Tuesday, August 19, 2008


I've been reading "Nixon and Kissinger" this month, which naturally has a lot of discussion of the Vietnam war. Specifically, the negotiations, the conflict, and the enemy mindset and strategy. There are far more parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam than there are between Iraq and Vietnam, in my opinions.

Iraq was a nastier war from the start, but I said some time ago that I think it will resolve faster. Either we will win or we'll leave; either way, some conclusion will be met. This is more or less consistent with the past governing history of Iraq; it is used to being unified by a strong force despite all of its differences in ethnicity and religion (Turks first, then Arab strongmen like Saddam).

Afghanistan, on the other hand, has a long storied history of NOT being under the control of one dominant central authority. It also has a long storied history of refusing to become pacified by any major power, even in ancient times. More recently we look at the British, the Russians, and now the USA.

Terrain looks to be another factor. Vietnam obviously had terrain that was extremely conducive to guerrilla warfare, support from local populace or no. Now compare the two present battle-zones. Iraq is flat, with fertile river basins or desert depending on where you go. It isn't especially easy to hide from US reconnaissance aircraft in the middle of a desert. Contrast this all with Afghanistan. Just mountains and caves and nothing. And a 2000+ long mile border with Pakistan. This is probably another reason why Iraq has traditionally been more centralized while Afghanistan hasn't been. In Iraq, Saddam could just send his army to crush the dissenting ethnic groups, who had nowhere to hide. Not so in Afghanistan. Notice also that the one ethnic group that gave Saddam the most trouble - the Kurds, have a lot of mountainous terrain in their homeland.

I was also thinking that oil would contribute to a centralized power structure whereas the lack of an organized economy or lack of reliance of a central government would discourage such organization in Afghanistan. Could be a combination of all of those factors.

But the main similarity between Afghanistan and Vietnam in my mind is the psyche of the enemy. There is simply no negotiation, nor is there a desire to negotiate. The Taliban simply do not care how many men they lose. Their reserves are nearly infinite. This is identical to the mindset of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists. They will continue to attack even in the face of 10:1 casualty ratios.

So this is why I said some time ago that I think Afghanistan is more of a lost cause than Iraq; I see fewer prospects for a resolution and in 5-10 years we're going to ask why we should even bother. This isn't to say that we should give up the mission, but we need to re-think our strategy if we're going to make any progress. The impetus for this post in the first place was the news today of the French corps who were ambushed, with 10 killed and some 20+ wounded. France is contributing 3000; I imagine they will be gone before the years end. The war is pretty unpopular in other NATO nations as well. I'd say we have five years max to get this things wrapped up, because thats the very longest that public opinion will tolerate this sort of thing any longer, even in the states.

As far as what strategy changes are concerned, I would emphasize that we must think in political, social, and economic terms. Military solutions aren't as effective when your enemy doesn't care at all about casualties and your side does. I mean from news reports its seems like we already have 25:1 kill/loss ratios, it simply can't get much better than that unless we have robots. So here are my ideas:

1. Political: fix Pakistan. Yea, pretty simplistic and difficult I realize. But what I mean is we need to encourage democracy and strong institutions there, even if it means an anti-American (within limits) Islamic party takes power. We need to learn to work with such a government, to coexist with it. Once Muslims realize democracy isn't incompatible w/ Islam, a big reason for the Taliban to fight the Afghani government disappears.

2. Social: elect Barack Obama. The last thing we need is another militaristic Christian crusader speaking of going to war with miscellaneous Islamic countries. We are trying to get these people to see our point of view, to work w/ us, to coexist with us. Maybe we are destined to fight a clash of civilizations. But in the meantime, if anyone can convince some of the enemy to lay down their arms, its Barack Obama. I fear that McCain will only encourage more to pick up arms against us.

3. Economic: the opium trade is forcing poor Afghani farmers to break the law and side with the Taleban in order to feed their families. We need a three pronged approach here. First, mount a massive public campaign across the world but especially in Europe to reduce opium usage (discourage demand). Maybe Barack could spearhead it? Second, we should have our pharmaceutical companies buy Afghani opium for a fair price so the farmers can make their money legally. Third, we should subsidize Afghani farmers to grow other crops.

Third year of medschool is strange. I feel that there is less pressure and it is less busy than 1st and 2nd year. And yet, I feel that I have far less time than I used to. I barely ever get to read on the net anymore, and hardly get to crack my new issues of the Economist. So I decided I'd sit down tonight and think about something other than whatever clerkship that I'm in, but unfortunately have no time for editing or revising so if it looks jumbled, thats why. Because its way past my bedtime, and I have neurological examinations to perform in the morning...

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