“We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one,” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once reflected on Vietnam. “We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”
The Vietnam experience may hold the key to understanding the guerrilla logic behind the rapid uptick in violence in Afghanistan that began this week as the Taliban kicked off its Spring offensive. A corollary to Kissinger’s thesis would be that the guerrillas can expedite the war’s end by graphically “demonstrating” to the foreign government and citizenry whose conventional army they face, that the insurgency cannot be defeated — and therefore, by definition, that the expeditionary conventional force will eventually lose. And that’s exactly the message the Taliban are trying to send Washington right now.
First, there was the mass prison break two weeks ago in which some 500 Taliban prisoners, including a number of commanders, tunneled their way out of a Kabul prison to rejoin the ranks. The message: The Afghan security forces on which the U.S. strategy is relying to take over the fight, starting this summer and ending in 2014, are inept, incapable and deeply infiltrated by the insurgents.
Then, on Sunday, Taliban fighters fought a thirty-hour pitched battle in the center of Afghanistan’s second city, Kandahar, having managed to infiltrate a couple of hundred men and a large number of weapons into the city despite a heavy presence of security forces, bolstered by last year’s NATO operation to secure the city. A second major assault occurred two days later in the Eastern province of Nuristan, as some 400 Taliban fighters stormed a number of police facilities, while a number of smaller attacks occurred in different parts of the country. And the Taliban, like a pyrotechnician preparing a spectacular firework show, is promising more, and deadlier attacks.
While the Afghan insurgents can hardly match the scale of their Vietnamese counterparts of yore, the model for this type of campaign may well be the lessons learned from the Vietcong’s 1968 Tet Offensive. That offensive, which took its name from the fact that it coincided with the Lunar New Year, involved simultaneous attacks by Vietcong forces on more than 100 towns and cities across South Vietnam. Targets included the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the national TV network. In some cases, the fighting was brief, in others, like the imperial city of Hue, it sparked a month-long for control. The Vietcong suffered massive losses in the operation and held no ground by the end of the battle. By conventional military measure, the Tet Offensive was a failure, and the Vietcong had squandered precious military and organizational resources that would have to be painstakingly reconstructed.
But its historical impact was to mock the triumphalist claims of General William Westmoreland, who had told Americans months earlier that the Vietcong were on the ropes and unable to mount a major offensive, and that the war would soon be over. So, even if they held no ground and lost a number of their own fighters for every American soldier they killed during the offensive, the Vietcong struck a tremendous psychological blow on America’s willingness to continue an expeditionary war in Southeast Asia that Tet had demonstrated could drag on for years. The most high-profile U.S. casualty of the Tet Offensive was President Lyndon B. Johnson, who just weeks later was so badly bloodied in his party’s New Hampshire primary by the antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy that he withdrew his reelection bid — and immediately began negotiating with the Vietcong on terms for withdrawing from Vietnam. Of course, the Paris Agreement negotiated by Kissinger and Le Duc Tho came only after another four years of fighting, and the final collapse of South Vietnam came in March of 1975, but it was the Tet Offensive that signaled America that its only way out of Vietnam was to negotiate a peace agreement with the Vietcong.
The Taliban don’t believe they can hold ground against the overwhelming advantages in fire power, especially air support, that the Americans can bring to bear. Instead, their attacks are designed to show that no matter how much ground the U.S. and its allies clear through large-scale operations, they Taliban will always return — and also that the Afghan security forces to which the U.S. hopes to hand over security control are no match for the more motivated insurgents. Indeed, the Taliban don’t even have to rely on surprise; their Spring offensive is an annual affair whose onset is announced to the media.
Still, with Osama bin Laden — the original reason for the U.S. being at war with the Taliban — now dead and gone and the insurgency being none the weaker for it, an educated guess says that U.S. efforts to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban are likely to intensify in the coming months. Just as in Vietnam, such talks could take years. But after ten years of fighting, the Taliban has established itself as an intractable fact on the ground in Afghanistan. And right now, it is “performing” a new offensive in the hope of driving home the message to Americans that no amount of military force is likely to eliminate the Taliban.
Winning, for the Taliban, after all, is simply a matter of not losing.