Wednesday, November 21, 2001

The American-Northern Alliance advance in Afghanistan is a tremendously significant event in our politico-military history. It demonstrates that President Bush’s 21st century war-makers have learned the lessons of the 20th century war in Vietnam: You can’t fight guerrillas or terrorists with conventional forces or set-piece battles. The 1960s generation of war-makers should have learned that lesson from American history: A rag-tag band of Colonists defeated the more powerful British Redcoats and their mercenary allies back in 1783.

I was much heartened by a single sentence in President Bush’s Oct. 1 speech: “[T]his is a different kind of war. It’s hard to fight a guerrilla war with convention[al] forces. But our military is ready.” And ready they were as we can see with the Taliban in retreat. Had Mr. Bush and his generals not understood the meaning of guerrilla warfare, Afghanistan would now be a quagmire not a first step to victory. It’s a lesson which, tragically, Lyndon Johnson never learned after he became president in 1963 nor did his generals.

Before Mr. Bush there was another commander in chief who understood the meaning of guerrilla terrorism. Addressing the corps of cadets at West Point in June 1962, President Kennedy said this form of warfare demanded “a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training.” The outcome of the 10-year war in Vietnam might have been different had Kennedy lived.

The Taliban armies and other guerrilla forces before them have absorbed the grand strategy of Karl Marx who a century-and-a-half ago wrote that revolutionaries “ought not to adhere rigidly to the accepted methods of warfare Mass uprisings, revolutionary methods, guerrilla bands everywhere; such are the only means by which a small nation can hope to maintain itself against an adversary superior in numbers and equipment.” In 1937, Mao Tse-tung published a primer on guerrilla warfare. There were manuals on guerrilla terrorist warfare by Vo Nguyen Giap, Che Guevara and as far back as the Chinese Sun Tzu. But none of these texts did the Taliban terrorists any good because this time, unlike the bloody years of Vietnam, we did not underestimate the enemy. We understood both his strategy and his tactics. We were not told by American spokesmen in Pakistan as we had been in Saigon in 1964 by briefing officers that if the Viet Cong got too bold and nasty, “Why, we’ll lean on them.” It turned out that it was the Viet Cong that did the leaning.

It was not our air superiority over Afghanistan that won the battle. After all, for 10 years in Vietnam we had absolute air superiority and a fat lot of good it did. Our fighters and bombers flew off aircraft carriers in Yankee Station as it was called in the South China Sea virtually unmolested except for aircraft fire which out of thousands of sorties downed a few fighter pilot heroes like Jim Stockdale and Sen. John McCain. And we had a formidable fleet of helicopter gun-ships. What won the first battle in Afghanistan so swiftly and with so few casualties was that we understood the politics of the war. We successfully appealed to Afghanis who hated the Taliban and their religio-social tyranny.

Back in the early 1960s, tens of thousands of Vietnamese living in North Vietnam emigrated to the south when, by treaty arrangement, they were given the chance to do so. They preferred to live under the authoritarian regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem rather than under the totalitarian regime of Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese people hated the Hanoi communist regime. But American war planners in Washington and in Saigon had no idea how to take advantage of that hatred. Instead, we heard from President Johnson on Aug. 27, 1964:

“I report tonight as president of the United States and as commander in chief of the Armed Forces on the strength of your country. It is greater than any adversary’s. It is greater than the combined might of all the nations in all the wars in all the history of this planet. And our superiority is growing.”

And Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told an American Legion convention the following month that this military strength “has been harnessed into flexible, usable power which can be controlled with remarkable precision.” But there was one general, Edward G. Lansdale, who understood what we were up against in Vietnam. In 1964 he wrote in Foreign Affairs that “the harsh fact is that, despite the use of overwhelming amounts of men, money and materiel, despite the quantity of well-meant American advice and despite the impressive statistics of casualties inflicted on the Viet Cong, the communist subversive insurgents have grown steadily stronger.”

President Bush and his war-makers have learned that guerrilla terrorism isn’t over until it’s over. It’s not over yet, but we can be sure that it will be over in far less time than it was in Vietnam.

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