Seeing Khe Sanh; Thinking Kabul

by Bing West
Like the South Vietnamese army in 1968, the Afghan army faces its government’s fall.

 Khe Sanh  — In the greenness of spring, this tiny plateau in southern Vietnam looks as tranquil as a cow pasture; in 1968, it was as cratered as the moon. In an epic battle, a Marine regiment defending Khe Sanh killed an estimated 20,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. In the half century since then, no enemy has again hurled thousands of troops against American forces; our firepower is too overwhelming. Here at Khe Sanh, 100,000 tons of explosives were dropped, ten times the amount expended in all of Afghanistan during the past decade. 

In Afghanistan, we severely restricted our firepower in order to win popular support. That support was not achieved. Americans were viewed as infidel outsiders; they could not substitute for the absence of responsible indigenous officials. Although the Taliban were intensely disliked, the population did not rally behind a Karzai-led government that offered neither justice nor concern.

And although we rarely unleashed our ferocious firepower, every American patrol had such weapons on call  – just in case. Thus we were able to have our cake and eat it too. But we did not provide the Afghan army with adequate firepower, because our military assumed the Karzai government would win over the population and cause the Taliban to wither away.

So we now face the situation where, like the South Vietnamese army, the Afghan army will be stretched too thin as we pull out. Afghan army patrols don’t have indirect weapons on call to help them out. Inside the sanctuary of Pakistan, the Taliban are certain to mass and then strike first against one outpost, and then another. Afghan units face at least partial defeat in detail, with the number of villages under government control likely to decrease from the current high-water mark.

President Obama has ruled against nation-building and reversed his previous rhetoric about “defeating the Taliban.” Our national interest demands prevention of a sanctuary for terrorists who aim to attack outside Afghanistan. Even as Afghanistan remains at war, we can accomplish our limited goal by aerial surveillance, bombing, and raids. A total disintegration of government control, however, would be a global defeat for the United States. A full unraveling is the worst specter facing the Afghan army, as it faced the South Vietnamese army after we pulled out in 1972. Once our troops left Saigon, Congress slashed aid and forbade any bombing, regardless of what the North Vietnamese did. In an effort in 1975 to consolidate, South Vietnamese president Nguyen Thieu peremptorily ordered a few units to pull back. This sparked panic and countrywide collapse. 

Like Thieu, an overwrought Karzai is capable of unpredictable decisions with disastrous results. Were he to declare a secret deal that conceded a degree of control to the Taliban, for instance, Afghan units, feeling adrift, could quickly splinter into regional warlordism.

Given a feckless central government, the army is the only institutional glue holding that country together.  It is too late to provide them firepower, and loss of some territory is inevitable. As we leave, the outcome will be determined not by Karzai or by his successor in 2014 but by the morale of the Afghan army. We should bolster that morale by assuring them of pay and resources, independent of an untrustworthy Karzai. U.S. guarantee of support now is an antidote against panic later. To guarantee pay and equipment to the army and police for three years would cost $20 billion. To set aside that sum requires Mr. Obama to reach out to a Republican congressional majority he consistently excoriates.

Granted, the odds are that will not happen. We will drift along in Afghanistan, focused on shipping home our expensive equipment. Karzai will periodically excoriate us to burnish his nationalist self-image, before departing for his exile villa. Pakistan will shelter the Taliban, as the cat’s paw to control Kabul’s foreign policy, but not provide the Taliban with the firepower and transport to threaten cities. Abetted by an acquiescent press, the Obama administration hopes that Afghanistan recedes rather than implodes. No Khe Sanhs, no Hue Cities, no Walter Cronkite epitaphs. An obscure, irrelevant ending to what Obama proclaimed was “the war that had to be won.”

That is not the worst of endings. A $20 billion authorization now would be a wise insurance policy.

— Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written five books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, based on front-line observations.

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