Same Shit, Different Decade

In clearing out the War College folder (a place for various military-related papers) of my laptop’s hardrive, I came across an interesting document which relates directly to our current difficulties in Afghanistan.  I have decided to quote it at length here (slightly edited) in order to illustrate a interesting dynamic.

From the document:

 a. The social revolution underway in Afghanistan is primarily identified with the Taliban, a communist dominated organization.

b. A popular, political base for the Government of Afghanistan does not now exist.

c. The regular armed forces, the paramilitary forces, the reconstruction cadre and the administrative cadre are politically inarticulate, and lack sufficient, positive motivation.

d. Resource utilization by the Afghanis is haphazard at best, deliberately sabotaged at worst. It is characterized by waste, redundancy, misapplication, and the absence of valid priorities.

e. A chain of command exists principally on paper. This is applicable to both the military and civilian hierarchies.

f. Assistance from the United States, both military and economic, is used to perpetuate a regime that despite its lip service to the contrary, has not demonstrated a sincere interest in bettering the lot of the rural population.

g. The centralization of administrative and financial authority at ministerial level has hampered the development of local responsive government, and has often provided an excuse for inaction by those dealing directly with the population.

h. The existing system of administration promotes inefficiency, prevents management by exception, creates confusion, and encourages corruption.

i. Gadgetry, air power, and artillery continue to be substituted for the discriminate ground actions required to prosecute the military side of this war without unduly alienating the civilian population.

j. Emphasis is placed upon the use of physical obstacles to provide population security rather than the fostering of a spirit of resistance.

k. The bulk of the Afghan grounds forces are not effectively utilized; their most habitual employment is for defense or in reserve, and neither of these two missions is performed effectively.

l. The advisory concept has failed, not through lack of effort and dedication, but because it has been an instrument of a US policy of nonintervention in the internal affairs of the government of Afghanistan, even though much intervention has been needed and desired by knowledgeable and concerned Afghans.

On the face of it, this is a comprehensive list of the difficulties we currently face in the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan.  It covers all of the standard concerns of population protection, governance, foreign military training, reconstruction funding, etc.  It appears to be a useful guide to the things we need to fix in our Afghan strategy.

See, here’s the thing.  The quote above doesn’t come from a recent think-tank analysis or Pentagon report on Afghanistan.  It actually was written in 1965 by Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, senior advisor to USOM and CORDS in South Vietnam.  All I did was replace the references to South Vietnam with Afghanistan, the National Liberation Front with the Taliban, and communism with Islamism.

The paper, entitled Harnessing the Revolution, was an attempt by Vann to reconceptualize the advisor mission in Vietnam and create an effective and responsive organization that could reverse the gradual slipping of the American war effort in the rural provinces.  Vann believed that in order to be successful, the commanders at MAC-V need to rethink their approach and adopt a population-centric military strategy with more robust political, economic and social goals.  He was a tireless prophet for this more nuanced approach, an early COINdinista, as they’re called today.  Needless to say, he didn’t succeed, although he never stopped trying, staying with the advisor mission long after most Americans had decided that South Vietnam was lost.  John Paul Vann was killed in a helicopter crash in 1972.

Four decades later, the U.S. military in Afghanistan is beginning to recognize the value of Vann’s advice and the folly of conducting a counter-insurgency with a conventional force.  There are a host of energetic young officers, converts to the cause of COIN warfare, who are struggling to put ideas like Vann’s into practice.  One wonders what could have been different if the predecessors of those officers had understood the critiques leveled at them by John Paul Vann.  Perhaps the U.S. Army wouldn’t have waited through seven costly years of war to write an official counterinsurgency field manual.


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