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When Kabul became the new Saigon the ‘endless war’ ended

‘… when we marched into the rice paddies on that damp March [1965] afternoon, we carried, along with our packs and rifles, the implicit convictions that the Viet Cong would be quickly beaten and that we were doing something altogether noble and good.  We kept the packs and rifles; the convictions, we lost.’

Excerpt from Philip Caputo:  A Rumor of War (1977).

The way in which the Taliban took hold of Afghanistan should come as no surprise within the realm of modern war; and warfare.  Nonetheless, it is being viewed in the public sphere and the general news cycle as ‘surprising.’  The reason for the ‘surprise’ is because the West had previously and consistently told the world it had ‘defeated,’ or were ‘defeating’ the Taliban.  The truth of the matter however is, the Taliban had not been defeated, they were merely dormant.  That is not to say they were not active per se, they were just biding their time and doing what a decentralized, disciplined militia group does—enough to stretch the enemy resources, not enough to cause a full-scale offensive by their more powerful adversaries—in particular the United States of America (US).   The tactics the Taliban employed have been used numerous times before, although the most pertinent is perhaps the France – Algeria War (1954 – 1962).  Similar to what the Afghanistan War/War on Terror (2001 – 2021) the war in Algeria was fought by the Armée de Libération Nationale (ANL) and entailed keeping French forces continually hamstrung and overstretched by doing just enough to show the French were not in control.   Successful asymmetrical warfare demands consistent though decisive attacks and as described by Horne require just enough ‘to keep the pot simmering with an occasional grenade thrown into a café here [in the capital El-Jazair or a main town], a burst of machine gun fire on the beach there.’[1]  Accordingly and as was the Taliban’s plan, they would wake from their slumber immediately their enemies had been worn down by corruption and incompetence on the part of Afghanistan military forces; and the timeline that had been imposed on the West by its politicians, military leaders and its citizens—particularly the US—had run its course, the Taliban knew and understood there would be a cathartic change (read: retreat) on the part of Western forces.  The Taliban inherently understood, once the timeline and the tolerance level of the West’s military (and civilian) had become exhausted; and due to the fact the Taliban’s focus had not waned nor changed, a conversion in Western mindset would take place and policy would follow. The way in which the war panned out for the Taliban is straightforward focussed and moreover, it is writ large in the history of other conflicts. Here is what happened. 

An unfortunate aspect of Afghanistan is the same war had already happened to the Soviet Union in its Soviet – Afghan War (1979 – 1989) and prior to this war the US and its allies in Southeast Asia: the Vietnam War (1963 – 1975).   Thus, the war with the Taliban by the West can be seen within the remit of a ‘repeat of history.’  During the Vietnam War—or the ‘American War’[2] as the Vietnamese call it—all the North Vietnamese (NV) troops fighting the ground war in the south had to do was engage in a protracted war without becoming bogged down in static force-on-force collisions.  Asymmetrical warfare would remain the strategy of advantage.  The NV were certain, and as had proven to be too much for the French to come to terms with in the First Indochina War (1946 – 1954),  that asymmetrical tactics inevitably drain the conviction of foreign troops to the conflict and this is followed by their governments, their military leaders; and eventually, their domestic populaces.   The NV forces in order to stem the enthusiasm for the war on the part of the South Vietnam military (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)) and in particular the US was create a continuum of tactics in which, and for the US in particular, ‘nothing seems to work, where the [conventional Western] rules [of war] either don’t exist or obviously don’t apply, and where they are confronted by impotence and failure day after day.’[3]   The NV set the groundwork for asymmetrical warfare to come to the fore and when the ARVN and US forces had to face the strategy as a continuum, they became reactive rather than proactive and hesitant rather than assured.  What must happen after these tenets become commonplace is they eventually demand a retreat and if the army doing the retreating can regain their confidence, a regroup and renewed attacks to regain ground.  The Afghanistan War/War on Terror would be the next action which would see the US and its allies engage in a war which was fought in the hope of the enemy engaging in static, frontline engagements in which they could be soundly defeated.  This would not happen and the US and its allies would once again, descend into chaos.

Thus, all the Taliban had to do to win the war was a triad: apply the principles of keeping the war a protracted happening; make sure any kinetic engagements were asymmetrical; and implement a war of a ‘third kind’ overall strategy.  Whilst all of the aforementioned principles are important a war of this ‘type’ is particularly effective, as it is one in which a guerrilla fighter must be ‘indistinguishable from the general population, [and direct] engagements must be sporadic and their perpetrators unobserved and unidentifiable … The deadly game [of combat and how to destroy the enemy] is played in every home, church, government office, school, highway, and village.’[4]    For the Taliban to have re-emerged so quickly it is and remains evident that a war of a third kind was a significant part of their overall plan and moreover, history had proven there was no need to change the strategy as the West would eventually capitulate.

The Taliban has won and the West—particularly the US—has been defeated (again) by a decentralized; dedicated group of fighters willing to bide their time, have no timeline of when the expulsion should occur, appear weak, and when the time is right, strike.  What these tenets achieve consists of but are not limited to a de-stabilisation of the control the foreign forces appear to have gained; create chaos amongst civilians which bleeds confidence in the belief they are being cared for; overstretch opposition military assets; and sow political doubt in the worth of the conflict amongst foreign troops and their political leaders.   Fifty-plus years ago the lesson was there to be learned in the Vietnam War.  The NV had bided their time and continued with their asymmetrical tactics until the time was right to engage in a symmetrical exchange which it accurately predicted would turn the tide of the Vietnam War in their favour.  The 1968 Tet (New Year) Offensive was launched and NV troops

[A]ttacked almost every important American Base, every town in the city of South Vietnam.   The combined force of eighty-four thousand men simultaneously moved in to five out of the six cities, thirty-six out of the forty provincial capitals, and sixty-four district capitals …. One unit penetrated the grounds of the presidential palace, four blocks to the south; another took over the government radio station and a third assaulted the Tam Son Nhut air base, breaking through the heavily guarded perimeter to blow up aircraft and engage in gun battles with American troops.[5]

Although the action from a military perspective was a failure in real terms, what the offensive achieved was the near-complete disintegration of the control ARVN, US and their allies had in the south of the country.  The action produced the predicted anger and rage in Congress; and a further erosion of public support for the war.  The Taliban whilst not having a single action of the scale of NV troops nonetheless, persisted with ongoing and continuous thrusts into territory controlled by the Afghan troops and their allies.  The end result would be the same as the West and its allies would be incapable of changing their tactics from symmetrical to asymmetrical and thus, history would be repeated.  

Considering the intention when entering a war is to win it, one can only ponder at the sheer ignorance of those that sent their assets and personnel into a war which they were ‘assured’ of winning.  The lessons of Vietnam whilst being writ large were ignored by those that obviously thought technology and the swift deployment of troops would prevail over decentralised, committed, battle-hardened militias that controlled the countryside; the tempo of the battles; and who had no finite timeline.  Indubitably, the aim of the Taliban was to drag the war out and keep killing as many Western troops as possible.  Within this dyad the slow but sure disintegration of the ‘noble cause’ of the West of bringing democracy to Afghanistan would perish too, and it did.

The catastrophic defeat and humiliating retreat for Western forces had come to fruition, but at least the wait for the war to end, had ended and the citizens, and the military of the West could retire and wonder why its leaders after 20 years of fighting had still refused to acknowledge warfare has changed; and why hope and not articulately thought-through battle plans were not paramount in the mindset of their leaders.  Meanwhile, France remains in Mali and the US is about to enter another war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, no doubt hoping the guerrillas they fight will abandon their predilection for asymmetrical warfare and succumb.       

© Strobe Driver

September, 2021.

[1] Alistair Horne.  A Savage War of Peace.  Algeria 1954-1962. New York: New York Review Books, 2006, 413.

[2][2] The Vietnam War is ‘known as the “American War” in Vietnam.’  See: British Broadcasting Corporation.  Timeline: Vietnam.

[3] Daniel Elsberg. Papers on the War. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1972, 249.

[4] Kalevi Holsti. The State, War, and the State of War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 36-39.

[5] Frances FitzGerald.  Fire in the Lake.  The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam.  Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1972, 388-389.