Small Wars Journal

Ten Years Gone

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 9:45am

Ten Years Gone

by Stanton S. Coerr

Download the Full Article: Ten Years Gone

In Afghanistan, there is no road for the American war...there is only the path we make by moving forward. We have, however, moved down a path like this once before. President Barack Obama is proceeding in Afghanistan in 2011 by pushing down the same national strategic path John F. Kennedy took fifty years earlier when he began main force intervention into Vietnam, and we are headed for the same failures. In providing neither coherent overall foreign policy nor a crisp and specific national strategic endstate for the campaign in Afghanistan Obama, like Kennedy before him, leaves foreign policy to military officers on the ground to invent as they go.

As in Vietnam, the war in Afghanistan was lost before it was begun: it is lost because it cannot be won. Again our massive and superior military force is losing a campaign to a tough insurgent force. Again we are spending tens of billions overseas, and collapsing under our own weight in the field. Again our strength is being used against us. And again, by providing military answers to political questions, we are in quicksand in the developing world.

Download the Full Article: Ten Years Gone

Stan Coerr is a veteran of ground combat in Iraq, and he is a former commanding officer. He is now in the civil service, and lives with his wife and three sons in Mclean, Virginia.


About the Author(s)

Stan Coerr is a Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and works in the federal civil service.   He holds degrees from Duke, Harvard and the Naval War College, has been a fellow at MIT and Stanford, and was recently accepted to begin work on a doctorate at Oxford.  He is finishing a book on his time in Iraq, and his next book will be on the life and work of Dr. Bernard Fall.  Stan lives with his wife and three sons in Mclean, Virginia.  


Bill C. (not verified)

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 12:48pm

The long-term national security objectives of the United States endure.

These are: To transform and incorporate outlier states and societies, such that these might cause the people of the modern world fewer problems, and so that these states and societies might become, instead, more useful to the people, businesses/enterprises and states of the modern world.

This would seem to be our goals re: N. Korea, Iran, Libya, etc., etc., etc.

What has changed?

The move to try to achieve these objectives via "smart" power" ("the strategic use of diplomacy, persuasion, capacity building, and the projection of power and influence in ways that are cost effective and have political and social legitimacy").

Was a somewhat similar "smart power" move made after Vietnam?

Larry Dunbar

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 5:30pm

We entered the war in Iraq over an ever-changing reason depending on which news maker was being quoted at the time, so winning, which I mean in reaching ones objectives, was murky, to say the least. However, in Afghanistan, while our strategy was constantly changing to match the environment,our objectives seemed to remain the same. Those were one, get Osama and two take down the network that supported a force able to vertically attack the USA and their allies.The horizontal force wasn't there then, nor now. So what's not to win?

I will agree with the first argument that the author makes - namely that there is a serious disconnect between our national security goals in Afghanistan, and what were actually doing there. However, I disagree fully on the idea that Afghanistan was "lost" before it even started. I also disagree with his arguments about the enemy lacking a "center of gravity" - just because its not a formation we can drop ordnance on does not mean it doesn't exist.


Backwards Observer

Tue, 06/28/2011 - 5:34pm

Hi Carl, if to say, "there was no way to win", is just a way "to make ourselves feel better for having failed"; than to say "we could have won" is a way to...(show what)? If the question is still unclear, don't worry about it, it's probably not important.

carl (not verified)

Tue, 06/28/2011 - 5:22pm

Backwards Observer:

I don't quite understand your question.

Backwards Observer

Tue, 06/28/2011 - 12:20pm

<em>To say there was no way to win so nothing we did mattered is just way to make ourselves feel better for having failed.</em>

Carl, trying to understand your point; saying, "We could have won", proves what?

carl (not verified)

Tue, 06/28/2011 - 12:10pm


I think the Trail could have been cut with ground forces. The top end of SVN was cut effectively. The North would not have bothered with the Trail otherwise. So I think it would have been possible to extend it. If the military rejected that they were rejecting any possibility of keeping the North from taking the south. Why would you have had only a static line of forts? Wouldn't people have been allowed to sortie from the bases? To say it could only have been a static line of forts is to limit the argument so much that there is no argument. It could have been done. We didn't do it.

You said the North would have withdrawn for 5 years and then would have resumed. That 5 year period would have given the South that much more time to develop. That would have made a difference of some kind. 5 years is a long time.

Why divisions sized raids into the North? Mining Haiphong completely shut down the harbor. Why the wreck the port? It seems to me if the harbors were shut, easily done, and the railroads bridges dropped and kept dropped, not so easily done but possible, there isn't any need for much else to be done in the North.

The North was totalitarian. What the South was or was not was immaterial to what the North was. They were a draconian police state and their actions killed millions and wrecked the lives of more millions. That the leaders didn't have Swiss bank accounts or vacation hideaways on the Riviera doesn't make all the people who died on the altar of their ambitions less dead.

This sentence confuses me. "Under the operating restrictions placed on the US military, we used firepower to win battles. Giap generally did not take the bait." Does that mean that all the battles they engaged in with the expectation that they would win them, they didn't engage in? I don't get it.

These inevitability of NVA victory ideas always seem to me to be an effort to assuage conscience. We could have won. We didn't because of the things we, we didn't or did do. To say there was no way to win so nothing we did mattered is just way to make ourselves feel better for having failed.

CBCalif (not verified)

Tue, 06/28/2011 - 6:29am


If you are searching for a scenario that would have stopped North Vietnamese military interference in South Vietnam, on the presumption that the US was led by a President and Secretary of Defense that both had the will to win, would give the military that goal and would have allowed the military to use the necessary force absent nuclear weapons, constructing that scenario would not be difficult. The US military of the 1960's (conventionally) was far larger and accordingly more powerful than that of today.

Success would have come through offensive operations against the North, not to occupy the area, but to literally destroy it through an air campaign directed at meaningful targets, the destruction of their port at Haiphong, a Naval blockade, the destruction of their rail lines from China, etc. etc. and large scale one or two division size Sherman style raids leaving paths of destruction in the North. Giap and Ho Chi Minh were smart, and would not have invited the Chinese into their country knowing that getting them out would have been very difficult and there is and was no love between those two peoples, and they would have lost credibility having to rely on a foreign power. Instead, the North Vietnamese would have opted for withdrawal and waited until the US eventually left, then in about five years resumed the war. They are incredibly patient people.

We certainly would not have attempted to build a 100 mile or two hundred mile line of forts or emplacements across the jungle areas and mountains of Laos. A line on a map is one thing, reality is something else. You are not the first to suggest establishing a line of some sort across some area of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam Conflict. The military rejected that effort as impractical and impossible to maintain, staff, etc. The line across Laos would have been a series of easily flanked or by passed forts and the occupying troops easy targets. Defensive fortified areas in that environment would have produced easy targets for the NVA and merely overrunning any number of them or causing casualties would have continued to lower American morale at home. Defensive warfare in that area would have been a disaster.

If North Vietnam was totalitarian, what would you call the South Vietnamese dictators who ruled that country? Perhaps thieving and / or inept dictators? Like or dislike the North Vietnamese leaders, they at least struggled to free their country from European rule, not to line their pockets.

The 1954 Geneva Accords, split "Vietnam" temporarily into two parts. The Viet Minh, who soundly defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu and at many other places left the South only upon believing the Geneva Accords provided for a general election to be held in mid-1956 on the question of unification. Absent that under-standing the Viet Minh would have continued to defeat the French Army and overrun the whole country.

