In 2014, ISAF is due to withdraw the last of its combat troops from Afghanistan. The following year marks the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. The close coincidence of these events invites comparisons. The latter was memorably dominated by two compelling images: the frantic last-minute helicopter evacuations from a Saigon rooftop; and the crushing of the elegant, French gates of the presidential palace by T-55 tank Number 844 of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The bo doi (soldier) sitting astride the turret did not even bother to carry a weapon or wear a helmet. What was remarkable about that traumatic last week of April in 1975 was that just three years earlier the United States had withdrawn the last of its combat troops from the Republic of South Vietnam, leaving behind 400,000 trained soldiers in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), 250,000 in the Regional Forces (RF), and 175,000 in the Popular Forces (PF). All for nought. Ho’s boys swept them away. Nobody knows if Kabul is fated to witness similar iconic scenes after ISAF’s withdrawal, but the question is worth asking. This article compares the creation and training of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Lessons are drawn at the end.
There were three stages to the US training mission. From 1955-60 the threat was perceived to be a conventional invasion by the NVA across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the 17th Parallel. To counter this threat, a force of 10 divisions was trained. This conventional army was never really tested until 1971 (an incursion into Laos[i]). It proved a fiasco and the ARVN had to be rescued by American airpower dropping over 50,000 tons of bombs. (By way of comparison, 500 tons were dropped on the infamous wartime raid on Coventry).[ii] Three years later the ARVN was routed and no B-52s came to the rescue.
In 1960 the emphasis switched. The emergence of the Viet Cong (VC, or ‘Vietnamese Communists’) led to a focus on counter-insurgency operations. This was Kennedy’s moment. The MAAG became the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). American trainers, special forces and helicopters began to flood the country. By the time Kennedy’s life was taken by an assassin’s bullet in November 1963 there were over 15,000 US servicemen in Vietnam and the VC tide appeared to be receding.[iii] It proved a premature hope. Johnson campaigned as the anti-war president, but ended up taking his country to war. By 1967 there were two contradictory narratives: the MACV pored over its statistics and saw a war being won, but most independent observers saw only a pointless quagmire. The 1968 Tet Offensive claimed two principal casualties: Hanoi’s hopes of a general uprising were destroyed, but more decisively, America’s will to continue fighting was broken.
The last phase ran from 1969-1973. Under the Republican President Richard Nixon, ‘Vietnamization’ became the watchword (much like ‘Afghanization’ today). Vietnamization was a mix of the two previous polices. The ARVN received an injection of war materiel judged sufficient to defeat an NVA attack concurrently with the counter-insurgency war (the ‘pacification’ campaign), increasingly fought by South Vietnamese rather than by American GIs or Marines. Nixon vowed that he would not be the first American president to lose a war. He kept his promise, but was powerless to halt the denouement. Thirty years after Ho Chi Minh made his declaration of independence in a square in Hanoi, Vietnam was finally independent and unified.
The training of indigenous forces in Afghanistan has also witnessed three phases. From 2002 to about 2006, ISAF indulged in the worst sort of ‘military tokenism’. Goodwill towards the US following the September 11th attacks soon evaporated. Nobody really wanted to be in Afghanistan and some did little to disguise this fact. It is hard to believe that for the first few years ‘ANSF training’ amounted to supplying a handful of radios and pick-ups to the presidential battalion in Kabul. US policy did not help in this matter as the Afghan Army – such as it existed – was disbanded in a controversial move that would be repeated in Iraq, throwing thousands of unemployed, armed, young men into the hands of militias and insurgent groups.
The second phase ran from 2006 to 2009. In response to a manifest deterioration in the security situation, ISAF began training serious numbers of ANSF personnel. The numbers proved to be the problem. Meeting targets and producing pleasing Powerpoints became substitutes for a firm, costed and realistic plan. Honesty was short. At the heart of the dishonesty was the ‘Capability Milestone’ (CM) rating system that was used to declare ANSF units ready for operations. When this was investigated by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) it was found wanting – in some cases, just parading guaranteed you a graduation certificate.[iv] ISAF had been churning out worthless kandaks (battalions) and glossing over the hollowness of the force it was creating.
The third phase runs from 2009 to the present. General Stanley McChrystal galvanized the flagging war, and his counterpart at the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A), Lieutenant-General William Caldwell, performed veritable heroics. CM was replaced at the beginning of 2010 with the Commander’s Unit Assessment Tool. It is this far more rigorous and truthful methodology that is in place today, and which has resulted in the downgrading of the kandaks. The damage to ISAF’s credibility has been more difficult to repair. Caldwell’s effort may justifiably be described as heroic for two principal reasons. Firstly, the US’ ISAF partners have repeatedly promised and repeatedly failed to deliver trainers, a situation that is only likely to worsen as the stampede towards the exit accelerates. Secondly, desertion rates are so high that the training ‘sausage machine’ can barely keep up. The arithmetic is all bad.
