Connect to share and comment

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.

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.

Part one: Lessons of Vietnam

Related GlobalPost dispatches:

Exclusive: Former Taliban see opening for talks

A coin toss in Afghanistan