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.”
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.
Popular mythology holds that the U.S. never attempted to address the social roots of Vietnam’s civil war. But in fact, numerous American analysts devoted immense resources to studying and addressing the sociopolitical side of the war.
Col. John Paul Vann and then-National Security Adviser Robert Komer saw that social change was a prerequisite for political success, and created the “Revolutionary Development Cadres” — teams of South Vietnamese social workers who were paired with USAID workers to bring social and economic improvements to the countryside. This evolved into the CORDS program, which has influenced the Provincial Reconstruction Teams that operate today in Afghanistan.
CIA officer William Colby recognized that security required local defense forces, and he backed the “Combined Action Platoons,” which paired a squad of U.S. Marines with local soldiers living in a single village.
The RAND Corporation’s social science researchers realized that pacification required a metric for assessing success, and devised the “Hamlet Evaluation Surveys,” which tried to produce reliable data that could generate a measurement of how much of the countryside was really under government control.
The CIA, meanwhile, understood that a sophisticated social and political view of the conflict required an attempt to dismantle the Viet Cong’s shadow government, and set up the “Phoenix” program to gather intelligence and promote defections, arrests and assassinations of Viet Cong officials. Experts at USAID, RAND, the State Department and elsewhere saw the need for land reform to draw impoverished poor peasants away from the communists, and finally convinced the Vietnamese government to adopt a law that redistributed land from wealthy landowners to poor farmers. And this is just a partial list of efforts to combat the war's social underpinnings.
The U.S. war in Vietnam, particularly from 1966 on, was never purely military in nature.
Indeed, American civilian aid efforts in South Vietnam dwarf the American efforts in Afghanistan today. In 1967, USAID’s budget in Vietnam was $550 million — $3.5 billion in today’s dollars, compared with a U.S. aid budget in Afghanistan of $1 billion a year. Meanwhile, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan are almost entirely military, with just 50 civilian staff.
The U.S. has announced it will send up to 300 more State Department civilians to Afghanistan. But that number pales in comparison to the more than 2,000 civilian personnel USAID had in South Vietnam in 1967. And South Vietnam was smaller, both in physical size and population, than Afghanistan.
The U.S. new strategy review for Afghanistan, scheduled to be unveiled March 27, reportedly focuses on integrating the sociopolitical and military elements of counterinsurgency. But in introducing the Afghanistan strategy to NATO officials earlier this week, Holbrooke said that simply spending a lot of money on aid does not guarantee results.
Holbrooke called the U.S. program to eradicate opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan — which has thus far cost $800 million — “the most wasteful and ineffective program I have seen in 40 years."
The last time Holbrooke saw such a wasteful and ineffective program, then, was in the late 1960s, when he was one of America's senior pacification officials for Vietnam.
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