Why Vietnam and Afghanistan Matter

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Vietnam and Afghanistan are type examples of that most intractable of wars, the guerrilla war. History affords many examples where the discipline of armies has collapsed in the face of guerrilla tactics, and very few examples of guerrilla conflicts being defeated. In the Twentieth Century, only four stand out. The British defeated Communist guerrillas in Malaya, largely because the Communists were concentrated among the ethnic Chinese population, making them easier to identify and allowing ethnic rivalries to work. The Philippine government defeated the Communist Huk rebellion. Greece defeated a Communist insurgency (depicted in the film Eleni), and the U.S. sort-of quelled an uprising in the Philippines after the pish American War.

The advice on how to defeat guerrilla uprisings is pretty consistent. In How to Beat Guerillas, James Dunnigan (June 11, 2002) suggests

Sir Robert Thompson, expert on the Malayan uprising, suggested:

  1. The people are the key base to be secured and defended rather than territory won or enemy bodies counted (something Westmoreland completely failed to grasp in Vietnam).
  2. There must be a clear political counter-vision that can overshadow, match or neutralize the guerrilla vision.
  3. Practical action must be taken at the lower levels to match the competitive political vision.
  4. Economy of force
  5. Big unit action may sometimes be necessary.
  6. Aggressive mobility.
  7. Ground level embedding and integration.
  8. Cultural sensitivity.
  9. Systematic intelligence effort.
  10. Methodical clear and hold.
  11. Careful deployment of mass popular forces and special units. 
  12. The limits of foreign assistance must be clearly defined and carefully used.
  13. Time.

Tactically, the lessons are to fight like the insurgents: in the bushes, light, agile, aggressive, with eyes everywhere. Politically, most of the recipes for dealing with guerrillas meet Che Guevara halfway: assume the guerrillas have legitimate grievances and try to defuse the most egregious. That, of course, won't be acceptable to ruling powers who view the guerrillas as part of an inferior group, or religious heretics, or simply as marginalized because they deserve to be, or because the privileged simply don't want to share or see their power diluted.

But what if you can't? What if what they want is so morally offensive that no civilized society could or should yield? What if they want to impose a stifling theocracy on a previously vibrant country (Iran)? Or they want to exterminate rival ethnic groups (the Balkans, Rwanda)? Or they want to enslave some other ethnic, social, or religious group? Or impose barbaric constraints on women (Afghanistan)?

Actually, just about all insurgent groups do two things that vitiate any claim they may have to legitimacy. First of all, they don't tolerate dissent. They silence opposition by intimidation and terrorize anyone who cooperates with the established government. And virtually all their victims in these actions are unarmed civilians. Second, they have to get money somewhere, so they set up a shadow government and tax people who are already poor and maybe overtaxed by the existing government. So almost all insurgents in recent history have qualified as war criminals. "But we can't stage an insurgency with people openly opposing us and working with the other side, and we have to get food and money somewhere." Cry me a river, Che. If you can't get support and sustenance on your merits, maybe you should find another line of work. If you can't stage a successful revolution without violating human rights, what makes you think you're competent to run a country?

Imagine that President Obama scores a landslide victory in 2012, and his successor makes even more gains after 2016. By 2020 progressives control both houses of Congress, have a filibuster-proof Senate, and a solid majority on the Supreme Court. Believing they have a solid mandate, the progressives legalize gay marriage, pass steep tax hikes on the 1%, enact tough gun control laws, mandate single payer health insurance, and shut down all attempts to limit abortion. (Obviously this was written before Trump but everything that follows still pertains.)

So some members of the Far Right, believing they are about to lose everything meaningful to them, and that they are facing their last chance of preventing America from morphing into what they hate most, strike back. They start bombing abortion clinics and killing abortion providers, assassinate liberal judges and attorneys, college professors, civil libertarians, journalists and media personalities. There are some large networks, but mostly the movement consists of local groups and disgruntled individuals. They are, for the most part, angry working and middle class people convinced they are about to lose what precarious prosperity they have, and so feel they have little to lose. They use sophisticated encryption in their communications, decentralized organization, and hide among the general population. Boy, did they read Che. Your move.

Negotiate? What are you going to offer as a "clear political counter-vision that can overshadow, match or neutralize the guerrilla vision?" They hate everything you value most. It's all anathema to them. The only thing they will find acceptable is your defeat. And chances are they will want to exact punishment on those who supported you. They will want to lock the system into a state that prevents you from ever coming to power again.

Can't happen here? It did happen here. After the Civil War, hard-line Radical Republicans (emphatically not to be equated with contemporary Republicans!) in Congress used the military to impose and prop up more congenial state governments in the South. White southerners were smart enough to avoid attacking the Army, but they formed Ku Klux Klan 1.0. The Klan and other paramilitary groups terrorized blacks, hiding among the white population. The Klan lacked central organization, and most of the people styling themselves "Klan" were local free-lancers.

