Lessons of Vietnam

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.”

Gen. Petraeus and the lessons of history

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the chief of Central Command for the U.S. military and the architect of what is widely viewed as the successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, disagrees with Nguyen.

And Petraeus speaks from his own knowledge of history. He did his doctoral thesis on the lessons learned in Vietnam and he co-authored the U.S. military’s recent counterinsurgency manual which provided a detailed history of counterinsurgency from ancient Rome to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

While Nguyen and Petraeus derive very different lessons from some of this history, there is also a great deal on which they do agree.

Petraeus’ 1987 Ph.D. thesis, “The American Military and the Lessons of  Vietnam,” argued that the U.S. military’s fear of getting trapped in another counterinsurgency war left it reluctant to intervene abroad except to accomplish narrow goals and with overwhelmingly superior forces. Indeed, Petraeus wrote in his thesis that the military’s anxieties about Vietnam-style wars were being reinforced by another contemporary conflict: the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan.

“The Soviet inability to achieve a decisive result in Afghanistan has reminded some military observers of the problems of counter-guerrilla warfare in rugged terrain where the enemy enjoys sanctuaries,” Petraeus wrote, reinforcing the military’s desire to avoid “lengthy, inconclusive commitments of U.S. troops.”

Petraeus brought this understanding to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which forced the military into exactly the sort of counterinsurgency warfare it had long tried to avoid. He was one of a cadre of warrior scholars who pushed the U.S. Army to relearn how to fight such wars. The new counterinsurgency thinkers included promising younger officers such as Col. H.R. McMaster and Col. John Nagl (now retired). For inspiration, they turned to lessons from Vietnam.

These counterinsurgency reformers adopted a rough storyline to explain the U.S. failure in Vietnam. In Vietnam, they argued, the U.S. relied for too long on a “search and destroy” strategy, trying to seek out the main forces of the NVA and destroy them in battle. It ignored the problems of security and prosperity in the countryside, allowing the Viet Cong to increase its political and military hold on the villages of South Vietnam.

It was only in 1967, and increasingly after the Tet Offensive in 1968, that the U.S. turned to a strategy of pacification and counterinsurgency, known as “clear and hold.” When it did, it was successful, according to these counterinsurgency reformers. By 1971, the Viet Cong had almost entirely lost its hold on South Vietnam’s countryside. But the U.S. then retreated from Vietnam, and the ARVN was finally outmatched in a main-force struggle against the invading NVA in 1975.

Applying history in Iraq and Afghanistan

Drawing on the Vietnam-era strategic vision of “clear and hold,” Petraeus in 2007 introduced his surge strategy in Iraq, with its underlying approach of “clear, hold and build.” Petraeus’ approach of flooding Baghdad with troops, pacifying neighborhoods and combining political and military efforts has by all accounts been successful. It has contributed to a dramatic increase in physical security and political stability in Iraq.

The question now is how to apply these types of counterinsurgency insights to Afghanistan. The first problem is that virtually all analysts, including Petraeus and Nguyen, agree that Afghanistan is too large, too fractious, and too mountainous for a “surge” to work.

The second problem is that, in Nguyen’s view, the American counterinsurgency reformers’ view of pacification in Vietnam is wrong. It is not that the U.S. failed to try pacification until it was too late, he said. It is that the U.S. tried pacification throughout the war, and it didn’t work.

“The U.S. never stopped trying to carry out pacification in Vietnam,” Nguyen said. “It only changed the methods it used to pursue pacification.” Some of those methods, Nguyen agrees, were correct: The U.S. really did have to cut the Viet Cong off from the villages and from its secure sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos in order to win the war.

But it couldn’t. The South Vietnamese government it backed was anemic. Its ARVN allies were too ambivalent to attack the NVA even when they were right next door. The peasantry was resentful of corrupt government officers. The “enemy” — the Viet Cong — was determined and united.

And counterinsurgency warfare is simply a viciously demanding task for any army — the Vietnamese one included.

“Let me tell you a story,” Nguyen said. “About 10 years ago a German researcher came to Vietnam and asked me, ‘Mr. Nguyen, the Vietnamese were so good at guerrilla warfare. So why couldn’t you resolve your war in Cambodia?’”

After invading Cambodia in 1979, the Vietnamese spent a decade battling Khmer Rouge insurgents who took refuge in bases along the Thai border — just as the Viet Cong had once hidden in bases in Cambodia. Vietnam could only withdraw once it had established a powerful and reliable proxy, the quasi-communist government of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.

When it comes to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama and U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke have already indicated that one of the chief aims of the new strategy will be to create a self-sufficient Afghan army and police force. The problem remains that the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai is by all accounts as corrupt as the Saigon regime was in Vietnam. How can the U.S. make a client regime less corrupt?

“That’s a problem for Karzai, not for the U.S.,” Nguyen said. “The only way for the U.S. in Afghanistan is to build up Karzai, and leave.”

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