stunning loss in the fortified Afghan capital.
After the attack, a Taliban spokesman confirmed the group’s new focus: “The enemy has to be confronted by both physical and psychological war.”
Ever since the Vietnam War, the US military has tried to avoid situations in which an enemy creates a strong visual image of a temporary setback for American forces. That lesson was seared into the Pentagon’s memory after North Vietnam – which knew its fighters were not winning – decided that the best battlefront was US public opinion.
During the Tet holidays of 1968, the North staged spectacular attacks in dozens of South Vietnamese cities, most famously taking over part of the US Embassy in Saigon.
Even though thousands of its fighters were quickly killed in what was a massive military loss for Hanoi, the images on American TV of a temporary communist victory in urban areas helped shift attitudes. The US was forced into a long, painful exit.
“The attacks were designed to make the US understand that it cannot stay in Vietnam,’’ said Tran Bach Dang, the communist party chief in Saigon at the time during a Monitor interview in 1988. “We anticipated the impact on US public opinion.”
The effect was similar to George Washington’s surprise attack on British forces in 1776, when his troops crossed the Delaware River on a cold Christmas Eve. The illusion of a mighty American force helped soften British opinion of the war.
With the US strategy in Afghanistan succeeding, the Taliban are not only shifting tactics but also holding secret talks with the US. They are negotiating from weakness. At the same time, they appear to be trying to push American public opinion further against US involvement in Afghanistan.
Obama wants to leave behind an able Afghan military and prevent that country from again becoming a terrorist haven. But his timetable for achieving those goals could be in trouble if the Taliban can stage high-profile attacks and sway American opinion.
If more Kabul-like attacks occur, the president must be out front of US media and explain the real purpose of such strikes and how they are only a minor military setback.
Perceptions of war are as significant as war itself. Not only is the US conducting a hearts-and-minds campaign in Afghanistan, it also needs one back home.