Vietnam and Afghanistan compared
The problems besetting the ARVN advisory mission in Vietnam would be familiar to anyone involved in training the ANSF today. They included: a venal, incompetent and corrupt officer class, strong on ribbons of unearned medals but weak on dirty hands and boots; an unwilling soldiery that too readily allowed Americans to do the hard fighting; the inevitable haemorrhage from relentless combat (South Vietnamese soldiers may have been apathetic, but they also died in droves, as have the ANSF); a tendency to localism; a lack of initiative; illiteracy; language problems (doubly so as Indochina was the only Francophone region in Southeast Asia); logistic dependence on American aid and resources; strained relations with GIs who were often contemptuous of their allies and more respectful of the Viet Cong; an obsession with gross numbers at the expense of quality; staggering waste; reliance on a handful of reliable units (the Rangers, for example); critical dependence on American air power and medevac; and, of course, constant desertions.
Other significant points of comparison can be found. Towards the end of the Johnson presidency one phrase haunted officials: the ‘credibility gap’.[v] It became a media cliché. The high theatre of this gap was the ‘five o’clock follies’, the military press briefings at the MACV. Luckless army spokesmen would stand up and fire a barrage of positive statistics demonstrating success which a cynical press corps would jeeringly throw back. It was not just the press corps that wearied of the false narrative of success. Westmoreland’s successor, General Creighton Abrams, also grew tired of being told that a district had been secured, stating: “if I cannot walk somewhere during the day without protection, or drive somewhere at night without protection, then a district is not secure”. It became known as ‘the Abrams Test’. At the time of writing, not a single district in Helmand passes the ‘Abrams Test’, after six years of fighting and many claims of success.
The Afghanistan War has similarly been subject to competing and contradictory narratives. The official government version is positive. In one of his most recent reports to Parliament, Foreign Secretary William Hague presented a picture of “progress”, “professionalism” and “increasing capability”.[vi] He cited Operation Naweed (‘Good News’) as “the first time that the ANSF have taken the leading role in campaign planning”. He reported that the ANSF now take the lead in 40 per cent of operations. At the Lashkar Gah police training centre, the 5,000th recruit recently graduated. Overall, Parliament might be satisfied that the ANSF are demonstrating a “capability to manage the campaign in an increasingly independent manner.”
Unofficial assessments, meanwhile, are predictably uniformly pessimistic. The most arresting recent example is that of Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Davis (US Army), whose analysis of the situation in Afghanistan caused a furore at the beginning of the year.[vii] When a piece written by a serving military officer starts with: ‘Senior ranking US military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the U.S. Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable’, you can hear the collective gasp. Whether or not one agrees with Davis, it is plain from the manner in which the US government has been unwinding the war that Davis’s position is probably much closer to the National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) that land on the president’s desk than those offered by the purveyors of good news.
A third version of the truth is held by ISAF’s training mission, the NTM-A. In a February media conference General Curtis Scaparrotti, head of ISAF Joint Command (IJC), was asked to reconcile the many versions of the truth. The interchange with the journalist is reminiscent of the Vietnam ‘five o’clock follies’ and worth quoting:
‘Q: General, in your remarks, you talked about the Afghan forces increasingly taking the lead. Then you said you hoped they would step into the lead. And then you said your goal is to move them into the lead –
Gen. Scaparrotti: right
Q: – as soon as possible. Could you just square all that? And also, how many Kandaks can operate independently now? And have they done – has any of the Afghan forces done any independent operations? …
…Gen. Scaparroti: Out of the total, I don’t have it right here on me. But it’s – you know, you’ve got probably – I’d be taking a guess. I’m not going to give it to you, but I can get to you here in a minute. That’s about – you know, that’s about probably 1 percent, OK, to be honest with you. So it’s a very low number.’
General Scaparroti’s moment of discomfort may cause amusement but his honesty must also be acknowledged. According to NTM-A the status of the ANSF is as follows. Just 29 ANA kandaks and seven ANP units are truly independent (this is the one per cent figure). Around 42 per cent are ‘effective with advisors’. The units mentored by Task Force Helmand fall in this category. The remainder – over half – are in poor shape and incapable of operating without significant Western help. These numbers beg an important question. If a decade of albeit halting, unsatisfactory and only latterly effective training has produced an ANSF where one per cent of units is independent, on what grounds does ISAF believe that it can transform the other 99 per cent in the next two years?
Costs and sustainability
Washington has been carrying the financial burden of the Afghanistan War. The waste has been colossal, and thoroughly audited by bodies like the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the General Auditor’s Office (GOA), and SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction). Other nations, including the UK, have been coy about admitting the sheer scale of waste, fraud and embezzlement of taxpayer’s money in Afghanistan. A recent three year study by the US bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan[viii] concluded that ‘at least $31 billion, and possibly as much as $60 billion, has been lost in contract waste and fraud in America’s contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.’[ix] Nobody really knows the true figure.