Political reality is what it is, and the North Vietnamese properly read the weaknesses of the LBJ / McNamara team and saw the operational restrictions they were placing on US forces, realized the NVA could not match our firepower, and thus came up with a strategy based on a war of attrition--which the NVA eventually won, albeit against the South Vietnamese Army.

Grant used maneuver in the Civil War's Western Theater and used mostly attrition against Lee in that war's Eastern Theater. Both generals knew the South would loose a war of attrition. See Lee's letter of January 10, 1863 to Confederate Secretary of War Seddon predicting that result for the South.

Under the operating restrictions placed on the US military, we used firepower to win battles. Giap generally did not take the bait. He used a war of attrition directed at minds of the American population. The NVA certainly lost the set piece battles in which they decided to participate, but always politically benefited from those losses.

Post-Tet US support for the war dropped into the 20th percentile range. Shortly afterwards the NVA was beaten badly on the battlefield at Khe Sahn, but amazed the American people that they could so soon after Tet send an army into the South.

Lee tactically won at the Seven Days Battles, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and later at Chancellorsville, but as he noted to Seddon, his tactical victories were not only providing no strategic gain to the South, replacing his battlefield losses were so rapidly draining the South's military age manpower reserves, that pool would soon run dry spelling the doom of the Confederacy. The Northern military was suffering numerically greater losses, but knew what impact the manpower losses were having on the South's future ability to conduct war. The Union military was more than willing to trade the lives of its soldiers to drain the South's manpower pool. The North had the resources to replace their losses far into their future.

During his Overland Campaign Grant was tactically defeated by Lee at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and at Cold Harbor loosing 60,000 men to Lee's 25,000 or so, but ended up in the superior strategic position that brought Lee to battle along competing trench lines that ensured Southern defeat. Grant and Giap, both great generals who used tactical defeats to further achievement of their strategic goals.

That is war. A smart general uses the resources they have available and does not proceed on the enemy's terms. Soldiers are assets to be expended when necessary, whether the country is a democracy or totalitarian. Absent a Pyrrhic victory, achieving a nation's strategic goal is the only thing that counts.

Giap and company looked good in real time, not just in retrospect. It was obvious to those of us fighting the North what was his strategy, just not obvious to the two fools, LBJ / McNamara, leading this country and dictating, i.e fatally limiting, the military strategy we could use.

carl (not verified)

Mon, 06/27/2011 - 10:17pm


You said the measure of military brilliance is strategic success regardless. I think that incorrect. If it were so, Douglas Haig and all the others on the Allied side in WWI would be judged brilliant. They are not.

I would note also that the Viet Minh had a lot of help of all kinds, including strategic direction from the Chinese.

And what you call brilliance of Giap and company when fighting us is more a matter of the only course available to a totalitarian police state that was determined to win despite the cost in lives and suffering. Spending lives in order to frustrate the Americans into quitting was the only option they had. It did not stop them from thinking they had others. TET was commenced in the expectation that it would cause a popular uprising in the South. It didn't. Easter '72 was not launched in the expectation that they would kill more Americans and hasten our departure. There were very few Americans on the ground and we were already on the way out. Those two efforts were battlefield efforts aimed at battlefield results, and they failed big time. Giap looks good in retrospect because he kept trying and keep on keeping on was the only thing he could really do and he was able to do that only because he had 3 totalitarian police states backing him up.

Occupation of the southern part of Laos would have cut the trail. Jungle infiltration could not have provided logistical supply required by the big NVA units that eventually conquered the South. The NVA were persistent but I believe that extending the Trail west into through Thailand which would have involved crossing the Mekong twice and invading a populous country with a long history of independence and a relatively strong gov and very different ethnic makeup, was beyond even the "genius" of Giap and the capabilities of those 10 foot tall 5'3" NVA guys.

I believe our operations in the Philippines against the Indians were rather more than the slaughter them all bit you seem to think it was. At least in the books I've read it was.

CBCalif (not verified)

Mon, 06/27/2011 - 8:39pm

Charles Faddis:

America's strategic goal in Afghanistan, or in any COIN effort precludes by the nature of those type operations having a definitive victory. As Bill C succinctly noted above:

"The US strategic goal in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the less-integrated world was: To transform and incorporate outlier states and societies, such that they might cause the modern world fewer problems and, instead, offer the modern world more utility/use- fulness."

"Thus, the US strategic goal in Afghanistan and elsewhere was not, per se, to simply drive out Al Qaeda[, r]ather, as stated above, our strategic goal was to address the conditions we believed had caused Al Qaeda to come into being (the outdated and inadequate political, economic and social order[s] of the less-integrated world)."

How does a country absorbed by that type of military effort, now called counter insurgency or COIN, define what constitutes victory?

Thus you hear COIN supporters, be they military or civilian, avoid the subject of victory and address as you noted numbers of incidents, surge numbers, deaths by violence for comparable periods, number of attacks, etc and claim that a decrease in violence measurement equals progress. As a result, their only end goal target, an ever moving forward one, is when can US forces be withdrawn from the effort, and of course they redefine that target. They will withdraw combat troops, then later support troops, later trainers, and so on in an effort to keep a long term presence because they know that the governments we are supporting will collapse once US forces are withdrawn, else they claim it is a minimum ten year "COIN" effort pushing the target withdrawal date far down the road, probably into eternity.

Simply put, there is no definable victory in a COIN operation and its costs to the carrying out nation (normally the US) is prohibitive. This tactical method of war should be shelved--permanently. The US political and military leadership, as someone else has noted, is allowing this country to be drug into the never ending costly wars envisioned by the rather small numbered Al Qeada. Who is strategically smarter?

All day long I listen to pundits talking about the Afghan war. I hear them talk about numbers, surges, costs and timelines. What I never hear anyone talk about is victory, as in, how we define it, what it is, what it is that we have been fighting and dying all of this time for. How is that possible? How can you commit a nation to ten years of combat and never formulate a clear vision of your objective?

CBCalif (not verified)

Fri, 06/24/2011 - 12:56pm

Move Forward:

Your suggestion is a proposed strategic level solution and, at least in my opinion, has merit and would be cost effective.

After all, by a strategic association at a minimal cost level with the Northern alliance we were able to tactically leverage the employment of small numbers of US Special Forces and con- current use of B-52's and other combat aircraft to intervene in the Pashtun areas and drive out Al Qeada and their supporting Taliban from those locals.

Let the Pakistanis have a Pashtun buffer state. So long as we have a potential base of operations in a low cost supported Northern Alliance area from which to intervene if needed, i.e. should Al Qeada return. The so entitled Northern Alliance would only need minimal arms to defeat any potential Pashtun / Taliban attempted move (invasion) into their area.

The recent taking out of Bin Laden and other terrorists using a light footprint also validates the strategic approach advocated by former Marine Commandant General C. Krulak and by many other officers and experienced Non- Coms (despite LTC Yingling's criticism). It would be further enabled by this strategic approach. If necessary, it could be supplemented, on a short term basis by employment of Special Forces and combat Aircraft as before.

Bill C. (not verified)

Fri, 06/24/2011 - 12:40pm

CB Calif said:

"He is aptly questioning whether America's military path in Afghanistan serves the nation's strategic goals."

