As 1968 unfolded, the North Vietnamese People’s Army and its Viet Cong allies launched what has come to be known as the “Tet Offensive” in South Vietnam. In a wave of attacks across the country involving 80,000 troops, the North Vietnamese forces surprised U.S. war planners with a series of strikes on 36 of 44 provincial capitals — including Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.
Despite initial setbacks, the South Vietnamese forces, backed up strongly by the United States, eventually regained control. The casualties suffered by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were significant; in every tactical sense, the Tet Offensive was a defeat. The North Vietnamese leadership was initially despondent and especially disappointed that it had not unleashed a general uprising in the South.
Yet the shock of seeing supposedly weak Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces actually taking and occupying cities — even temporarily — was profound on what turned out to be the principal audience for the offensive: the American public. As the reality of Tet sunk in — particularly that of a suddenly vibrant, resurgent insurgency — support in the United States waned rapidly. A public already intensely tired of the long war clamored for disengagement, arguing that Vietnam was a futile effort and it was “time to cut our losses.” President Lyndon Johnson was deeply disappointed, and the commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, was replaced.
With the recent attack on the city of Kunduz and other significant offensive moves around Afghanistan, the Taliban seem to be trying to take a page from the outcome of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Their recent attacks on cities — marshaling large troop formations, in some cases, of several thousand fighters — appear designed to sow doubt in the minds of an already extremely skeptical and tired American public.
Will they succeed? It depends on our reaction and ultimately our responses. Thus far — after the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) responded by defending some of the provincial capitals effectively and retaking others within a matter of a week or so — it appears that the U.S. administration and the rest of the NATO allies are making the right choice to continue with a military presence through 2017. But an emerging narrative of futility and defeat is building. We should reject it.
We must avoid succumbing to the sense that we cannot succeed in Afghanistan. Many metrics favor a positive outcome: Afghan security forces, while far from perfect, are fighting and defeating the Taliban in the field; millions of children are now in school, nearly half of them girls; life expectancy has grown throughout the country; there are democratic elections and a vibrant free press; and the Afghan economy seems poised to survive the drawdown of foreign troops. Moreover, if the Taliban truly had the wherewithal to strike and defeat the ANSF, they would; fortunately, they do not have the ability to do so. Instead, they may be attempting to use a Tet Offensive strategy to change the fundamental narrative.
The greatest mistake we could make at this point would be to take counsel of our fears. We have already invested a significant amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan, and it would be easy to simply walk away — but it would also be a mistake.
Instead, we should do three fundamental things:
First, events in Iraq have shown us what happens when we disengage too soon. Our forces are a tiny fraction of what they once were: When I led the NATO alliance as the strategic commander for Afghanistan in 2009-2013, the alliance had nearly 150,000 troops on the ground, roughly two-thirds of which hailed from the United States. Today, we have only 13,000 alliance troops, including less than 10,000 Americans. Deaths in combat for the coalition, which were over 700 in 2010, have plummeted to under 30 thus far this year, as troops are generally in backup and support roles.
We need to maintain about 15,000 total troops on the ground in order to retain an ability to effectively train, organize, equip, and mentor the ANSF. This means around 10,000 U.S. troops — with another 5,000 coming from allied countries. Even as a fraction of the U.S. Army with 450,000 personnel and our 175,000-strong Marine Corps (here, I’m using worst-case numbers, based on further sequestration), sustaining 10,000 troops is easily achievable over the long haul. So why then the rush to depart? Our troop presence creates real stability and makes the likelihood of success far higher.
Second, we must continue to provide funding to the ANSF. The bill for doing so is not insignificant, but sharing the $4 billion or so among all our allies makes it more palatable. Compared to the cost of operations at the peak a few years ago, it is a very reasonable level of funding to an ally that is taking the vast majority of casualties and fighting to protect shared gains.
Third, our Afghan partners — led by President Ashraf Ghani — need our political support. That includes continuing to put pressure on the Pakistani government to reduce support and stop providing sanctuaries to the Taliban; encouraging Indian and Chinese investment, especially in the potentially profitable mining sector; and supporting donor conferences that help not only the security forces but, even more importantly, the economic sector.
Westmoreland, the commander who oversaw the Tet Offensive, famously said, “Militarily, we succeeded in Vietnam. We won every engagement we were involved in out there.” Yet quite clearly we lost that war. Let’s not do the same in Afghanistan.
Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images