Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Afghanistan, Vietnam: "same ol', same ol'"

Troops war view differs from Washington 

by Mike Marcellino

Part 2 of a 3 part series on America's course in Afghanistan

The more leaders tell you things are "different" the more they seem the "same."

In a nutshell, that's what I'm piecing together in another installment of my series - "America's Course in Afghanistan."

In Vietnam, where I served in the U.S. Army as a combat correspondent at the height of the war in 1968, they told us the body counts, how we were killing them 10-1 or more.  The told us how most of the country was now "pacified." (Sometimes pacification took B-52 bombs, endless jet strikes, ship salvos, artillery fire and agent orange.)  They told us we're winning "the hearts and minds."

The more reading, the more recalling , the more researching, the more America's involvement and increasing escalation in the civil wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam fit a saying learned on the streets of Cleveland  - "same ol', same ol'. 

In today's interview with the BBC, Matthew Hol, an ex-Marine captain in Iraq who resigned as the senior civilian in Zabul Province, says only political action, not the troop surge, will settle the 35-year civil war in Afghanistan.  He also estimates 500,000 troops would be needed to subjugate the countryside. 

(See the BBC story)

More than 500,000 U.S. troops were in South Vietnam at the height of the war in 1968.  That effort allowed U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to control the major cities, but not the rural areas in a country of 65,000 square miles and 16 million people.  Afghanistan has nearly twice the land area (119,000 square miles) and population (30 million) and a terrain even more difficult, if that's possible.

President Obama and U.S. military leaders say the Afghanistan war isn't another Vietnam

(In the Vietnam War, U.S. troops pulled out in 1973 after a decade long war.  Three years later, the corrupt and controversial government and army of South Vietnam collapsed weeks after the North Vietnamese army invaded.)

A report November 12 "Stars and Stripes" from Zabul Province, a Taliban stronghold and route from Pakistan, American soldiers tell a view of the war much different from our leaders in Washington. It reminds me of that similar difference between the capital view and the reality on the ground in the war 40 years ago in South Vietnam.  

Drew Brown's interviews with soldiers from the U.S. Army's 5th Stryker Brigade from Ft. Lewis, WA, are telling in this excerpt -

“During the three-day mission in the Chinehs, a number of soldiers said that even though the area had been identified as a suspected Taliban stronghold, the villagers were the friendliest of any they had encountered in Zabul. But when officers asked about the Taliban, they were usually met with blank stares or polite, noncommittal responses. Most villagers denied knowing anything about the Taliban. Some made slashing motions across their throats. ‘You stay here for one and a half hours in our village, and when you leave, the Taliban will come in our homes and beat us or worse,’ said one man. Replied 2nd Lt. James Johnson, 23, of State College, Pa.: ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do to help you, if you don’t help yourselves.’”

(See "Stars and Stripes" story)

Sounds awfully familiar to me as I covered the Vietnam War as a US Army combat correspondent and my stories and photographs were often published in "Stars and Stripes."

It also seems, even with the surge of 30,000 more U. S. troops to total of 100,000 won't be enough.  As many as 500,000 (including Afghanistan government forces) may be needed to get the job done. The job being either defeating or at least beating the Taliban and other insurgent forces back enough to allow the Afghanistan army and police to keep the peace.

Though U. S. troops have been in Afghanistan for nine years, the effectiveness of Afghan security forces remains uncertain.  What's odd about that is Afghanistan's insurgent forces, the Islamic mujahedeen, defeated the Soviet Union in a nine year war ending in 1989.

In 1996, the Taliban, a radical Islamic group, came into power in Afghanistan, but, by 2001, with help from the United States, the Northern Alliance, a group of minorities, overthrew the Taliban.

While all this is pretty factual summary, if you stop to think about it, it sounds bizarre. It reminds me of the Abbott and Costello comedic question, "Who's on first?  Afghanistan also has the same chaotic ring of the Mexican revolution in the early 1920s,

The Afghanistan and Vietnam wars are also reminiscent of a scene in "Lawrence of Arabia." After the Arab army, led by British Maj. T. E. Lawrence, had defeated the Ottoman Empire, German ally in World War I, they couldn't get along well enough to keep the power on and water running in Damascus.

The winner in Afghanistan may be who is willing and able to fight and die and not give up.  One thing seems certain; people don't like to be occupied by foreign armies.  History tells us the people in far flung countries didn't like the oppressive rule of the emperors of Rome, and the Roman Empire collapsed.

In a recent commentary in "Dandelion Salad," an Internet blog highly critical of America's military involvement in the Afghanistan, Rick Rozoff indicates that documents show that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal estimates a combined army of 500,000 U. S., Afghan and NATO forces will be needed to win the war.   

 A foreign soldier on the ground in a civil war quickly understands that the will of the people who live there decides the outcome.

In the Stars and Stripes story, an Afghan villager tells a US Army officer what it will take to end the war -

"We asked what can be done to improve your situation here," (1st Lt. Christopher) Franco said. "They said, ‘Our problems will be resolved when you guys leave and we can sit down and talk to the Taliban leaders.’ At least they were honest."

Mike Marcellino, a national award winning civilian journalist, served in the U. S. Army as a combat correspondent and photographer in the Vietnam War


  1. Wow, sobering stuff. THANK YOU! I wanna SHARE this at Facebook. Thank you for "friending" me.
    Peace to You & Yours, this Season. :)

  2. thanks Lisa, appreciate your comment; please do pass it on, let me know what you do, it's published on FB through my Networked Blog

    yes, we should "get it" by now; people wherever they are just want to be left along, without being controlled by outsiders; my last magazine story in Vietnam was about an old Vietnamese man, once a pilot of freighters, now pilot of the Saigon ferryboat; he cared about his god, work and family; he didn't like the Chinese, French or Americans; he wanted them to go away because rockets kept exploding near his boat; since World War II we've had primarily a militaristic approach to resolve problems in the world; we have a cookie cutter view of the world; sorry, countries and cultures are different; people still want to come to America for freedom and opportunity but we can't create Americas here and there with military force; it doesn't work that way; we need to start setting a good example in things that we're founded on, stuff like justice, equality, freedom and human rights; right we're not setting a good example in anything