The US strategic goal in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the less-integrated world was: To transform and incorporate outlier states and societies, such that they might cause the modern world fewer problems and, instead, offer the modern world more utility/usefulness.

Herein, it was believed that the outdated political, economic and social structures of these outlier states and societies (1) no longer served the needs and interests of these subject population groups themselves nor (2) that of the modern world, thus, becoming the "root cause" of many/most of today's problems.

It is with this understanding that the idea of "nation-building" can in. It (nation-building) was thought to be the proper solution needed to address the deficiencies noted above (outdated political, economic and social structures).

Herein, the concept was to use the opportunity -- the opening -- presented by conflicts (such as insurgencies), natural disasters, humanitarian crises and/or other state and societal difficulties to step in and correct these difficiencies (via nation-building, etc.).

The military, it was believed (with its doctrine properly modified), would be useful in achieving these objectives.

Thus, the US strategic goal in Afghanistan and elsewhere was not, per se, to simply drive out Al Qaeda.

Rather, as stated above, our strategic goal was to address the conditions we believed had caused Al Qaeda to come into being (the outdated and inadequate political, economic and social order[s] of the less-integrated world).

Miscalculations re: this concept? Too many to list. However, maybe the most important: That this procedure/process -- of transforming and incorporating outlier states and societies -- would not cost the United States et al, more time, more lives, more treasure and more political support/capital, etc., than it was willing to pay.

CBCalif, last night I heard Secretary Clinton testify that the problem is trying to get civilians to go to Afghanistan and venture out of Kabul for "nation-building." Who can blame them when early on the security was getting progressively worse or was nonexistent in many areas due to inadequate boots on the ground.

She also answered a Senator's question regarding the Pakistanis not minding if we left Afghanistan now. She responded with the realities of Pakistan desiring "strategic depth" and distrusting Indian influence in Northern Alliance areas. They want an Afghanistan friendly to them which means a Pashtun-dominated one.

So wouldn't a solution to underlying causes be a buffer state called Pashtunistan. It would be friendly to Pakistan if it was negotiated to have no Indian influence. Is that realistic? Don't know and she did not suggest it but did mention that Karzai's second term is up in 2015, he can't run again, and who knows what could happen then.

If we ultimately must choose sides, even if its just as a background contingency, the "Northern Alliance" and Indian influences appear far more receptive to the west, far less likely to foster terror, more resistant to Chinese influences, and much friendlier to the U.S. and Europe.

CBCalif (not verified)

Fri, 06/24/2011 - 7:45am

Lost in the discussions, however interesting are their content, is the fact that the author of the article is not raising the issue of operational strategy or tactics. He is aptly questioning whether America's military path in Afghanistan serves the nation's strategic goals. As he comments: by providing military answers to political questions, we are [once again] in quicksand in the developing world.

In other words, if the US strategic goal in Afghanistan is to drive out Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and to deprive them of that area, or any area, why is the US military committed to the costly, time consuming, and manpower intensive nation building efforts--which the author believes will fail.

The responses to that strategic question unfortunately concentrate on whether or not military efforts to nation build using COIN operations or tactics (as you wish) will fail, not on the more important strategic question as to whether that military (operational) approach is the best and most efficient response to the US strategic goals in that area of the world.

The discussion should be whether COIN is the best military approach to securing the Nation's strategic goals in Afghanistan, Iraq, or in the so-called (ever extending) [Mahan (?) entitled] Middle East--especially if our strategic interests in that area are only two: securing the free flow of oil to the industrialized nations of the world and driving Al Qeada from any base of operations it establishes in any area in that part of the world, of from anywhere it established a base.

From a 2009 response to another discussion by an Army Major unknown to myself, but one excellently stated:

"I am one of those majors sitting out at Leavenworth with time on my hands to think about this very question. We have, in fact, discussed this both formally and informally in class these past few months because many of us would disagree with Mr. Ricks that the fascination with COIN is not cause for concern in the Army. COIN is about tactics, not strategy. As a troop commander in Iraq in the first year of our involvement I saw COIN as a very simple concept: These peoples lives suck and its my responsibility to make it better. We were out among the people as much as we could be and attempted to execute many of the COIN principles that were later encapsulated in FM 3-24. The problem from my foxhole was that our tactics were not nested within a comprehensive strategy."

The necessity of our military using COIN tactics in Afghanistan is a strategic question, not an operation one. Is there a quicker less costly way for the US to achieve its strategic goals in Afghanistan instead of relying the time consuming and very costly COIN / Nation Building military approach, and is what is that military approach?

Backwards Observer

Fri, 06/24/2011 - 2:32am

<em>I was in country when there was less than 25000 US at the beginning and at the cease fire. [...} The overall military strategy did translate to something I could understand at my level. It seemed to work.</em>

Mr. Holaday, thanks for your reply. What you say makes sense. You must have seen some crazy-ass shit. Thanks again.

I'm surprised nobody has called me on it, but I made a couple of major errors in my numbers...but at least numbers illustrate trends better than historical analogies that aren't.

First, Afghanistan is slightly smaller population-wise versus Iraq: about 29 million vs. 31 million. The point remains that given Afghanistan's geography, to cover the similar population would require <b>at least</b> similar troop levels. That never happened until 9 years into the war.

Second, Ms. Belasco penned her CRS study in July 2009 (and no doubt many months before its publication). Thus it did not include President Obama's troop surge when she included the 64,500 estimates for FY 2010 and 2011 etc. So the higher than published troop levels for the current timeframe are closer to the 100,000 figure.

That of course, makes the low casualty rates even more amazing. Were it not for IEDs they would probably be about half as large. Therefore, all the predictions of doom and gloom are somewhat baseless in the context of a nuclear device going off in NYC. So are we willing to give up our war on terror over money alone. An analysis of GDP would show that Vietnam cost far more.

So a salient point is that were it not for internet blogs and opinions, think tanks, political parties and pundits, 24 hour news, and instant gratification in the if-it-bleeds-it-leads category...why would anyone be viewing Afghanistan as a failure when it only now received the attention deserved and freely offered in oil-rich Iraq.

I'm sure Jane Fonda and a young Senator Kerry thought they were right at the time as well. I'm not accusing anyone of being Hanoi Jane, but troops are serving and know they will serve in Afghanistan through 2014 and beyond. Shouldn't we thank and attempt to assist those selfless servicemembers rather than denegrating their efforts as pointless and unworthy?

It's painfully obvious from reading the thoughts of experienced Vietnam vets that they still resent the way their service was characterized. Historians and statesman practice 20-20 hindsight when very few of them were there...or in Afghanistan. I wasn't there. But see no point in constantly harping on how hopeless Vietnam was then or Afghanistan is now.

No Abe Lincoln statesmanship applies here. Heck, if we use Robert Jones' oft-cited measure of worth for diplomacy instead of intervention, the civil war would never have fought. After all, underlying insurgency sources were not addressed by the Civil War. Sherman's march to the sea failed to end segregation and prejudice even if it did end slavery and the insurgency. So should we use Bob's measure that the Civil War was unworthy because results were not realized for another century?

In any event, those were different times, as were all wars prior to news at 11 when collateral damage was frequent and unexploited. Does anyone seriously believe in a world with a billion muslims and CNN, a slash and burn campaign through Pashtun lands would be more effective than the bad will incurred?

