1 July 2013
Afghanistan: The Quest for a “Decent Interval”
By Gwynne Dyer
History does not exactly repeat itself: the final outcome of the American intervention in Afghanistan will not be the same as the end result in Vietnam. But the negotiations between the United States and its Taliban enemy that are lurching into motion in Qatar as the US prepares to pull out of Afghanstan next year are eerily similar to the “Paris peace talks” that paved the way for the US military withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1973.
In his Briefing Notes for a secret 1971 meeting in Beijing with Chinese government officials, Henry Kissinger, national security adviser to US president Richard Nixon, wrote in the margin: “We are ready to withdraw all of our forces [from South Vietnam] by a fixed date and let objective realities shape the political future….We want a decent interval. You have our assurance.”
The phrase got out, and it stuck: the whole point of the exercise by 1971, from the US point of view, was to get out of the Vietnamese war without admitting defeat. North Vietnam could collect its victory in the end, but it must allow a “decent interval” to pass so that Washington could distance itself from blame for the ultimate collapse of its local Vietnamese allies.
Direct American-Taliban peace talks are now on the menu for much the same reason. The Obama administration realises that the intervention in Afghanistan has been a ghastly failure, but it needs some semblance of success, however transitory, to console the families of the 4,000 American dead in the war, and to save America’s face internationally.
Just as in the Vietnam case, the fighting will continue while the diplomats are talking. Just as in Vietnam, American generals and diplomats must go on claiming in the meantime that victory is in sight.
When General John Allen, the last US commander in Afghanistan, handed over to his successor in February, he said what he had to say: “This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well trained Afghan forces that are emerging today….This is victory. This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.” But privately, he must know better: American generals are rarely stupid.
And just as in Vietnam, the puppet regime in Afghanistan is now panicking as its master prepares to abandon it. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, rightly sensing that he was about to be sold down the river, revealed the details of the secret American-North Vietnamese agreement in 1972, hoping to mobilise US Congressional and public opinion against it. Fat chance. Both members of Congress and the public wanted out at any price.
So, too, with Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is refusing to send representatives to the American-organised talks in Qatar until he has a promise that the Taliban will not be given a share of power. He is also refusing to agree to a continuing US military presence in the country after 2014 until he gets his way. But he will not get his way, and the US will do whatever it wants.
Maybe the Taliban will be patient enough to give the US the “decent interval” it wants, believing that they can collect their victory a few years after the American troops have gone home. Or perhaps they will reject anything short of immediate and total victory, knowing that the American troops will leave anyway. However, the war in Afghanistan is actually a civil war, and they can never win a decisive victory.
The Afghan civil war began in 1992, when the puppet government that the Russians left behind when they pulled their troops out the country in 1989 collapsed. The various mujaheddin groups who had fought the Russians went to war with one another for control of the country, and that civil war has continued ever since.
Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country, and the conflict soon resolved into a struggle between the Taliban, the dominant organisation in the Pashtun-populated parts of the country, and the militias of the Northern Alliance, the various smaller ethnic groups in the north of Afghanistan.
Since the Pashtuns are almost half the country’s population and had Pakistani support, the Taliban won control of multi-ethnic Kabul and become the country’s “government” in 1996. However, they never conquered the “Northern Alliance” that dominated the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek provinces in the north.
Then, after 9/11, the US invaded and made a de facto alliance with the warlords of the Northern Alliance. This tipped the balance in the war in the other direction, and it’s the northern warlords who have effectively run (or rather, looted) the country for the past decade.
Once the US leaves, the balance of power between these two sides will be restored – and the civil war between them will continue on a more equal basis. This is not Vietnam, a homogeneous country with a strong national identity. It is a tribal country whose borders are entirely artificial. Decisive victory in Afghanistan is unattainable for any ethnic group.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Just…stupid”)
9 September 2011
By Gwynne Dyer
The Indian Navy revealed recently that one of its vessels, the amphibious assault ship INS Airavat, was hailed by a Chinese naval officer demanding to know why it was in Chinese territory – while it was actually off the Vietnamese coast heading for the Vietnamese port of Haiphong. And last week it was reported that a Chinese spy ship was discovered in India’s Andaman Islands earlier this year.
