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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.

Minh remembers the anger of peasants taken away from their ancestral lands — home of the graves of their ancestors — and dumped in shoddy concrete houses surrounded by barbed-wire fences, forced to present identification cards to soldiers at the hamlet gate. He recalls the terror of random shelling by South Vietnamese artillery every night, which was an ineffectual attempt to harass Viet Cong troops. The shelling only added to the population’s antagonism. Although the strategic hamlets were supposed to protect the peasants from the Viet Cong, they were actually driving even more of them to support the communists.

“At that point, the number of people in the strategic hamlet who supported the Viet Cong was about two-thirds,” Minh says.

For Minh, the shift in allegiance was permanent. After South Vietnam fell to the North in 1975, Minh pursued a career in the communist town administration. He retired last year as vice chairman of My Hanh's People's Committee.

The fact that the strategic hamlets program failed does not mean it was poor counterinsurgency theory.

According to military historian Nguyen Huu Nguyen, a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) who fought in the South from 1965 to 1975, the strategic hamlets program was a good idea. In fact, the goal it sought to achieve was crucial: “population control,” as it is called in the new 2007 U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual, co-authored by Gen. David Petraeus. It is the same goal that Petraeus pursued in Baghdad by walling off ethnically homogenous neighborhoods and instituting curfews and checkpoints.

But in Vietnam, it didn’t work. Corrupt government administrators stole funds meant for construction and social programs. To generate positive statistics, the government expanded the program too fast — when Holbrooke arrived in the Mekong Delta, he found many of the hamlets in his province existed only on paper. The government lacked troops to defend them.

In mid-1963, the Viet Cong launched a campaign to overwhelm the hamlets. They assassinated village government officials, including administrators and teachers, and encouraged villagers to tear down the fences. The campaign gathered steam when president Diem was killed by his own generals in a coup in November. By early 1964, most of the strategic hamlets had been destroyed, their populations returning to their former villages or streaming into the cities as refugees.

“In Vietnam the U.S. built strategic hamlets and still lost,” Nguyen said. “In Afghanistan, where they cannot even build strategic hamlets, there is no way for the U.S. to win.”

One reason the strategic hamlets program failed is that it was too inflexible an application of a technique from Malaya.

Many analysts have criticized the U.S. for misapplying old solutions, fighting in Vietnam as if it were Korea, Malaya or the Philippines rather than adapting to local realities. The new counterinsurgency manual tries to avoid such mistakes. Planners in Afghanistan will not simply replicate techniques from Vietnam or Iraq. They will recognize that the goals, actors, resources and constraints in Afghanistan are different. And they will employ an “iterative” process, testing out new techniques, discarding failures and adopting successes.

But counterinsurgency strategy in Vietnam was iterative too. The strategic hamlets program was an early example of a long series of increasingly sophisticated attempts to pacify South Vietnam’s countryside between 1954 and 1975.