- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 24, 2009


There is no shortage of “expert advice” on what we should do in Afghanistan in light of the shortcomings of the Karzai government. Several writers argue that the best way to fight the Taliban is to support and strengthen the traditional tribal system by dealing with individual tribes rather than working to build a national police force and army. While this might offer a short-term advantage over a more comprehensive “nation building” strategy, this approach proved disastrous in both Iraq and Vietnam.

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Many people, it seems, are either ignorant of history or misinterpret it.

In Iraq, the U.S.-funded anti-insurgent Sunni militias - sometimes known as Awakening Councils - were never fully integrated into the national army. The Sunni tribes were among the main forces that helped turn the tide in Iraq, especially in the Sunni belt around Baghdad’s southern doorstep. A recent report noted that since U.S. funding stopped, “government pay [for the militias] has been sporadic and the Shi’ite-led security commanders have been slow to bring aboard the Sunni militiamen” (“Sunni forces fray after U.S. military halts payments,” World, Dec. 16). Now, “a steady barrage of revenge attacks” by insurgents is taking a deadly toll on these tribes.

Some pundits have made the ludicrous suggestion that the relationship of U.S. Special Forces with the Montagnard tribal people in Vietnam should serve as a model for Afghanistan. The Montagnards were basically used as mercenaries for the Green Berets and special operations groups, which virtually alienated them from the Vietnamese. This resulted in an open rebellion against the Vietnamese government in 1964, creating a rift that was never completely bridged during the Vietnam War. The Montagnards lost more than half of their adult male population fighting for the United States. Then, after U.S. forces pulled out of Southeast Asia, these former loyal allies essentially were abandoned.

As such, these Montagnard fighters and former allies of the United States suffer persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese government. They and their families - through the third generation - are routinely denied access to public health, education and other amenities available to other Vietnamese citizens. Meanwhile, U.S. policy has virtually closed the doors on Montagnard immigration. Many of those who flee repression in the central highlands must languish in U.N. refugee camps in Cambodia or, even worse, are sent back to Vietnam, seemingly forgotten by the United States.

Let’s learn from our own history and not repeat the same mistakes in Afghanistan.


Falls Church, Va.

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