Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

From the Mekong to the Helmand: Is Petraeus playing the same old movie?

I do not agree with this, but Professor Blackton sure is raising questions worth addressing.  By John Stuart Blackton Best Defense Helmand River Valley bureau chief Kai Bird’s essay in Politico on the similarities between our engagements in Afghanistan and Vietnam is worth pondering.  Bird doesn’t know either country up close, nor does he know ...

Wikimedia
Wikimedia
Wikimedia

I do not agree with this, but Professor Blackton sure is raising questions worth addressing. 

By John Stuart Blackton
Best Defense Helmand River Valley bureau chief

Kai Bird's essay in Politico on the similarities between our engagements in Afghanistan and Vietnam is worth pondering.  Bird doesn't know either country up close, nor does he know a lot about warfare, but he is a sharp long-term observer of Washington.

I do not agree with this, but Professor Blackton sure is raising questions worth addressing. 

By John Stuart Blackton
Best Defense Helmand River Valley bureau chief

Kai Bird’s essay in Politico on the similarities between our engagements in Afghanistan and Vietnam is worth pondering.  Bird doesn’t know either country up close, nor does he know a lot about warfare, but he is a sharp long-term observer of Washington.

I spent four years in the Indochina War and even more in Afghanistan over several decades.  While the two countries have nothing in common and the two societies have even less, America’s manner of engaging the two places has all sorts of commonalities.  We are the constant in the two equations. 

Looked at from the American perspective, I see some merit in Bird’s analogy.  He doesn’t get everything right, but he asks many of the right questions. 

I have noticed the Ruff Puffs and the CAPs coming back into the argument  on your blog as P4 tries out a variant of village militias in Afghanistan. What some of your Vietnam vet posters may be missing about the Ruff Puffs and the CAPs is that they were, no doubt, modestly successful tactical responses, but they were not decisive.  We lost.  

I was among the legions who worked on the current counterinsurgency manual and one of the things that the old guys (like me) found ourselves reminding the younger folks was that almost all these historical experiments in COIN that we were mining were ultimately failures.  Not tactical failures, but failures at the strategic level–which is the only level that counts in the long run.  The Algerians won.  The North Vietnamese won.  

Eating soup with a knife doesn’t change the underlying realities of a political situation which the Americans have failed to read correctly. If counterinsurgency were a video-game, fought village by village with a running tally of points for wins and losses at the local level, COIN doctrine would be much more helpful. But long wars are more than the sum of tactical events.  Bird’s essay underscores the weaknesses in America’s application of top-level political and strategic thinking to the problem.

We left Vietnam covered with stickers that urged the Vietnamese to “see it through with Nguyen Van Thieu.” This time we may be asking the Afghans to “See it through with Hamid who?”

Professor John Stuart Blackton
Managing Director, Strategic Advisory Services

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.