And for those who hate nation-building, if we were just sitting in Afghanistan for the past decade WITHOUT trying to help, wouldn't that more closely have resembled an occupation? Just imagine if we had put 100,000 troops there in 2002 to include the build efforts. We might have been gone five years ago.

In a world where MAD still rules, only extremists would willingly break that rule. 9/11 is only a precursor of what will be next when rogue nations spread their WMD wares to those who don't care about the retaliation as long as it wipes Israel or a U.S./European city off the map.

Richard Holaday (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 8:59pm

Backwards Observer. General Westmoreland's strategy was one of attrition with search and destroy operations. Fighting in the urban areas was not planned for but drawing the enemy into a fight was one of the objectives. Giap decided to engage the major population centers. His choice, not ours. However, with Search and Destroy you engage where you find him. Then, you pile on. I can't describe the Cho Lon area operations, I was not there until June and then moved on farther south into the Delta. I did have a feel for the area. I served on two A Teams from Okinawa, was a company commander, a battalion S3, and at the cease fire a District Senior adviser. I was never in a major headquarters, have no great depth of knowledge, and never kept a diary. I was in country when there was less than 25000 US at the beginning and at the cease fire. The overall military strategy did translate to something I could understand at my level. It seemed to work.

CBCalif (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 7:39pm


Giap and Ho Chi Minh (while alive) were a strategically successful team while the French, the Americans, and the South Vietnamese national leadership which fought against them strategically failed. The essence of military brilliance is strategic success, especially when it is achieved against a much stronger opponent. Neither battlefield victories nor costs in manpower or losses in equipment enter into that calculation.

Giap conceived a strategy against Americas military effort to secure the independence of South Vietnam based on a willingness to sacrifice his Army's manpower, of which he had more than enough, in an effort aimed at wearing out American home front patience with the war. As he noted, the US would run out of patience for continuing the war long before he ran out of manpower. Manpower is simply an asset and is there to be used in war. Giap understood that and he used (sacrificed) his soldiers in a way unique to this country.

His strategic objective was to cause enough US casualties, however less in number than that suffered by his forces, over a long enough period to wear down the will of America's civilian population to continue the war and continue sacrificing its sons in defense of a foreign country. A foreign country Americans perceived (right or wrong) where the locals were not willing to fight for themselves, leading the families which were providing the draftees who fought much of that war and suffered most of its casualties to demand an end to their losses. Understanding that fact about the American psyche, manipulating it thanks to the America press, and making it his strategic objective and focusing on it is what made Giap a brilliant military commander.

Westerners wrongly evaluate success or failure in war based on battles (fights) won or lost, who holds the ground after the battle ends, and who suffered the greater losses. Orientals, be they the North Vietnamese, Afghans, or others do not view warfare in that manner. They are willing to harass or fight and loose battles simply to cause their opponent to sustain casualties and other losses. They will often retreat from the battle instead of being overwhelmed. Their focus is the long run--five or ten years down the road is fine with them. That is not true for the West.

The Viet Minh (North Vietnamese if one wishes) began their struggle with the French in the 1930's or before and it took them 24+ years to defeat the French. Their struggle with the South effectively began shortly after that and took 21 =/- years. That is not a western mindset in the 20th / 21st centuries. Absent going to full scale war in Afghanistan, and our government will not do so, the enemy will just out wait us.

Winning or losing battles was not Giap's strategic objective--impacting the American home front will to fight was his focus. He had a strategic vision that brought success. He realized that the American home front was the Clausewitz[ian] Center of Gravity in his war. Even if he occasionally tried and failed to win set piece battles it mattered not. His strategic objectives were not negatively impacted by those losses. Giaps objective was to win the war. He only had to win the last battle, and his forces did just that.

Even though the NVA was tactically defeated at Khe Sahn, during Tet, in Hue post-Tet, etc., those tactical defeats combined into a strategic success for Giap and Co. The impact of those combined battles was devastating on American home front morale. Causing that result is strategic brilliance. We won those battles hands down, slaughtered thousands of the enemy, broke the back of the VC, taught the NVA the tactical value of American air power, etc, but they won strategically and brought America to its knees.

We [were required] by the Johnson / McNamara strategic vision (loosely put) to focus on the battlefield, Giap focused on American political will. A general who knows how to loose battles and win wars against the fire power of a super power is a superb military commander. His strategy totally nullified the strengths of the US military.

I know we all believe, and in fact, that situation only occurred due to the operational restrictions placed on the application of American military power by the less than capable LBJ / McNamara team, but that was a fact of the war and one cleverly manipulated by the enemy. General Westmoreland's military strategy for handling the ground war was nothing short of a strategic disaster and his promotion to Chief of Staff of the Army was a disgrace. Creighton Abrams, the Armor General, on the other hand implemented a military strategy that was an unrecognized success. but he was placed in command far to late in the game. The behavior of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under LBJ / McNamara was despicable. They allowed themselves to be bullied by Johnson and should have resigned in mass. They had more than enough time in for a comfortable retirement. The only General I "recall" with the courage to face down Westmoreland and LBJ was Marine General Krulak, even though it cost him becoming the Commandant of the Marine Corps. His son, General Charles Krulak, former Commandant of the Marine Corps is reortedly an opponent of the COIN strategy being used in Afghanistan as are many current and former officers and NCO's.

Lt. Col. Harry Summers, with Vietnam experience, and an instructor at the Army War College, wrote of a post-war conversation with an NVA Colonel. Summers commented to the Col. that the NVA had never defeated the US Military in any battle. The NVA Col. noted his agreement, but then added, that is irrelevant. They succeeded. That is strategic under- tanding as Summers acknowledged.

As a side note, having had first hand, real time, knowledge of what was moving down the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail and of the geographical area in which it was located, let me note that you are radically underestimating how difficult it would have been to stop that flow of traffic given the width and thickness of the jungle and the unending number of exits (in turnpike or interstate parlance) into South Vietnam. The transportation methods and volumes the NVA was moving through the jungle would put the American teamsters to shame. They were willing to sacrifice and adopt over an incredibly large jungle area. Also, I spent a little time visiting the Thai Army. Regardless of their will, they could not have stopped the NVA if for some reason the North Vietnamese wished to enter into that area anymore than could the Cambodians.

Logistics flow in that jungle environment could only have been stopped at its source such as by destroying Haiphong Harbor, destroying the rail lines and traffic from China, etc. But, the LBJ / McNamara team would not allow it. Of course, they had no problem with us taking pictures of the traffic--of which I kept many as souvenirs to remind me of their idiotic leadership at its height, from which it never dropped.

There are only two ways to defeat so-called insurgents. The first is to do as the US did to the Indian populations or in the Philippines or to do what the ROK troops did in their area of South Vietnam. Slaughter the local population if they appear to support the insurgents or in retaliation if one has any fire fight with insurgents in the area, or if they don't cooperate. It worked for the ROKs. I had a number of fascinating (so to speak) conversations with US Army Officers who were liaison to the ROKs and who accompanied them on their operations. They had great respect for their discipline, fighting spirit, leadership, etc. With effectiveness, they put Lt. Calley to shame. But, how many American military men do you think would have the heart to kill or order killed kids and women. Not many I know and I certainly couldn't stomach doing that. Many Orientals have a different view of life then we do.

