For the US military, the Vietnam War ended on April 29, 1975 when its last personnel were evacuated from the embassy roof in Saigon. Only hours later, the South Vietnamese government surrendered to the Vietcong.
These were momentous events set in motion 25 years earlier when, in August 1950, the first shipload of US arms arrived in Vietnam, ostensibly to bolster France's ability to suppress a mounting Communist-led insurgency against continued colonial rule.
But while that conflict is now just another part of history, the tragic events that culminated in the United States’ ignominious defeat then might be instructive in its now almost decade-long war on the same continent. And, as the United States slips into another quagmire—committing ever more resources to try to quell the Taliban-al-Qaeda insurgency in Afghanistan—its policymakers would do well to consider the increasingly obvious parallels with this earlier endeavour.
The most important of these similarities is almost certainly the critical variable that eventually convinced the US public that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and provoked growing and ultimately decisive opposition to its continuation—mounting casualties.
When casualty rates rose from a relative handful per month to the level of scores and ultimately hundreds per month, no amount of reassurance that there was light at the end of the tunnel—and that perseverance would eventually carry the day—was going to convince a sceptical US public it should continue.
This isn’t to say that the level of casualties has yet (or ever will) compare with the Vietnam fiasco. But relative to the scope of war now being waged in the AfPak theatre, casualties are rising uncomfortably sharply and the US public is growing restive.
There’s considerable evidence that the jihadi quasi-state that now embraces a significant portion of the tribal mountain region situated between the Afghani and Pakistani heartlands has jelled into a formidable socio-political entity with significant military capabilities. This quasi-state is the reason why no matter how many Taliban leaders have been killed by drones, insurgent attacks have persisted and even escalated.
This ‘state’ possesses the fiscal, manpower and administrative and ideological resources to replace its battlefield losses, resupply its military equipment, and mount sustained and sophisticated attacks against US and NATO forces.
As a consequence of all this, public opposition to the war, as happened with Vietnam, is trending toward critical mass, a shift likely to be fanned by the public scepticism on display by key opinion formers.
Back in the 1960s, it was pronouncements like that from the late Walter Cronkite, who declared in 1968 that ‘We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find,’ which helped solidify opposition.
Now, concerns are being raised by leading foreign policy intellectuals such as Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haas, formerly director of policy planning in the US State Department under Gen. Colin Powell, who had a cover story in Newsweek last month that effectively declared the Afghan war a failure and called for a complete rethink.
And, while back in 1971 the release of the Pentagon Papers blew the lid off public confidence in its leaders, the WikiLeaks publication has laid bare for all to see the mounting problems in Afghanistan.
In the latter’s case, there’s too much in the 90,000 pages of documents to quickly digest. But one element already stands out as particularly troubling: the nefarious role that elements in Pakistan have from the outset played in the conflict.
Pakistan has, in the words of the New York Times, been playing something of a ‘double game,' allowing ‘representatives of its spy service to meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders.’
So what should US policymakers take from this? It’s not that Pakistani officials are ambivalent about what’s happening in Afghanistan (that should already be obvious). Instead, it’s that the country's political society is so fractionalized that in many crucial respects there are actually two ‘governments' simultaneously in play in the country.
These two ‘governments’—one headed by President Asif Ali Zardari and the other a de facto shadow government that is nurtured by the military and which surreptitiously maintains links to the Taliban—are working at cross-purposes to each other.
The WikiLeaks data make it clear that as long as this shadow government remains viable and effective, the constitutional government of Pakistan can neither effectively cope with the Taliban quasi-state embedded in the AfPak tribal region, nor successfully carry out its recently negotiated political and economic agreements with the United States. Indeed, the legitimate government of Pakistan is paralyzed by political schizophrenia and can’t hope to be truly effective against Islamic fanatics in its midst until it finds ways to assert full sovereignty over the entire country, and particularly the ISI cancer that infects the military.
So what next? At the very least the Obama administration should consider a significant course correction in its AfPak strategy.
The time has come to cut Pakistan loose from the decades-long policy of treating it as a ‘rental state', to use Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani's well-worn phrase. This would mean curtailing US military assistance only to that which directly affects Pakistan's ability to effectively battle the jihadi quasi-state. If the government is not willing to do this, then military assistance should be suspended.
On the Afghan side, meanwhile, to quote Haas, ‘The time has come to scale back US objectives and sharply reduce US involvement on the ground.’
Where, then, should the US turn if it leaves Pakistan and Afghanistan to their own devices? The answer is India. The United States should materially increase its military collaboration with India—the only genuinely politically stable state in the region—so that together they can form a strategic nexus of stable states confronting a Pakistan that seems poised to collapse unless it finds ways to get its political house in order. Above all, Pakistan must be allowed to solve its own political problems, free of American paternalism and overindulgence of its military.
This of course implies a radical reworking of the US strategic orientation to South Asia and would mean crafting what is effectively an alliance designed to preserve as much peace, secularism and political stability as the considerable resources of the two states working in concert can achieve.
It’s a tall order. But as the situation disintegrates around the US forces in the region, what does it have to lose?
Harold Gould is a Visiting Scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia