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Wars of Attrition

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Posted on Apr 24, 2012
Secretary of Defense (CC BY 2.0)

Pentagon press secretary George Little.

By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

Recently, after insurgents unleashed sophisticated, synchronized attacks across Afghanistan involving dozens of fighters armed with suicide vests, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms, as well as car bombs, the Pentagon was quick to emphasize what hadn’t happened.  “I’m not minimizing the seriousness of this, but this was in no way akin to the Tet Offensive,” said George Little, the Pentagon’s top spokesman.  “We are looking at suicide bombers, RPG [rocket propelled grenade], mortar fire, etcetera.  This was not a large-scale offensive sweeping into Kabul or other parts of the country.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta weighed in similarly.  “There were,” he insisted, “no tactical gains here. These are isolated attacks that are done for symbolic purposes, and they have not regained any territory.”  Such sentiments were echoed by many in the media, who emphasized that the attacks “didn’t accomplish much” or were “unsuccessful.”

Even granting the need to spin the assaults as failures, the official American reaction to the coordinated attacks in Kabul, the Afghan capital, as well as at Jalalabad airbase, and in Paktika and Logar Provinces, reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of guerrilla warfare and, in particular, of the type being waged by the Haqqani network, a crime syndicate transformed by the conflict into a leading insurgent group.  Here’s the “lede” that should have run in every newspaper in America: More than 40 years after the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive, after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, even after reviving counterinsurgency doctrine (only to see it crash-and-burn in short order), the U.S. military still doesn’t get it.

Think of this as a remarkably unblemished record of “failure to understand” stretching from the 1960s to 2012, and undoubtedly beyond.

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The Lessons of Tet 

When Vietnamese revolutionary forces launched the 1968 Tet Offensive, attacking Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, as well as four other major cities, 35 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 district seats, and 50 other hamlets nationwide, they were hoping to spark a general uprising.  What they did instead was spotlight the fact that months of optimistic talk by American officials about tremendous strategic gains and a foreseeable victory had been farcical in the extreme. 

Tet made the top U.S. commander, General William Westmoreland, infamous for having claimed just months earlier that an end to America’s war was on the horizon.  As he stood before TV cameras on the battle-scarred grounds of the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon—after a small team of Vietcong sappers breached its walls and shot it out with surprised U.S. forces—pronouncing the offensive a failure, he appeared to Americans at home totally out of touch, if not delusional. 

Since that moment, it should have been clear that tactical success, even success in any usual sense, is never the be-all or end-all of insurgent warfare.  Guerrillas the world over grasped what had happened in Vietnam.  They took its lessons to heart, and even took them a step further.  They understood, for instance, that you don’t need to lose 58,000 fighters, as the Vietnamese did at Tet, to win important psychological victories.  You need only highlight your enemy’s vulnerabilities, its helplessness to stop you. 

The Haqqanis certainly got it, and so just over a week ago sacrificed 57,961 fewer fighters to make a similar point.  Striking a psychological blow while losing only 39 guerrillas, they are distinctly living in the twenty-first century in global war-making terms.  On the other hand, whether its top civilian and military commanders realize it or not, the Pentagon is still stuck in Saigon, 1968.

Case in point: Secretary of Defense Panetta belittled the Haqqani fighters for not taking “territory.”  It’s a claim that, in its cluelessness, is positively Westmorelandish. 

What territory, after all, could a relatively weak and lightly armed force like the Haqqani militants have been out to “regain” by attacking Kabul’s heavily defended diplomatic quarter?  The German Embassy?  And then what would they have done?  À la U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, launch an oil-spot strategy, spreading out slowly from there to secure the American Embassy, the British Embassy, and NATO headquarters?  While Panetta at least granted that the attacks were geared toward symbolic effect, he remained strangely focused on their “tactical” significance. 

As was the case in Vietnam, the U.S. military in Afghanistan regularly attempts to prove it’s winning via metrics like the number of enemies captured and body counts from “night raids.”  No less frequently, its spokespeople create rules and measures for its enemies in an effort to prove they’re not succeeding. This Westmoreland-ian mindset was evident last week in those statements that the Haqqanis didn’t accomplish much of anything because they didn’t take territory, sweep into Kabul en masse, or carry out a sufficiently “large-scale offensive”—as if the Pentagon were the war’s ringside judge (as well as one of the fighters) and the conflict could be won on points like a boxing match. 


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StrawMan's avatar

By StrawMan, May 20, 2012 at 10:15 am Link to this comment

Mr. Everts, I thank you for your moving and trenchant post.

I’m a Vietnam-era (but non-combat) veteran.  Your remarks are consonant with the opinions of every thoughtful veteran of Tet and Vietnam I have known (a considerable number).

Likewise your characterization of current day military “thinking” is spot on, as is the author’s.  The bloated security state, depending on endless war for the benefit of its corporate sponsors, is perfectly content with our historical amnesia.

May your son soon come home to you, whole in body and in spirit.

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By Peter Everts, April 26, 2012 at 6:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Having spent 1968 (year of the Tet Offensive) as an infantry officer in I Corps S. Vietnam, I can attest to the incontrovertible fact that even though the US crushed the offensive, the VC and NVA won these battles because they created the correct assumption with the American public that this war was not winnable. 

Afghanistan is a pool of cultural quicksand in which the US will sink (as did the Russians) until the idiocy of our presence causes the blundering withdrawal of US forces from this pit of a country.  Until then, we will continue to piss away money and lives to fill the coffer of the war mongering corporations and private contractos. 

My son, an infantry officer, is in Afghanistan and has served in Iraq/Kuwait.  I cannot fathom for what purpose.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, April 24, 2012 at 2:59 pm Link to this comment

Every generation forgets the errors of the past one and has to relearn them.

I don’t know what was the problem with Afghanistan as that lesson spanned the ages and we still didn’t pay attention.

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