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Opinion: Isolating insurgents is nothing new

In the Vietnam era it was called pacification. Today it’s nation-building.

A Pentagon study called: “A Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of Vietnam” concluded that the U.S. “must redirect the Republic of Vietnam-Free world military efforts to achieve greater security.” The war should be fought at the village level, the study concluded, not by the big battalions.

When General Creighton Abrams took over from Westmoreland, whack-a-mole was replaced by pacification as the top priority. But somehow all that was forgotten when we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the Vietnam era it was called pacification. Today it’s nation-building. In his New Yorker profile of Richard Holbrooke, America’s envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, George Packer wrote that changing hearts and minds, winning over the population was what all the smart young men thought when Holbrooke served in Vietnam. “Four decades later, after strategic bungling in Iraq and Afghanistan, the smart young men discovered it again.” Isolating the population from insurgent militants was not new even in Malaya. The British, fighting an illusive guerilla war against Dutch farmers toward the end of the Boer War, simply rounded up all the Dutch women and children they could lay their hands on, burned their farms, and concentrated them into camps where thousands died. The Spanish tried something similar in Cuba.

In the end, pacification failed in Vietnam. When a ceasefire came, with Communist forces allowed to remain in place, it was amazing to me when I drove through the countryside that so many of the villages that our pacification teams thought were safe for the South Vietnamese side hoisted Viet Cong flags. The inhabitants had taken all our efforts, building schools, roads, sanitation projects and the like, but still stayed on the Communist side. In the end their hearts were never ours.