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The pitfalls of pacification

As Obama unveils new efforts in Afghanistan, it is worth a look at what happened in Vietnam. Part two in a series.

A line of American soldiers march up a hill in Vietnam during the Route 9 offensive while fires behind them send smoke into the air in 1968. (Larry Burrows/Time Magazine/Getty Images)

LONG AN PROVINCE, Vietnam — My Hanh, 20 miles west of Ho Chi Minh City, is a prosperous town of brick and concrete farmhouses interspersed with huge Japanese-owned electronics factories.

When Cai Van Minh, 56, was growing up during the Vietnam War, My Hanh was a tiny village surrounded by an unbroken expanse of rice paddies and thatched-roof bamboo huts. In March 1963, the South Vietnamese government ordered Minh and his family to leave My Hanh, relocating them into a brand-new “strategic hamlet” half a mile away called Tram Lac.

The Saigon government was building the hamlets as part of an all-out push to defeat the increasingly aggressive communist Viet Cong insurgency, which already effectively governed much of the territory of South Vietnam.

The “strategic hamlets” campaign was one of the first major U.S.-backed counterinsurgency efforts in the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1960 to 1975 and killed at least 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans. (Click here to read the first part of this series: Lessons of Vietnam.)

The same year that Minh’s family was relocated, a 22-year-old American foreign service officer was posted to a province in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, where he found himself running the province's "strategic hamlets" program.

It was the officer's first experience with insurgent warfare in a career that would involve many. The officer was Richard Holbrooke, who is now U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, charged with the diplomatic side of American efforts to defeat the Taliban insurgency. And while the details differ, many of the problems the U.S. faces today in Afghanistan are the same as those Holbrooke faced at the beginning of his career in Vietnam.

The idea of the strategic hamlet was first put forward by the British officer Robert Thompson and the visionary CIA officer William Colby. It was modeled on a program that helped the British defeat a communist insurgency in Malaya in the early 1950s.

The aim of the program was to separate the Viet Cong from the population they depended on. Chinese communist ruler Mao Zedong had said a guerrilla army moves among the people like a fish in water. Now South Vietnam’s authoritarian anti-communist president, Ngo Dinh Diem, vowed he would “drain the pond to catch the fish.”