Afghanistan is like Vietnam, but not in a way you might think
The Vietcong were proxies of North Vietnam, whose leaders were ideologically motivated by communism and the unification of Vietnam. The Taliban are proxies of Pakistan, whose leaders are motivated by religious extremism.
Pakistan justifies interference in Afghanistan by claiming that it is defending its national interests from interference by India in Afghanistan. It is a nationalistic argument based, in reality, on their religious differences.
Reconciliation between Vietnam and the United States has been largely driven by geopolitical factors, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of China, a traditional enemy of the Vietnamese.
Likewise, the conflict in Afghanistan has geopolitical roots, which have been largely overlooked in the formulation of a narrow U.S. policy based on counter-terrorism, counterinsurgency and national building. This strategy, like that used in Vietnam, is inadequate to address the actual strategic conditions in Afghanistan.
In 2001, the U.S. quickly toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan primarily because of American advantages in technology and airpower. The Taliban, however, were not defeated and simply migrated back into Pakistan from where the movement originated.
The Karzai government, established to replace the Taliban, had no army or police force and whose writ did not extend beyond the outskirts of Kabul. While the U.S. and its allies were still pursuing remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Central Command received orders to plan for the invasion of Iraq. As America focused elsewhere, the Taliban began infiltrating back into Afghanistan just eighteen months after its capitulation.
By the time U.S. attention was drawn back to Afghanistan, due to the escalating violence and advance of the Taliban, American military leaders were collectively hypnotized by the mythological efficacy of the counterinsurgency doctrine including its nation building component. It was always ludicrous to believe that such an approach could succeed in a tribal, corrupt and landlocked country where the U.S. military did not control the operational tempo or the supply of its troops. Counterinsurgency shaved American tactical advantages down to the small arms level of the Taliban and treated the symptoms of the problem, not its geopolitical causes. It was and still is a recipe for a prolonged stalemate.
Similar to its secular relative, Islamic fundamentalism is the transnational ideological glue among certain nation states, who employ proxies, terrorism and internal subversion as instruments of their foreign policies, such as Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. How well would Islamic fundamentalism survive without them?
The popular question remains “How do you defeat an idea?” Well, you can’t or at least it is not easily, but you can affect the behaviors or even undermine the nation states that practice it, if you can identify their pain points and not allow them to manipulate your own, as Pakistan has done to the U.S. in Afghanistan.
First, the U.S. must acknowledge that minor alterations of a flawed strategy will not magical transform it into a successful one. Case in point is the deployment to Afghanistan of U.S. Army Security Force Assistance Brigades, specialized units whose core mission is to conduct advise-and-assist operations with allied and partner nations. It a new paradigm of reassigning infantry troops and the latest iteration of the advise and train mission for which the U.S. has already spent billions of dollars with limited results at best.
Additionally, the US must recognize that Afghanistan today is not the same as it was in 2001, 2007 or 2010. The strategic conditions in South Asia have changed significantly, and while the U.S. was creating a quagmire for itself in Afghanistan, China has risen as a global power and a major force in South Asia. In particular, Pakistan is now far less likely to accede to U.S. interests in Afghanistan because Islamabad has tied its future to Chinese regional ambitions.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a development plan and a program of infrastructure projects, proposed by Chinese Government that focuses on connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries through land-based and maritime trade and transportation routes. The area targeted by Beijing represents two-thirds of the world’s population and one-half of the global Gross Domestic Product.
The linchpin of BRI is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the backbone of which is a transportation route that connects China to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. It is why China’s ally, Pakistan, has been so diligently working against American success in Afghanistan because a continued U.S. presence is considered an obstacle to the success of CPEC and, more broadly, that of BRI.
BRI is a soft power projection with an underlying hard power component. It is not just resource acquisition or utilization of China’s industrial over-capacity, but its projects are designed specifically to ensure both economic and political dominance. That expansion will also expose vulnerabilities, not the least of which is CPEC, a potentially major pain point for Pakistan. While Pakistan has become the gatekeeper to the Taliban, China has become the gatekeeper to Pakistan.
Rather than the exhaustive, expensive and inconclusive policies of counterinsurgency and nation building, the U.S. should embrace a strategy that would disrupt the geopolitical plans of our adversaries, the nation states, who employ ideological or religious proxies and terrorists as instruments of their foreign policies.
Ideas become impotent without the means to implement them.
Moving away from current policy in Afghanistan towards the geopolitical approach of strategic disruption would indicate that the U.S. has truly “learned the lessons of Vietnam.”
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.