The future cost of sustaining the ANSF has been estimated at anything between $5 billion and $10 billion per year. The Afghan government has no realistic hope of funding this commitment for the next decade or longer. The US has already signalled it will halve its funding by next year. It has also been reported that Washington is seeking to encourage allies to pledge around three quarters of the training funds. This seems a forlorn hope. The most dependable ally, the UK, recently announced that it would commit £70 million to ANSF training, or around one per cent of the required funds. As in so many other instances in the Afghanistan story, denial and deflection loom large.
We fight for our beliefs
The effectiveness of the ANSF, without ISAF, remains untested. A focus on military metrics, to a great extent, actually misses the point. The collapse of the ARVN in the spring of 1975 has never attracted great military analysis, for the good reason that the story had little to do with tanks and guns and all to do with the beliefs men hold that make them fight. Only Ho Chi Minh truly and popularly represented Vietnamese nationalism. Nothing had changed since 1945. If you were a South Vietnamese soldier manning a pillbox on the outskirts of Saigon, what were you being asked to die for – a corrupt government which lost its mandate years ago?
Who holds the strongest beliefs in Afghanistan today? McChrystal was right when he warned that comparisons with Vietnam were flawed because the Taliban are not a popular movement like the VC, but he was only telling half the story. Nationwide polls have consistently shown that the Taliban enjoy less than ten per cent support. In the Pashtun south, however, support for the Taliban is higher, and this is where it counts. Moreover, the Taliban are not trying to win a beauty competition. They are trying to be the biggest bully in the neighbourhood. Nearly $600 billion worth of Western military might has been thrown at these tribesmen armed with AK-47s, and they have not given up. The question that should be asked is: why does anyone not think that the Taliban will win in the long term?
As the situation stands today, there are many reasons to forecast a bleak outcome. It may look something like this. With the withdrawal of ISAF, Afghanistan’s insurgent groups will have their day, at least in their heartlands. They have suffered too much to give up now. Besides, there is no Pashtun tradition of surrender, only endurance and resistance. Pakistan will also have its day. The desire to avenge ten years of kow-towing to the US is too strong. Iran will enjoy a moment of schadenfreude over the West’s humiliation. The narcotics trade will boom. Criminality will spread. The West’s cosmetic championing of women’s rights will dribble away. The drawing down of aid will provoke economic recession. Kabul politics will degenerate. An under-funded and hollow ANSF will crumble away in Khost, Kandahar, Helmand and other contested provinces. As in Vietnam, a Western intervention will have an unhappy ending.
Lessons from the unfinished Afghanistan War would fill a fat book. For the sake of brevity, a handful is listed below:
Nobody has ever won a war by ‘spinning’. It has never happened and never will. Reporting must be honest.
Political settlement is the sine qua non of a nation-building, intervention operation against the background of an insurgency. The tragedy of Vietnam was laid in the 1954 Geneva Accords, as one day it may be judged that Afghanistan’s tragedy was made in the 2001 Berlin Conference. The settlement must include the enemy. Failure to do so implies that the fighting will continue.
Realistic, affordable and sustainable funding must be secured at the outset. Intervening nations need to be serious about the costs of war and nation-building, including the creation of indigenous armies.
Expenditure (military and economic aid) must be ruthlessly controlled. The Third World is a bottomless pit for billions of dollars of Western taxes, dishonestly wasted in the name of ‘doing good’; which, not uncommonly, has resulted in incontrovertible bad. If you cannot spend it effectively, don’t.
Building indigenous armed forces is not an exit strategy. It is the entrance strategy. Every day not devoted to handing back the problem to indigenous forces is another day the intervening forces must remain in country.
A realistic, costed and sustainable infrastructure for the indigenous armed force must be built first. It is easy to teach someone how to fire a rifle. It is much harder ensuring that the soldier receives bullets and everything else he needs (not least, regular pay).
An obsession with meeting targets and gross numbers is self-deluding. Quality matters.
Competent, honest, indigenous leadership is vital. Find, train and reward the good leaders. If they do not exist, leave.
[i] Operation Lam Son 719.
[ii] See Bernard C. Nalty, The War Against Trucks, Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005
[iii] See the Pentagon Papers, the Kennedy Commitments for details on the build-up of the MACV from 1961-63.
[iv] Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Actions Needed to Improve the Reliability of Afghan Security Force Assessments, June 2010.
[v] Used in the phrase ‘credibility gap’ which actually began to appear towards the end of the Kennedy presidency when doubts began to surface over the direction of US policy in Indochina.
[vi] William Hague, MP, Afghanistan progress report for April 2012, April 2012
[vii] Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, Dereliction of Duty II: Senior Military Leader’s Loss of Integrity Wounds Afghan War Effort, January 2010
[viii] Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Final Report to Congress, August 2011.
[ix] Ibid, Executive Summary.