And how did we defeat them? Mmmm ... actually, they won. The 1876 election ended in a deal that gave Rutherford B. Hayes the Presidency and returned control of the South to white supremacists. The white supremacists passed laws that pretty much disenfranchised blacks. The loose organization of the Klan was its undoing because there was a lot of criminal activity carried out under the guise of Klan activities. The formal Klan was eventually mostly broken up, but most of its objectives had been won, and local violence against nonconforming blacks continued. Jim Crow laws restricted the rights of blacks, and Southerners had a large enough presence in Congress to prevent any Federal response.The Posse Comitatus Act was passed specifically to prevent the Army from intervening in mob violence.

If the Radical Republicans hadn't been so clumsy in their dealings with the South, might we have averted the Klan? It's tempting to think so, but consider the words of Benjamin Tillman, governor of South Carolina and later Senator:

We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man.

The mere fact of blacks sharing power with whites on an equal basis was repellent to people like Tillman. They coalesced into an impregnable voting bloc in Congress capable of beating back any challenges to white supremacy. There was no "political counter-vision" that they could have been offered. What they wanted was white supremacy on a permanent basis, enshrined in law and backed up, if need be, by less formal but more persuasive means of enforcement.

The second time around, Klan 2.0 found its power base among urban whites who felt threatened not only by blacks, but by immigrants, Catholics, and the Jews. Rippling underneath was a fear of subversive movements like anarchism, socialism, and labor unions. Since Klan supporters were sometimes well placed in the community, speaking out against Klan 2.0 was sometimes more risky than speaking out against the mere ruffians of Klan 1.0. Klan 2.0 was founded in 1915, peaked in the 1920's, when it claimed to have 15% of the white Protestant population as members and control of numerous State legislatures. A series of scandals and organized public opposition caused a rapid decline in the later 1920's. What little appeal it still had was lost when the Klan adopted a pro-Nazi stance in the years before World War II.

Another example of an oppressive insurgency, this one plainly doomed from the start, was the OAS in Algeria. The OAS was a French terrorist group opposed to Algerian independence. They attempted to thwart cooperation between France and the Algerian independence movement by bombings and assassinations. Unfortunately for them, while Chairman Mao advised insurgents to disappear into the population like fish in the sea, these fish stood out like neon tetras. It's awfully hard to hide in a school of fish if you're a light skinned French speaker and the rest of the fish are darker skinned Arabic speakers.

So, the moral is we can't naively assume the insurgents are always the good guys. If the concept of "tyranny of the majority" means anything, then it is perfectly possible for a minority in power to be in the right, and the majority out of power to be in the wrong. It's pretty uncommon for this to happen in practice. If the society is at all democratic, the majority may be in the wrong but they'll most likely be in power, too. If the society is undemocratic but ruled by an enlightened, or at least not malevolent, elite, the ruling class ought to be responsive enough to the people to keep grievances under control. However, it's possible for an insurgent group to fan dissatisfaction and convince enough people they have grievances to overthrow a government and put a worse one in its place. Two countries that did this in recent times are Iran during the Islamic Revolution and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Or the insurgency can present one face while fighting and a completely different one after victory. Cuba is the type example. Castro's victory was widely hailed in the U.S. as a popular victory over the corrupt Batista regime, but soon Castro announced his Marxist allegiance.

Quite possibly the most demented insurgency was the Tupamaros of Uruguay. Uruguay was once known as the "Switzerland of South America" for its stability and generous social programs. Unfortunately, Uruguay's economy was narrowly based on beef and wool, and in the 1950's, Uruguay's revenues declined as a result of increased competition and declining demand. As living standards fell and labor and student unrest grew, the Tupamaros began robbing banks and giving the money to the poor. They sought to destabilize a country that had been noted for its enlightenment. They succeeded. Uruguay was taken over by a repressive junta that participated in the "dirty war" of the 1970's against South American leftists. The second half of the Marxist urban guerrilla recipe, where the repression provokes an all out popular uprising, well, that didn't work out so well.

The most likely scenarios for the majority to support an unjust insurgency are those where the majority wants to (or can be convinced to) oppress or exterminate a minority. This, of course, was the case in the South with the Klan and the ethnic cleansings in the Balkans and Rwanda. In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge encouraged the rural population to take out their frustrations on displaced city dwellers (without, of course, actually improving life for the peasantry).

The insurgents themselves are always in the minority. Their supporters are a larger minority and an essential one, because they provide information, hiding places, and supplies while traveling freely among the general population. Even during the American Revolution, which was mostly a conventional European style war except around the margins, the populace was roughly evenly divided between supporters, neutrals, and pro-British Loyalists.

