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.

NATO pullback heightens doubts about Afghan strategy

NATO’s decision to scale back joint operations with Afghan forces may protect the lives of Western troops increasingly targeted by “insider attacks,” but it raises troubling new questions about President Barack Obama’s strategy to stabilize Afghanistan.

After ramping up Afghan security forces at a breakneck rate to allow for a drawdown of Western troops, NATO is coming to grips with a rash of deadly assaults by Afghan recruits who turn their guns on Western allies. Muslim rage over a film insulting the Prophet Mohammad has further stoked the risk.

The White House and NATO leaders have stressed that the suspension of some mentoring operations announced on Tuesday is only a temporary step, limited in scope, that does not alter America’s withdrawal timeline. It applies to front-line missions involving units smaller than an 800-strong battalion, and even then, there will be exceptions…

But James Dubik, a retired lieutenant general who oversaw the training of Iraq’s security forces, warned that the move would undoubtedly act as a drag on training of Afghan forces, an urgently needed step to prepare them for the time when most NATO combat troops have gone home at the end of 2014…

How much of an impact the restrictions have depends on how long the policy is maintained, he said…

Marine General John Allen, who leads NATO forces in Afghanistan, said last month that about a quarter of the attacks can be blamed on the Taliban, both by direct infiltration of Afghan forces and coercion of Afghan troops to attack their NATO counterparts.

Other attacks are attributed to disputes between Afghan troops and their foreign partners, or chalked up to the violence that comes with the trauma of a decade of war.

And who gets the credit for that?

Bush and Cheney invaded. Obama followed the “guidance” of Pentagon types who said they could wind it down quickly and easily. Now, we all get to see how well that is working out.