The second alternative is to develop the leadership and military in the country we are supporting, however, as the Army notes in its Counter Insurgency doctrine that requires an American investment for a very long time. Strategists, administrators, generals, majors, sergeants are not developed in a couple of years. It takes a decade or more while we do the fighting.

I suppose there is a total war solution where we would commit 500,000+ troops or emulate the Soviets who were destroying the Afghan resistance until the US brilliantly intervened with our stinger missiles. Of course, they applied the necessary brutality to the situation. I have had some interesting discussions with Russian veterans of their Afghan War.

However, none of the above are going to happen. We don't replace the inept political leaders of the side we are backing for starters. The result is not worth the cost when there are other military strategies that will obtain this country's true strategic goals. All we need is to deny Al Qeada a refuge from which they can function.
Expensive COIN operations, using the military for nation building, will return to the military trash heap after Iraq and Afghanistan just as did its conceptual predecessor after Vietnam. It is to costly and a distraction from the true objectives of the US military

Richard Holaday (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 7:24pm

Backwards Observer. General Westmoreland's strategy was one of attrition with search and destroy operations. Fighting in the urban areas was not planned for but drawing the enemy into a fight was one of the objectives. Giap decided to engage the major population centers. His choice, not ours. However, with Search and Destroy you engage where you find him. Then, you pile on. I can't describe the Cho Lon area operations, I was not there until June and then moved on farther south into the Delta. I did have a feel for the area. I served on two A Teams from Okinawa, was a company commander, a battalion S3, and at the cease fire a District Senior adviser. I was never in a major headquarters, have no great depth of knowledge, and never kept a diary. I was in country when there was less than 25000 US at the beginning and at the cease fire. The overall military strategy did translate to something I could understand at my level. It seemed to work.

Backwards Observer

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 2:50pm

RIchard Holaday wrote:

<em>During Vietnam TET of 68, the enemy was drawn into a fight and lost. They faced Westmoreland's strategy of attrition. Weyand gave the early warning and Ewell (in Saigon area)gave the body count.</em>

I don't know if I'm reading this correctly, but are you saying the fighting in urban areas was planned for by the US? Can you describe anything about operations in Cholon during Tet 68? Thanks for your time.

John (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 1:36pm

Any war is winnable. But you have got to determine what winning means. This we could do Does it mean the Taliban are crushed and so scared of us they are no longer an insurgent force, or is it a stable government, with an Army to protect them and services etc. That is an unatainable goal unless we go to total war with them and then build from the ashes. If you look at history, the Mujahdeen were broken by the spring of 1986, right before we gave them the Stinger. They were sitting in Pakistan with what was a broken rabble and not alot of that. It wasn't til we came along to fund them that they could make any progress.

RIchard Holaday (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 12:55pm

During Vietnam TET of 68, the enemy was drawn into a fight and lost. They faced Westmoreland's strategy of attrition. Weyand gave the early warning and Ewell (in Saigon area)gave the body count. After the 68/69 time frame the enemy, with its infrastructure unraveled, was incapable of significant military action until after our withdrawal and cut off of funds. Force on force works! Mission accomplished! Get over it! Learn from it!

The author's description of a "war lost before it began..Vietnamese people, primarily subsistence level..illiterate peasants...hand-to-mouth existence, does not fit with my experience. In 4 trips South, I saw very few hungry Vietnamese. There was an abundant food supply. Also, the Vietnamese took pride in the education of their children with a literacy rate above 80%. The comment of a war lost before it is won sets the attitude and I question objectivity.

You are going to have to give me a break with your description of the VC/NVA. They were slow learners. If you wanted to get body count go to the Trail. At the local level their movements were predictable. We had them in check at every move. By 1970 93% of villagers lived in relative security. Contrary to what you may have read the enemy did not control the night or the country side.

It was my experience that the South Vietnamese considered the North to be inferior, educationally and culturally. There were also language variations and Northerners could be identified easily. There was little desire to unite with the North.

I liked the Vietnamese and thought they were good fighters. You may characterize Vietnam as a national failure. I don't believe it to be an Army failure and won't let that go unchallenged.

Bill C. (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 11:55am

To me, the most amazing distinction between the war in Vietnam and the present war in Afghanistan is (1) in the case of Vietnam: the availability of significant, important and enduring great power support and (2) in the case of Afghanistan: the lack of such extensive, capable and compelling assets.

Or should we consider that the support provided by various elements of the Islamic World, in the case of Afghanistan, equate to support from a "great power?"

Bob's World

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 10:44am

These are not problems that have mathmatical solutions; nor are these problems that are either solved or unresolved per se if "won" or "lost."

We "lost" in Vietnam and that nation enjoys stability. We "won" in the Philippines and that nation knows nothing but instability. BL, successfully forcing our will onto others is not always the best result for the people in question. The goal must not be a win or loss for the intervening power, but rather the establishment of sustainable conditions. The conditions in Iraq on the surface appear sustainable, but they have a long ways to go and the powerful internal and external forces that tug at that nation will always be there. The conditions in Afghanistan are impossibly unsustainable as shaped and defined by their constitution and current government.

I believe a man much wiser than myself assessed such conditions in a much more articulate way.

"A house divided upon itself, cannot stand."

Put in a bit of context (though I recommend reading the entire thing

"We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.

Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented.

In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other."


John (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 10:07am

Vietnam was winnable, but not under the conditions the US military was forced to fight. We are going to have to use total war if we are going to break the back of the insurgency. It will not be pleasent, it will not be fun, but it will have to be done. We cannot afford to have an ally (Pakistan) who cannot or will not go after the bad guys on their side of the line. We have to go after them all the time everytime, anywhere they are. You are going to have to treat the insurgency like you do a cancer. You don't negotiate with cancer, you don't try to "see it from the cancers prosective". What you do with cancer is you kill it. You cut it out with a knife, you roast it with radation (No I don't think nukes are called for) and you poison it with chemo (or chem warefare either) In short you don't stop until you kill it or it kills you. It is that simple.

John (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 9:52am

Afghanistan and Iraq are both winnable. But they will not be one for the following reasons.
1. Military commanders are risk averse
2. The US military thinks in terms of BDE instead of Squads.
3. In most cases commanders are afraid of any element smallar than a platoon. I have heard that in some units if they were short a platoon leader, they would either bring in one from another platoon or the XO, or the unit wouldn't go.
4. We should be able to switch between conventional ops and irregular ops. But the US military loves the conventional (it just wouldn't do for a rifle squad to role up a company and embarass the officers. (we only do unconventional when forced to
5. We need to have more light infantry and we need to do the following: Use of Airborne operations, more air assaults, and good old plain walking it in. We don't do these because CDRs are afraid. Move ALL light infantry DIV into SOCOM.
6. Stop over loading troops. Why are they wearing a MONT uniform all the time? Armor is great, but it is a tool and should be selected as such and used when approprate.
7. Stop thinking the answer to the Taliban and Al Qeada is to "cut of the head". The organization is a hydra, you are going to have to tackle each and every part.

Until we get back to doing what we ourselves and other winning units and countrys do. We will continue end the same way we are.

Well written, but it conceptually errs in comparing Kennedy at the beginning of the war to Obama near the end. Also the flowery prose and historical facts ignore more relevant comparisons of how underresourced Afghanistan has been up until recently.

American advisors in Vietnam totaled about 2,000 in 1961 climbing to 16,500 in 1964. It was not until March 8, 1965 when 3,500 Marines went a shore augmenting 25,000 advisors that the Vietnam build-up truly began.

