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Lessons of Vietnam

A former North Vietnamese Army officer explains how the US is making the same mistake in Afghanistan that it made in Vietnam.

A Vietnamese construction worker carries some tools as he walks near to where the Ho Chi Minh Trail crosses the Rinh River near the village of Thanh Liem in Quang Binh Province Nov. 25, 2000. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was the route used by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to send supplies to their forces in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. (Lou Dematteis/Reuters)

HO CHI MINH CITY — The U.S. Army would very much liked to have killed Nguyen Huu Nguyen in 1968.

In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, Nguyen was an officer in a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) unit stationed in the Mekong Delta town of My Tho. At the time, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops were sweeping through the countryside trying to recover from the devastating surprise offensive, and they were employing counterinsurgency tactics much like those NATO is using today in Afghanistan. (Click here to read the second part of this series, about the pitfalls of pacification.)

It should not have been hard to find Nguyen’s unit, which was stationed on a riverbank right next to a South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) camp. But the ARVN and NVA units — which were on opposite sides of the war — had a tacit agreement not to attack each other's home bases.

Both would venture out on operations against other units, then return to their camps and leave each other alone.

“One night some of our soldiers caught a lot of fish,” recalled Nguyen, who is now a retired army colonel and a respected military historian. “We started singing, and got a little noisy. So the Saigon soldiers tossed a grenade at a safe distance, at the edge of our camp, to remind us to keep it down.”

If senior commanders were made too aware of the NVA presence, and it worked up the chain to U.S. commanders, Nguyen explains, the ARVN troops would be obliged to attack them.

The story encapsulates the fluid loyalties and territorial ambiguity that plagued U.S. attempts to control South Vietnam. It also reveals the contours of a counterinsurgency terrain that bears some similarities to the struggles the U.S. now faces as it prepares to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.

In Vietnam, American officers trained to fight conventional armies could not adjust to a war where villages welcomed government troops by day and Viet Cong guerrillas by night, where the ARVN troops they fought alongside were not necessarily loyal to their own government, and where the real battlefield lay in the hearts and minds of the people they were supposedly there to defend.

Five years after the Tet Offensive, the last U.S. forces left Vietnam, and two years after that, Nguyen Huu Nguyen swept into Saigon with the victorious North Vietnamese Army.

Today Nguyen, who retired from the army in 1979, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of American and South Vietnamese counterinsurgency strategies during the Vietnam War. And he has a very clear point of view on the lessons the American military should take from Vietnam as it embarks on a new strategy in Afghanistan: The U.S. will fail in Afghanistan for many of the reasons it failed here.

With a “surge” of 17,000 additional U.S. troops underway in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is making hard choices about how to go about building an Afghan government that has popular legitimacy and can defend itself against Taliban guerrillas.

Numerous analysts have referred to the resemblances between the conflict in Afghanistan and the Vietnam War. Nguyen Huu Nguyen’s take on Afghanistan is in many ways similar to those of westerners skeptical of further U.S. investments in counterinsurgency campaigns. But he is one of the few looking at U.S. efforts in Afghanistan who has, himself, helped defeat earlier American counterinsurgency efforts.  

“Just adding another 17,000 troops in Afghanistan will not accomplish anything,” Nguyen said, sitting at a cafe on the Saigon River, not far from the bridge where ARVN forces made a doomed last stand against the NVA in 1975.

The success of counterinsurgency, Nguyen explained, rests on separating the guerrillas from the population they depend on. He rattled off a list of the many tactics the U.S. employed in Vietnam to accomplish that goal: the Diem regime’s savage anti-communist purges in 1959 and 1960, the “strategic hamlets” approach of 1962 and 1963, the CORDS and CAP programs of the mid- and late 1960s. All of them were ultimately unsuccessful.

In Afghanistan — with its vast expanses of land, its 40,000 villages and vicious terrain — the task will be harder than it was in Vietnam. At the same time — just as the U.S. could not crush the Viet Cong and NVA sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos — it is unable to eliminate Taliban sanctuaries in northern Pakistan.

“If the U.S. builds up its forces in Afghanistan,” Nguyen said, “it will probably sink deeper into a quagmire.”