A quarter of a world away, in the eastern Mediterranean, the consequences of Israel’s seizure of a Turkish aid vessel heading for Gaza in May of last year continue to unfold. Israel steadfastly refuses to apologise for the deaths of nine Turks who were killed by Israeli commandos in the attack, and on 8 September Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that future aid vessels to Gaza would be escorted by the Turkish Navy.
If this sort of thing goes on, it is plausible to imagine a point at which countries with real military power – Israel and Turkey, or India and China – start shooting at each other. Moreover, all these countries except Turkey have nuclear weapons, though it is hard to imagine them being used in a conflict at sea. On the other hand, it is the sea and its slippery boundaries that makes such confrontations possible.
The thing about maritime frontiers that makes them so much more dangerous than land borders is that they are often ill-defined, and almost always invisible. There are lots of disputed land frontiers in the world, but everybody knows where the actual line of control is, and there are usually troops or border police around to make sure that everybody observes it.
You can attack a land border if you really want to, but it is a very big decision with incalculable consequences: a declaration of war, in effect. Even the most arrogant or paranoid governments will think long and hard before embarking on such an action, and generally they end up by deciding not to do it. Whereas at sea you can easily drift into a serious military confrontation that neither side intended.
Turkey recognised Israel in 1950, and in recent decades the two countries have been major trading partners and closely linked militarily. Only two or three years ago Israeli warplanes were still conducting military exercises in Turkey, and the latter was a major customer for Israeli weapons. But relations have cooled rapidly since Binyamin Netanyahu became prime minister of Israel, and the attack on the aid flotilla last year was the last straw.
Early this month Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador, and Prime Minister Erdogan’s announcement that the Turkish navy will escort future aid convoys raises the prospect of actual military clashes between the two.
Erdogan cannot stand by and let any more Turkish citizens be killed, nor can he stop future convoys from seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Israel’s refusal to apologise for killing Turkish citizens makes it politically impossible for him to defy Turkish public opinion on this. And yet if Turkish warships escort the next convoy, it’s easy to imagine an outbreak of shooting.
All Israel’s wars hitherto have been with poorly armed and badly led Arab armies in non-industrialised countries; a war with Turkey would be a very different matter, even if it remained a purely maritime conflict. But Israeli politics will not let Netanyahu back down either – and because it’s at sea, nobody really knows where the red lines are.
Israel attacked last year’s aid flotilla well beyond the limits of the blockade zone it had declared around Gaza, and might do so again. Israel would have local air superiority, but the Turkish warships would be on hair-trigger alert for an attack. This could end very badly.
Even that is small potatoes compared to the potential for a naval conflict in the South China Sea. China insists that virtually the whole sea is its territory, with claimed boundaries that skim the coasts of all the other countries that border the sea: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
China bases its claim on its historic sovereignty over the clusters of low-lying islands in the middle of the sea, the Paracels and the Spratlys. But Hanoi says that Beijing never claimed sovereignty until 1940, and that the islands had actually been controlled by Vietnam since the 17th century. They were certainly under Vietnamese control until 1974, when China seized them by force, killing several Vietnamese soldiers in the process.
The Philippines also claims some of the islands, and all four Southeast Asian countries reject China’s claim to own the seabed rights practically up to their beaches. To make matters worse, there are now believed to be enormous reserves of oil and gas under the sea’s shallow waters.
Worst of all, the South China Sea is a maritime highway connecting Europe, the Middle East and South Asia with East Asia, and none of the other major powers is willing let it fall under exclusive Chinese control. That’s why an Indian warship was visiting Vietnam last July, and why the United States is selling more warships and helicopters to the Philippines.
It’s a slow-burning fuze, but this is the most worrisome strategic confrontation in the world today.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“The thing…it”; and “Turkey…straw”)
10 May 2011
By Gwynne Dyer
“With a single bound, our hero was free”, as writers of pulp fiction used to say when they saved their hero from some implausible but inescapable peril. Barack Obama could now free himself from Afghanistan with a single bound, if he had the nerve.
The death of Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaeda, matters little in practical terms, but Obama could use it as a means of deflating the grossly exaggerated “terrorist threat” that legitimises the bloated American security establishment. He could also use it to escape from the war in Afghanistan.
If he acted in the next few months, while his success in killing the terrorist-in-chief still makes him politically unassailable on military matters, he could start moving U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, and even begin to cut the Homeland Security Department down to size. His political enemies would accuse him of being “soft on defence”, but right now the accusation would not stick.
The HSD’s reason for being is the “terrorist threat”. Drive home the point that bin Laden is dead, and that there has been no terrorist attack in the West at even 1/50 the scale of the 9/11 attacks for the past five years, and its budget becomes very vulnerable.
Obama promised in 2009 that the first of the 30,000 extra U.S. troops he sent to Afghanistan in that year will be withdrawn this July. It would be harder to get the remaining 70,000 American troops and the 50,000 other foreign troops out—but it is now within his reach.
Since it is politically impossible for a U.S. president to acknowledge military defeat, for half a century the default method for extracting American troops from lost wars has been to “declare a victory and leave”. It was pioneered by Henry Kissinger in the Vietnam era, it worked for the junior Bush in Iraq, and Obama could use it to get out of Afghanistan.
It just has to look like a victory of sorts until one or two years after all the American troops are gone, so that when the roof falls in, it no longer looks like the Americans’ fault. Kissinger talked about the need for a “decent interval” between the departure of U.S. troops and whatever disasters might ensue in Vietnam, and the concept applies equally to Obama and Afghanistan.
The case for getting Western troops out of Afghanistan now rests on three arguments. Firstly, that the Taliban, the Islamist radicals who governed the country until 2001 and are now fighting Western troops there, were never America’s enemies. Al-Qaeda (which was almost entirely Arab in those days) abused their hospitality by planning its attacks in Afghanistan, but no Afghan has ever been involved in a terrorist attack against the West.
Secondly, the Taliban never controlled the minority areas of the country even during their five years in power, so why assume that they will conquer the whole country if Western troops leave? President Hamid Karzai’s deeply corrupt and widely hated government would certainly fall, but Afghanistan’s future would probably be decided, as usual, by a combination of fighting and bargaining between the major ethnic groups.
And thirdly, Western troops will obviously leave eventually. Whether they leave sooner or later, roughly the same events will happen after they go. Those events are unlikely to pose a threat to the security of any Western country—so why not leave now, and spare some tens of thousands of lives?
This last argument is of course disputed by the U.S. military, who insist (as soldiers usually do) that victory is attainable if they are only given enough resources and time. But Karzai’s government is beyond salvage, and this month’s strikingly successful Taliban attacks in Kandahar city discredit the claim that pro-government forces are “making progress” in “restoring security”.
Western armies have fought dozens of wars in the Third World since the European empires began to collapse 60 years ago, and they lost almost every one. The local nationalists (who sometimes calling themselves Marxists or Islamists) cannot beat the foreign armies in open battle, but they can go on fighting longer and take far higher casualties.
Afghanistan fits the model. When a delegation from Central Asia visited a U.S. base in Afghanistan, one of the delegates was a former Soviet general who had fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. He listened patiently as eager young American officers explained how new technology and a new emphasis on “winning hearts and minds” would defeat the insurgency.
Finally his patience snapped. “We tried all that when we were here and it didn’t work then, so why should it work now?” he asked. Answer: it won’t.
Osama bin Laden’s death has given Obama a chance to leave Afghanistan without humiliation. Just wait a couple of months to guard against the improbable contingency of a big terrorist revenge attack, and then start bringing the troops home. Once the Taliban are convinced that he is really leaving, they would probably even give him a “decent interval”.
Will this actually happen? Probably not, for in terms of domestic U.S. politics it would be a gamble, and Barack Obama is not a gambler.
14 January 2011
Vietnam: What Was It All About?
By Gwynne Dyer
Communist Party congresses are generally tedious events, and the eleventh congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (12-17 January) is no exception. The changes in personnel at the top are decided by the elite inner circle of the Party long before the congress opens, and the rhetoric is in the same wooden language that Communists always use.
The nation must “renew the growth model and restructure the economy to speed up industrialisation and modernisation with fast and sustainable development,” outgoing Party leader Nong Duc Manh told the congress on its opening day. “The strategy is to strive towards 2020 so that our country will basically become an industrialised nation.” Well, that’s a novel approach, isn’t it?
The talk is all about fighting inflation and corruption (there’s quite a lot of both those things in Vietnam), while maintaining a high economic growth rate (6.8 percent last year). Ordinary people are struggling to maintain their standard of living (although they are far better off than they were twenty or forty years ago), and resent being bossed around by the Communist elite – but they feel helpless to do anything about it.
In other words, it’s not all that different from the situation in, say, Thailand, just a little to the west, apart from the fact that the economic elite in Vietnam are Communist Party members and their businessman cronies.
Thailand is technically a democracy, but if you are a rural “red shirt” in Thailand your views on those in power will be little different from those that many Vietnamese peasants privately hold about the Communist Party. It’s a more traditional elite in Thailand, but it clings to power just as tightly, and rewards itself even more lavishly.
So what was it all about, then? Why was there a 15-year war in Vietnam (1960-75) that killed 58,000 American soldiers, and between one and three million Vietnamese? The US government insisted at the time that it was about stopping Communist expansionism in Vietnam before it swept through all of South-East Asia. The Communists, who controlled North Vietnam, said it was only about reuniting the country. Who was right?
In retrospect, it’s clear that the Communists were telling the truth. They won the war in Vietnam despite all the efforts of the United States, but the “domino effect” in the rest of South-East Asia never happened. In fact, the Vietnamese Communists never even tried to knock the dominoes over.
Apart from invading Cambodia in 1978 to drive the Khmer Rouge, a much nastier group of Communists, from power, Communist-ruled Vietnam has never sent troops abroad or interfered in the internal affairs of other countries in the region. After a decade all the Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia, and even there Hanoi has virtually no influence today.
As for some vast Communist plot to overrun South-East Asia, it was never more than a fantasy. Indeed, within four years of uniting Vietnam, the Communist regime in Hanoi was at war with Communist China over a border dispute. In a perfect world, most people would probably prefer to spare their country the burden of a generation of Communist rule, but Vietnam is not a disaster, and it is no threat to anyone else.
So, once again, what was the war about? How did three American presidents allow themselves to be misled into fighting such a pointless, unwinnable war? Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were all intelligent men, and Eisenhower also had much experience at the highest level of military and diplomatic decision-making.
To varying degrees, they all fell for a strategic vision of the world that was mere fantasy, driven by ideology. Or rather, in Eisenhower’s case and to some extent also in Kennedy’s, they found it politically impossible to resist the demands of those who did live fully within that fantasy. So American foreign policy had little connection with reality for several decades, and a lot of people died.
The point is that this sort of thing happens all the time. The “war on terror” now is functionally almost indistinguishable from the anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s and 1960s, although the actual wars involve much lower levels of casualties. For Vietnam in 1960, read Iraq in 2003 – or, perhaps, Iran the day after tomorrow.
It doesn’t only happen to Americans, of course. The various British invasions of Afghanistan in the 19th century were driven by the conviction that the rapacious Russians wanted to seize Britain’s Indian empire, although the thought hadn’t even occurred to the Russians. Germans spent the decade before the First World War worried that they were being “encircled” by the other great powers.
But these delusions mainly afflict the great powers, because weaker countries cannot afford such expensive follies. They have to deal with reality as it is – which is why the Vietnamese Communists, for example, never dreamed of trying to spread their faith across the rest of the region. They were and are pragmatic people with purely local ambitions, so the resolutions of the 11th Party Congress are of little interest to anybody else.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“The nation..it”; and “As for…else”)
If using after 17 January, change the verbs in the first paragraph to the past tense.