BTW, in 1964 with just 16,500 troops on the ground, a full 401 Americans died. Compare that to Afghanistan's highest death toll year in 2010 when an average of 63,400 American troops experienced a tragic 499 dead. The U.S. Afghan death toll to date is 1533 to 1633 heroes. Contrast that to Vietnam where from 1967-1969 alone, nearly 40,000 Americans perished.

In proportion to the number of boots on the ground, the Afghan death toll has been far less than that of Vietnam. Only 187 have died to date this year with an average of 63,435 boots on the ground. Compare that to 11,616 lost in Vietnam in 1969 when 553,000 servicemembers were in theater.

But the real comparison should be between troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Remember that Afghanistan has a larger population than Iraq. The Afghan population is far more dispersed and isolated by terrain versus largely urban Iraq along key rivers.

Below, find facts extracted from Table 2 of Amy Belasco's CRS study: "Troop Levels in the Afghan and Iraq Wars, FY 2001-FY 2012." These are average monthly U.S. troop levels:

Afghanistan 20,417..23,658..30,142...50,700...63,400...63,450

Do you doubt the Afghan effort was underforced in the early years? In 2002 only 5,200 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan climbing to 10,400 in 2003, 15,200 in 2004, and just 19,100 in 2005. Heck, in December 2008 there were more U.S. troops in Kuwait (43,585) than Afghanistan (38,427)!

Also, Vietnam involved attempts at reuniting people sharing a common ethnicity. Both the Soviets and Chinese provided assistance to the NVA. In Afghanistan, the Pashtuns at 42% would subjugate the remaining 58% of other Afghan ethnicities if the Taliban once more took control. The conflict between extremist and more enlightened Islam practiced by the contrasting ethnicities would not result in a united land. Terrorist bases would return and this time they might access loose nukes. Who would provide the airspace and targets? We can't target tanks in Libya let alone dismounts in Afghanistan.

When I forwarded this article, I received this comment back from one of my mentors that I thought was worth sharing:

"Reminds one of the concluding lines of Bernard Fall's 'Street Without Joy' that chronicles the French effort to reclaim its SEA colonies after WWII":

"Whether this was intended by the French or not, the Indochina war for a time bought freedom for about twenty-one million people out of thirty-eight million, and for about 223,000 square miles of land out of 285,000.

And this is as good an epitaph as any for the men who had to walk down the joyless and hopeless road that was the Indochina War until 1954; and for the Americans who now have to follow their footsteps."

Page 382

Street Without Joy

Fourth Edition, November 1965

carl (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 10:22pm


After the Mongols conquered the place came the Timurids and the Mughals. The place has done pretty good since then, helped by being on the edge of several powerful states. There were some conquests before the Mongols too but that was a long time ago.

TDBaker (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 9:55pm

As stark and poignant as his thesis and points are, Coerr makes a compelling summation of where the U.S. and its allies have been over the last 10 years as well as pointing out the likely outcome. The historical record of Afghanistan and the people who have inhabited the area had been dominated once by only one military force, the Mongols. Even the brutal, conquering methods of the Mongols did not hold up to time and the people that are still the Afghans. Not much can be said for a people, who even in contemporary times, have refused to advance their lot in history. Railroads and telegraphs did not develop in Afghanistan in the 19th and early 20th Century even as the Taliban bomb out cellular towers and road projects today.

I agree with Coerr's view of the lack of a strategic endstate defined for Afghanistan. About as close as our political leaders have come to a endstate was more of adopting a military endstate defined by our military leadership -- Afghanistan is not a safe haven for the training of international terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda. The fact that our political leadership could not co-opt such an endstate and define policy in terms of political and diplomatic terms could stand out as a lose for the U.S. and its allies.

Last, eventhough the U.S. efforts have put a global face on the Afghan conflict, the likely failure will stand out as a U.S. loss. A allied officer I worked with remarked to me once and I paraphrase, "the U.S. efforts at war make our efforts look like a cottage industry." Which in terms of Afghanistan, the failure would stand out as a U.S. failure.

carl (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 9:53pm


The sarcasm was not aimed at the enemy, it was aimed at the tone of the article in question, the plucky VC, the wily Pathan etc etc. I used to hear those things in the 60's and 70's and I'm hearing them again. The enemy are men with all strengths and weaknesses of men. Personally I can do without the pure of spirit and motivation nonsense.

All the way to the Gulf of Siam to block the Trail? I think not. All the way to the Mekong just below the 17th parallel (I think) is more like it. Thailand, for whom the Mekong comprises most of their western border, probably would have violently objected to the NVA coming over the border.

A Great Wall? Again I think not. You don't need one to stop truck convoys and groups of 500 marching south.

Giap was no dope but hardly brilliant. He shot his people to pieces in 68, 69 and 72. The NVA needed in addition to weapons and ammunition, money, fuel, trucks, training, radios, foreigners helping with AAA and missiles etc etc. They did provide the men and the police state to direct the men though.

My original criticism of the article was that the author says the ARVN didn't fight. The ARVN did fight. They were not able to develop proficient high commanders as you said so they didn't fight as well as they could have but they fought.

The Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other will probably be involved along with the Pashtuns in fighting it out among themselves.

I don't think you give credit to the Afghans when you say they will always be 7th folks. That is a very fashionable thing to say but I don't see why they can be as far seeing as anybody else. All they need is for a little peace to break out.

If Taliban & Co won I don't think they will be at all impressed at our threats to drop bombs on their heads. Without Northern Alliance troops to follow up the bombs what do they care? How are we going to find anything much to bomb? Are we going to ask the ISI?

You're right. We can't kill enough Taliban to win the thing, I will add if the Pak Army/ISI keeps giving them sanctuary.

I believe a blanket statement that the anti-Taliban Afghans is incorrect. A look at the casualties probably reflects that. They should fight more and better.

CBCalif (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 4:54pm

A particularly excellent paper--finally a concise strategic view of what faces the US in Afghanistan. As a young Navy Officer in the 1960's I twice deployed to the Vietnam Theater assigned to Operations Department positions, giving me a good view of operational activities. By our second tour, primarily conducting operations against the North with some units detached for Naval Gunfire Support and observing (unsuccessful) SAR efforts in NVA controlled parts of I Corps, it had become quite clear to most of the officer corps that not only was the US was not going to succeed in that conflict, despite absorbing continued bombing and some shelling, the North Vietnamese between 1966 and 1968 had become (militarily) much stronger.

It is the function of America's political leadership to delineate the strategic goals it expects its military efforts to achieve and those goals must be measurable with planned time frames, even if the time frames need to be modified. While the military may not like it, the political arm of our government also places operational restrictions on the conduct of military operations and did so for the Vietnam Conflict and is doing so similarly in Afghanistan.

Coupled with vague strategic goals; US reliance on a local ally whose fighting forces lack a national spirit and therefore will crumble post-US departure in the face of the dedicated national will of their opponent; and the US being allied with corrupt politicians the operational restrictions placed on the American military such as not being allowed to pursue one's enemy into their sanctuary or simply being allowed to destroy it carte blanche, failure is the only long term result.

From an operational perspective, America's military succeeds only when its armed forces define the battlefield in such a manner as to bring to bear our overwhelming fire power and the technology and logistics which enable its successful application. Our armed forces killing power is second to none.