Edmund Burke noted that for evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing. But there's an even more ominous possibility. What if many people publicly denounce the evil but secretly sympathize with it? How many Southern whites disdained the Klan as uncouth ruffians but secretly approved of terrorizing blacks?

Guerrilla or asymmetrical warfare is a technology, and like any technology it can be used for good or evil. Chemistry can make antibiotics or nerve gas. Nuclear physics can treat cancer or make atomic bombs. So there can be insurgencies whose goals are immoral, and therefore it is morally permissible, even imperative, to develop ways of countering insurgencies effectively. Unfortunately, the last element on Thompson's list above works against America. Americans want something like the Gulf War of 1991: slam, bam, thank you ma'am. Quick and massively decisive, so massively decisive that the enemy is utterly demoralized. The reason the second Iraq War turned into such a fiasco was that we expected a repeat of 1991. Ding dong, Saddam is dead ... and everyone cheers because we killed the wicked witch. We failed completely to plan for protecting landmarks like the National Museum because our forces were specifically told not to plan for any kind of continuing presence. We want our troops to come home, but the insurgents are home. Defeat, to them, means having to accept and live in a society they find repellent. Time is on their side, and they know it.

During World War II, the Germans mounted a last-ditch offensive in the Ardennes, hoping to demoralize the Western Allies and cause them to sue for peace. It failed because the war was clearly being won by the Allies at that point. A quarter century later, the same strategy worked in the Tet offensive in Vietnam. U.S. forces never suffered a single defeat, yet the American public, worn down by years of anti-war protests and negative journalism, lost heart. The lesson of Tet is clear: Americans can be worn down. We are no match for enemies willing to fight for decades and sacrifice innumerable lives, and the more ruthless and immoral an enemy is, the more willing they will be to fight that way.

So how do we beat them? First, we offer incentives to settle. We learn the language. That means we train soldiers in the language, we give them time to upgrade their skills instead of pulling police call or going to idiotic mandatory briefings. We accept that fluency in Arabic is more militarily important than time in the two mile run. Make sufficiently skilled linguists warrant officers - solely on the basis of fluency - so they have enough rank to be spared most of the petty indignities of military life. Because we want these people to stick around for years. And we accept the fact that we're going to be in a conflict for ten or twenty years. We could do that in Central America during the Banana Republic wars because we had a small, all volunteer force and the wars didn't affect life on the home front all that much. Once we pulled out of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan dropped mostly out of the public eye. The key is to have a relatively small force capable of fighting insurgents their style. A small force means the conflict won't dominate the nightly news; the war in Vietnam didn't become big news until we started sending draftees. They have to be disciplined enough to recognize that snipers and booby traps will take their toll, and not lash out at the local population (which is exactly what the insurgents hope they will do.) Naturally, people capable of fighting like this are highly professional, which means the military has to treat them like professionals. No military has ever done a better job of providing creature comforts than ours, but it only goes so far. Loneliness and boredom are the big enemies, and the solution to that problem is not to micromanage soldiers' off-duty hours. Don't lock them up in garrison. They will adopt mascots, they will look at porn on line, and they will have sex. Those are typically prohibited under General Order 1 in any deployment. So borrow a page from Napoleon. Find an officer who posts such an order and shoot him as an example to the others. Then shoot the others, too.

And then there's technology. You can deal with insurgencies by applying massive, overwhelming force, like we did against the Plains Indians. Or you can take out your frustrations against the populace, like Napoleon's troops in Spain. Or you can carpet-bomb any place with insurgents in it. Or, you can develop smarter, more selective technology, like better sniper weapons, drones, and non-lethal weapons.

And one fascinating observation is the more selective and effective these tools become, the more bitterly some people oppose them. Rubber bullets, tasers, tear gas, water cannons, sound weapons, microwave weapons, all elicit harsh criticism from human rights groups. All can kill or injure, because to dissuade someone from a course of action, you may have to apply enough force to restrain or cause pain. They just don't do as much damage as bullets. Lobbing an artillery shell onto a suspected terrorist hideout carries risk. The shell might miss or the explosion might hurt other people nearby. So we developed smart bombs and drones, which can be visually guided, but which still are prone to human error and collateral damage. The latest innovation is a backpack drone with a small explosive charge than can be launched and guided by a single soldier. If you think human rights activists welcome this innovation, guess again.

It's almost like many human rights advocates don't want effective weapons that can take out insurgents without harming others, and in many cases, not even permanently harming the insurgent himself. That stance makes sense if we assume the insurgents are automatically good guys. But what if we see a resurgence of right wing terrorism on a large scale, either in the U.S. or in Europe?

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Created 11 March 2013;  Last Update 24 May, 2020

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