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Echoes of Vietnam

Washington’s False Promise in Afghanistan


One of the predominant rationales put forth by US civilian and military officials regarding the nature of the insurgency categorized as the Taliban in Afghanistan is that their support is derived from coercion.  Pronouncements from these officials stating this belief as objective truth are obediently parroted in media reports and repeated by politicians.  Yet, according to US Army General McChrystal, there is not enough support among Afghans for his proposed pacification effort in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan.  “When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,"  are the words McChrystal used when asked about why he was delaying the proposed operation.  In other words, the Afghans do not see the US military as its protector and want nothing to do with them and their plans.

While one must acknowledge that McChrystal’s honesty is a welcome rarity from the Pentagon, the more appropriate question is how long will it be before Washington decides that it doesn’t really care whether or not it has Afghan support and launches its Kandahar operation anyhow.  After all, there is a supposed deadline in 2011 that McChrystal is operating under that requires him to be able to at least say things are different for Washington in Afghanistan than they were in summer 2009.  Of course, that deadline becomes more nebulous by the week, just like those deadlines always do without popular pressure in the US demanding an end to a particular military operation.

Let’s go back to that recruitment by coercion supposition that the Pentagon is  operating on at least in public.  Despite the seeming impossibility of a recruitment effort based primarily on coercion to raise a devoted guerrilla force capable not only of survival for ten years under fire, but also of expanding its reach and numbers, that is exactly what Washington wants us to believe is occurring with the Taliban.  It’s as if the military and political establishment found an old playbook from the 1960s, scribbled out the words "Viet Cong" and replaced them with "the Taliban."  For example, here’s a quote from a CIA cable dated October 5, 1961.

The Viet Cong live upon locally produced food which they either grow themselves or levy upon villages. They meet most of their currency needs by taxing areas under their control, by robbery, or by blackmail.

Newspaper accounts that reported on the war echoed this interpretation of events in southern Vietnam.  Stories of torture and execution style shootings by Viet Cong cadre were given as reasons for Vietnamese support for the National Liberation Front (NLF).  The refusal or inability of the Pentagon and its supporters to see and understand that the bombing raids, search and destroy missions, and the removal of entire populations from villages under Operation Phoenix by US troops made any such transgressions by the NLF forces minor by comparison.

Other  misunderstandings were of a more philosophical nature.  In a column on February 2, 1968, while the Tet offensive raged on, New York Times columnist James Reston described the men and women fighting for the NLF as essentially suicidal given the armed might arrayed against them and wondered when these "men (and women) whose religion teaches them that death is preferable to life" would come to their sense and accept the greater power of Washington’s forces.  When one reads articles speculating as to the motivations of the Afghan insurgents (or the Iraqis in that unresolved war of the very recent past), a phrase about "seventy virgins" is never far from being repeated.  Without getting into a debate about whether or not Buddhism or Islam teaches that death is preferable to life any more than Christianity does, this barely qualifies as motivation to leave one’s family just to go and fight other people.  Indeed, perhaps the motivation has much more to do with the desire to chase invaders from your village and homeland.  or maybe you just want to battle those who have killed your family members.

There is a current of thought in the United States that believes Washington had its chance in the early months of the Afghan occupation to achieve its goal of an obedient Afghan nation.  According to this line of reasoning, Washington failed because the Bush White House invaded Iraq. leaving its mission to founder in Afghanistan.  I am unconvinced of this argument’s veracity.  After all, the stated intention of the invasion of Afghanistan was the capture of Bin Laden and the destruction of the Taliban.  The invasion did not achieve either of these stated goals and the years since that day in October 2001 when the troops first landed have erased much of the memory of those goals.  Instead, the world has watched while foreign militaries under the direction of the Pentagon have attempted to create a client state whose real leadership is in Washington, DC.  Meanwhile, the continued failure of the US to perceive the elements of the Afghan insurgency as homegrown forces intent on keeping the invaders out of their homes and villages insures its continued inability to achieve its goal of pacifying the Afghan people under a government chosen by Washington.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: