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The Vietnam Syndrome in Afghanistan

Eric S. Margolis / 21 September 2009

Afghanistan’s much ballyhooed recent election staged by its foreign occupiers turned out to be a fraud wrapped up in a farce – as this writer predicted it would be a month ago. The election was as phony and meaningless as US run elections in Vietnam in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, American and NATO generals running the Afghan War amazingly warn they risk being beaten by lightly armed Taleban tribesmen in spite of their 107,000 soldiers, B1 heavy bombers, F-15’s, F-16’s, F-18’s, Apache and AC-130 gunships, heavy artillery, tanks, radars, killer drones, cluster bombs, white phosphorus, rockets, and space surveillance. 

Washington has spent some $250 billion in Afghanistan since 2001. Each time the US sent more troops and bombed more villages, Afghan resistance sharply intensified, and Taleban expanded its control, today over 55 per cent of the country. Now, US commanders are begging for at least 40,000 more US troops — after President Obama just tripled the number of American soldiers there. Shades of Vietnam-style ‘mission creep.’ America’s NATO allies have seen the writing on the wall in Kabul and are trying to disengage their troop contingents without infuriating Washington. The Director of US National Intelligence just revealed for the first time that Washington’s 16 intelligence agencies spent an astounding US $75 billion last year on intelligence, employing 200,000 people in intelligence work. The highest previous estimate was $30 billion. The truth has shocked many Americans.     

In spite of this mammoth expenditure and army of agents, embarrassingly, the US still can’t find Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar after hunting them for eight years and offering rewards of up to $50 million. Washington now fears Taleban will launch a Vietnam-style Tet surprise offensive against major Afghan cities. 

This week, in a wildly overdue observation, Pentagon chief Adm. Mike Mullen told Congress, “we must rapidly build the Afghan Army and police.” Did it really take the Pentagon eight years to come up with this basic idea? The US record in foreign army building is not encouraging. Remember “Vietnamisation?” That was the Pentagon’s effort to build a South Vietnamese Army that could stand on its own, without US air cover, supplies, and ‘advisers.’  In early 1975, it collapsed and ran.

Any student of Imperialism 101 knows that after invading a resource-rich or strategic nation you immediately put a local stooge in power, use disaffected minorities to run the government (divide and conquer), and build a native mercenary army.  Such troops, commanded by white officers, were called  “sepoys” in the British Indian Army and “askaris” in British East Africa.

America’s attempts to build an Afghan sepoy army of 250,000 have failed miserably. The 80,000 men raised to date are 95 per cent illiterate and only on the job for money to feed their families. They have no loyalty to the corrupt Western-installed government in Kabul.  CIA’s 74,000 “contractors” (read mercenaries) in Afghanistan are more reliable.

But the biggest problem in Afghanistan, as always, is tribalism. Many of the US-raised Afghan army troops are minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara who used to collaborate with the Soviets. They are scorned by the majority Pashtun tribes as enemies and traitors.  These US-paid troops also know they will face death when the US and its western allies eventually quit Afghanistan. 

The Soviets had a much better understanding of Afghanistan than the American military, which one senior British general recently called,  ‘culturally ignorant.’ Moscow built an Afghan government army of around 240,000 men. Many were loyal Communists. They sometimes fought well, as I experienced in combat against them near Jalalabad.  But, in the end, they smelled defeat and crumbled.  The Soviet-backed strongman, Najibullah, was castrated and slowly hanged from a crane.  The current Afghan Army and police, like the post-Saddam Iraqi Army, is led by white officers – in this case, Americans designated “trainers” or “advisers.”  Its ranks are heavily infiltrated by Taleban supporters, as was the case during the Soviet occupation. Every new American search and destroy mission in Afghanistan is telegraphed well in advance to Taleban and its nationalist allies.     

Afghanistan keeps giving me déjà vu back to the old British Indian Raj, and flashbacks to those wonderful epic films of the Raj, “Drums,” “Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” and “Kim.” The British imperialists did it much, much better, and with a lot more style.  

Eric S Margolis is a veteran US journalist who has reported from the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan for several years

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