Counter-insurgency lessons from Vietnam – We remember how well that worked out!
The rise in so-called insider attacks by rogue Afghan security forces has highlighted the perils of joint operations in counter-insurgency. But former US soldier David Donovan, who fought in Vietnam, says lessons learnt long ago have been forgotten.
I was in Vietnam because the United States had decided to assist an ally in fighting an insurgency stimulated and supplied from across international boundaries. The rights and wrongs of our intervention were a matter of vigorous debate, but that debate was not mine.
I was an Army officer trained in counter-insurgency and I was in Vietnam to lead a small advisory team in a remote village near the Cambodian border. We were doing counter-insurgency focused on two things – improving village security and encouraging local development.
Improving security meant improving the fighting skills of the local militia. They were poorly equipped and poorly led, neither of which helped morale. Improving their fighting skills meant going into combat with them, fighting beside them and learning first hand what it means to fight a guerrilla war. Encouraging development meant helping local officials initiate projects meant to improve community life.
The main enemies to security were the local guerrillas.
The main enemy to development was a corrupt bureaucracy…
So you might imagine my concern during the past decade as my country has made its way into two counter-insurgency wars at the same time and has bumped first into one problem then another. Our ineptness at the enterprise has been frustrating because the difficulties reported have seemed so predictable.
I know what it means to do counter-insurgency. I know what it means to do war in the village, and I know from the outside looking in how large US units, simply because of their size and American nature, can perturb a local culture and make friends into enemies without really meaning to.
And counter-insurgency is not won by firepower alone. It is won by a government attracting the loyalty of its own people.
RTFA for all the anecdotes David Donovan includes. If you don’t expect to see what you’re going to see, you weren’t paying attention when the US tried to create a regime in VietNam – you certainly haven’t been paying attention to Afghanistan for the past 11 years.
He skips the part about being invited in by a claque in VietNam smaller than the Tea Party. He skips the part about fighting against an “enemy” that supported allied troops during World War 2; but, dared to continue their fight against colonial Europe after the war.
You’re left at the end to consider on your own a comparison of the mess we left behind in VietNam when we were driven out by Vietnamese soldiers, after all – compared to the mess we obviously will leave behind in Afghanistan. Money and lives, American and Afghan, soldier and civilian, poured down the rathole of imperial arrogance, once again.