Counter insurgency fails because it allows a weaker, under armed enemy to define the battlefield and is based on the US fighting to rifle to rifle with our military men acting as policemen should--being concerned for the safety of the local population and not the killing and destruction of our enemy. So called collateral damage is the cost of all successful wars and must be ignored. Counter insurgency rails against collateral damage, thus removing the ability of our armed forces from bringing to bear its firepower. Tactically, operationally this country cannot militarily succeed "long term" in that type of environment.

Strategic success is not what occurs in a skirmish or battle, it is what occurs after the fighting stops.

The only time this country has succeeded long term in what can be construed as a counter insurgency effort was the US Army's wars against the plains Indians. The US strategic goal was removal of the Indian Nations control of the Western Territories and the resettlement in that area of settlers who were the descendants of European immigrants or the immigrants themselves. General Philip Sheridan succeeded because he understood the military (operational) problem his forces were facing and in a different age acted accordingly.

As he noted, the Indians were then the finest light cavalry in the world and he was not going to send his mere five cavalry regiments chasing their raiding parties over a vast territory to no avail. He would fight the war on his terms, not that of the enemy. He defined his operational objectives as destroying the Indians villages, destroying their food supply on which their warriors and families subsisted, and killed their civilian populations. In essence, he destroyed their society so their warriors were not only fighting for nothing, the longer they fought the worse it would be for their families. And, of course, European settlers poured into the area in massive number further eliminating the Indian homelands. While some attempted retreating with their entire populations in tow and won some notable tactical victories along the way, their efforts were strategic failures and in the end they succumbed to Sheridan's military strategy.

While I am not advocating this be US policy in Afghanistan, no other counter insurgency doctrine can succeed in the face of a dedicated nationalistic (so-called) insurgency such as that led by Giap in Vietnam or the Taliban in Afghanistan. They can simply out wait their opponent while harassing them with continual attacks.

Most historians do not realize it, but there was one successful general who defeated the Afghans and left behind a foreign populated state in that area that lasted for several centuries until it self destructed--and that was Alexander the Great. His forces in tough fighting defeated the local Afghans then entitled Bactrians). Afterwards Alexander left behind numerous Greek and Macedonian populated settlements which lasted for centuries. However, they fought among themselves, and in true ancient Greek fashion destroyed one another.

American leaders who support the counter insurgency effort in Afghanistan claim we are killing the leaders at an amazing rate and they soon will be finished. Where have I heard that message before, i.e. body count? There are to many Pashtuns. In the immortal (paraphrased) words of Giap, the US will run out of patience before he (or the Taliban) runs out of soldiers.

All this, however, is as S. Coer's paper implies, operational and tactical. It however reflects the insurmountable problem the US is facing in Afghanistan due to the way our government is managing the problem. And, as with Vietnam, the US population is turning against the war at a growing rate.

John McCain'S recent comments define the thought problem with our leadership. He constantly states--ask Petraeus how the US should conduct war and what we should do. McCain has it wrong. National strategy and our strategic goals are not the province of the military. They are 100% in the domain of our political leadership.

Our strategic goal in Afghanistan should simply be (have been) to drive out Al Qeada and punish the Taliban for allowing them a base of operations in the area of Afghanistan they controlled. Then we should have left. The US could have left arms and equipment behind for the Northern Alliance states to enable them to continue surviving against the Pashtuns and then let the Taliban know that who controls Afghanistan is not in our national interest, but if they allow Al Qeada back our B-52's, other aircraft, and missiles will return and destroy again whatever State they have built and next time our response will be harsher then the last, and then wish them adieu.

By allowing our armed forces to fight rifle to rifle over an extended period of years in Iraq and Afghanistan we have allowed this country to look weak and strategically and militarily inept. Had we not done that we could have told the Pakistani's we will not tolerate Al Queada having a base of operations in their so-called North-Western Territories and will react violently against that presence should it occur. They would have seen what we did to Saddam Husein's military and to the Taliban and it would have been of concern to them and in fact was concerning to them. We could have told them we care not about their A-Bombs as they are not going to use them and we certainly can eradicate their nation in minutes, etc. They would have bent.

I don't agree (hindsight) with the invasion of Iraq, but having done it the US should have used it as an advertising tool of our military's ability and quickly turned the country over to Iraqi generals and a reconstituted army, and they would have been happy to take it and their soldiers would have returned. We would have then pulled out quickly.

Finally, McCain is wrong, it wasn't our previous withdrawal that enabled Al Qaeda to attack the US. First, we didn't withdraw, we were never involved in that country, but only provided weapons to their fighters against the Russians. Second, we should not have aided the Afghans as the Russians were well on their way to brutally crushing that population, and thus Al Qeada would not have had a base in that area. Thirdly, Al Qeada would have found a base somewhere from which to conduct its operations and if they Russians were in control of Afghanistan it might have forced Al Qeada to operate from a geographically more assessable location.

Regardless. the paper by S Coerr aptly states the problem and addresses the issue at the proper level. It should be read and digested by our Nation's political leaders, the NSC members, and the military brass.

Bob's World

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 4:00pm


Always good to remember that the Taliban are also "the Afghan People." Ten years of resisting the best we can throw at them and they show little signs of giving up anytime soon. Plenty of will there, right? It may just be that the course we have selected for this country is not model that the people want. Or at least a significant segment of the populace does not believe so; and as you point out, those who profit most from the new system either are happy to have the coalition provide the security to sustain it, or believe that the insurgency is solely the fault of the coalition for how it goes about providing that security.

Reminds me of an effort to convert a vast swath of the Amazon from native rain forests to fast growing pine plantations. Even if the new species manages to take root, the the old ecosystem is destroyed in the process. Sometimes it is best to leave nature as much as possible alone, and learn to work with what exists, rather than destroying what existed in order to form something new of your choosing.

Human ecosystems are not much different in many ways.

Gerald (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 3:25pm

If the Afghan people don` t have the will to take charge of their nation`s future, then we could chase the Talibs for a century to no effect. We did our part, the rest as always is up to them.

Cason Heard (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 12:25pm

Not winnable? Not militarily, no. The difference between OIF and OEF is that in Iraq a representative government, recognized by the people, has taken the lead. The government resonates at the local level.

In Afghanistan you have the same situation as in the early days of OIF; a transitional government put in place to write a constitution and form a government while the US provides for security while, in theory here, training their replacements. Our exit plan is a competent government and indigenous security force.

It isn't happening and the current Afghani leadership is the problem. Classic COIN; the locals are the center of gravity and if there isn't a strong movement of self-determination then we are indeed bleeding assets on a lost cause.

carl (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 5:57pm

So the war in Vietnam and the war in Afghanistan are lost before they are begun because they can't be won. I realize insurgents are 10 feet tall and getting bigger with each retelling of the story but let us say the Trail was cut and kept cut and we forced the Pak Army/ISI to stop giving sanctuary and support to Taliban & Co; if those things had happened and were to happen, would the wars be unwinnable? Tell me.

CBCalif (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 7:41pm


First, sarcastically referring to insurgents as being 10 feet tall is probably not apt for two reasons. One, its dangerous to under- estimate the ability of one's enemy or under appreciate their will to fight and die for their land and; second, the paper and often the commentary about the subject is from those who not only have actually fought against, but whose concerns are not with the "insurgent" as an individual, though it pays to respect one's enemy, instead their concerns are whether this nation's strategic goals are obtainable given the operational environment in which the military finds itself fighting and whether achieving that particular strategic goal is worth the cost.

First, although I realize your noted scenarios are hypothetical, it would have required building and completely garrisoning another Great Wall of China some 450 miles long across all of South Vietnam from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Gulf of Thailand to block entrance from the so called Ho Chi Minh Trail and a similar effort, probably more difficult, along the Pakistani border.

Despite that impossibility, General Creighton Abrams military approach to the problem proved that South Vietnam could temporarily be pacified, so long as the combined in-country military strength in that area was over one million men, as it approximated with the combined US and South Vietnam forces. He pacified most of the country beginning in the Delta and moving northward. The removal of US troops prevented that effort from continuing over the northernmost areas of South Vietnam. In addition, to that large ground strength a large Air Force and Naval presence was required to keep the NVA from successfully launching a ground invasion of South Vietnam, while most US / South Vietnamese forces were scattered over the country in pacification efforts.

The size of that American effort was not only the 550,000 or so in country forces, when you add the Naval and Air Forces and the staffing of the absolutely required logistical tail you are looking at well over one million American forces, plus 50,000 or so ROK troops and almost 450,000(?) South Vietnamese.

And to what end. On their own the South Vietnamese were doomed. Giap was brilliant, his army from top to bottom dedicated. They didn't need foreign military assistance, just weapons and ammunition. US firepower could overwhelm his brilliance, but in the COIN world we were not going to be there forever. Then what?

I had personal working relationships with many of South Vietnamese lower ranking officers and do to this day. Good fighters with incredibly bad Generals, with a few exceptions, and very corrupt political leaders. They knew that, then and now.

One night, in 1965, several us were in the Officer's Club drinking with about 6 or so Vietnamese A-1 pilots. Good pilots, good fighters, the cream of their crop. All upper class, noted for prospective reasons only. They respected their boss--General Ky, but felt he had no political pull and could not effect their long term political situation. I asked them whether they respected any of their current or previous military rulers, then knowing which Khan, Minh or whomever ruled their country due to the most recent coup.

Their answer was an unequivocal "NO" to each name. Finally I asked them, "Can you name one Vietnamese general you respect?" The answer from all "Giap," the commanding general of the North Vietnamese Army. When they left, we all agreed, the war was over for them, it was just a question of when. We weren't heavily involved in South Vietnam at the time, how- ever, the old timers, especially the Chiefs, were telling us that they could tell the US was going to get involved big time in that war, and not to their liking.

That war drained the US military from a budgetary and manpower prospective and precluded us from being able to develop and employ the weapon systems and platforms needed to compete with the Soviet Union until a future President corrected that problem.

Absent the US presence, the South Vietnamese corrupt politicians and their inept generals were defeated on a conventional battlefield, albeit after this country failed to provide them the promised Air and Naval support to defeat any invasion during the second North Vietnamese invasion of 1975.

So again, to what end was that war fought, to achieve what? Keep the North Vietnamese government from overrunning the South. A country that only existed because Diem and Company violated the terms of the 1954 treaty ending France's military debacle in that land. A treaty which provided for Vietnam wide elections to unify the country which Diem knew he would loose, so he refused to allow the South to participate.

In Afghanistan, support the Northern Alliance areas with arms and ammunition and air support if occasionally needed, and it won't, and let the Pashtuns fight it out among themselves. If the Taliban wins, what do we care. Just tell them that if they allow the return of Al Qeada our aircraft and missiles will return with greater bomb loads than before. Other than that, let them go for it. That is a 7th Century world and will always be so.

We are going down the same costly path as in Vietnam. US forces are fighting and winning the skirmishes, not the Afghans. One cannot build a national spirit where there is none. That is what the military officer who fought in Iraq and who wrote this article is stating. The Kharzai government will collapse once the US leaves, but worry not--like most South Vietnamese higher level leaders you can be assured his bank accounts and safe deposit boxes are solidly full of our tax dollars.

This country's military is not going to kill enough Taliban to break their will. We are not Nazi's and even they couldn't kill enough Serbians in WWII. And the Afghan Army certainly isn't going to kill enough Taliban, if any. In the immortal words of Giap, we will run out of patience before he ran out of soldiers.

We will win the tactical victories, but fail to achieve the probable strategic goal of leaving behind an anti-Taliban viable Afghan government and military for the Pashtun areas.

The problem is our inability to achieve strategic success, not winning tactical victories against the 10 foot tall insurgents.
Strategic success or failure come after the battle ends in the apt thoughts of Clausewitz.

carl (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 6:19pm

I read Mr. Coerr's paper (my previous comment was based just upon the intro). I realize the point of the paper was to draw parallels between the two conflicts as a warning. Ok, I get that. What I don't get is the distortion of history in order to strengthen the point. Don't overdo it Mr. Coerr. Case in point is the tired old calumny that the ARVN didn't fight. They didn't on occasion, but on more occasions they fought quite well and lost something north of 200,000 men doing so. They also killed rather a lot of VC/NVA. You should check that.

This sort of reads like a senior thesis written by a student determined to show how wise he is to see what the others do not, even if he has to bend things in order to do so.

CBCalif (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 6:01pm

While a stable democratic Iraq would certainly prove to be interesting, that result cannot be measured until after US forces totally depart.

Personally, having spent extended time among among Arabs and knowing numerous Kurds, whom I greatly respect, I would place my bet on Iraq breaking up and civil war occurring in that nation.

The Kurds and the Sunni's will not accept Shiite domination and there are numerous men among those populations with military training, combat experience, and weapons. I don't know about the current situation, but at one time post-US invasion the greater majority of the Iraqi officer corps was Sunni who along with enlisted Sunni soldiers will promptly desert--go permanently AWOL and return to their home province.

Th Iraqi military certainly lacks logistics competency and probably lacks that capability, thus it can not sustain a military effort into the Sunni and Kurdish areas--especially if their lines of communication are blocked by ambushes.

The neighboring Sunni nations will provide arms and ammunition quietly to their coreligionist brothers across their wide open border. Remember the Saudis had no problem entering Bahrain to retain Sunni domination.

The US will not return to the area with ground troops and cannot afford to further alienate the Saudis. We also cannot afford to have Iran stretch its influence further. Hezbollah Land, Hamas Land, and Syria are enough. The line must be drawn somewhere.

Has the Iraqi army recovered from its disastrous performance and de facto defeat in Basra, where only US involvement saved it?

The Sadr block is rearming and will take on the current Shiite dominated government. The two cannot be allies unless Al Maliki surrenders control to Sadr and that will not happen. Somehow the Sunni's will encourage that split to weaken the current Al Maliki central government.

Post-US departure, in my estimation, does not bode well long term for Iraq. The Arab World and mentality is what it is and I believe we are deceiving ourselves by believing as this country's leadership does (perhaps) about their future.

If Iraq does break up, hopefully that will bring the end of our involvement in wasteful COIN operations and enable the US military to employ its funding strengthening both its special operations groups and most definitely its conventional forces--be they Army, Navy, or Air Force to enable the US military to competently face the gowning power of China, what will someday be a resurgent Russia, Iran's attempt to reach out militarily which will grow with its developing (however slowly) nuclear capabilities and its acquiring submarines and surface ships, and other nations such as Brazil and India who believe they are on the cusp of greatness.