Case in point: Secretary of Defense Panetta belittled the Haqqani fighters for not taking "territory." It's a claim that, in its cluelessness, is positively Westmorelandish.
What territory, after all, could a relatively weak and lightly armed force like the Haqqani militants have been out to "regain" by attacking Kabul's heavily defended diplomatic quarter? The German Embassy? And then what would they have done? Ã la U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, launch an oil-spot strategy, spreading out slowly from there to secure the American Embassy, the British Embassy, and NATO headquarters? While Panetta at least granted that the attacks were geared toward symbolic effect, he remained strangely focused on their "tactical" significance.
As was the case in Vietnam, the U.S. military in Afghanistan regularly attempts to prove it's winning via metrics like the number of enemies captured and body counts from "night raids." No less frequently, its spokespeople create rules and measures for its enemies in an effort to prove they're not succeeding. This Westmoreland-ian mindset was evident last week in those statements that the Haqqanis didn't accomplish much of anything because they didn't take territory, sweep into Kabul en masse, or carry out a sufficiently "large-scale offensive" -- as if the Pentagon were the war's ringside judge (as well as one of the fighters) and the conflict could be won on points like a boxing match.
In the Vietnam years, Westmoreland and other top U.S. officials were forever seeking an elusive "crossover point" -- the moment when their Vietnamese foes would be losing more fighters than they could replace and so (they were convinced) would have to capitulate. That crossover point was the Pentagon's El Dorado and to achieve it, the U.S. military fought a war of attrition, just as in recent years the Pentagon has been trying to capture and kill its way to victory in Afghanistan through night raids and conventional offensives.
More than a decade after its own forces swept into Kabul, however, what began as a rag-tag, remnant insurgency has grown stronger and continues to vex the most heavily armed, most technologically advanced, best-funded military on the planet. All of America's "tactical gains" and captured territory, especially in the Taliban heartland of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, however, haven't led to anything close to victory, and one after another its highly publicized light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel offensives, like the much-hyped 2010 Marjah campaign, have faded away and been forgotten.
Afghan and American "Green Zones"
As the Haqqanis meant to underscore with their coordinated attacks, America's trillion-dollar military and the hundreds of thousands of allied local security forces are still incapable of fully securing a small "green zone" in the heart of the Afghan capital, no less the rest of the country.
The conflict in Afghanistan began with its American commander declaring, "We don't do body counts," but a quick glance at recent U.S. military press releases touting supposed "high-value kills" or large numbers of dead insurgents indicates otherwise. As in Vietnam, the U.S. is once again waging a war of attrition, even as America's Afghan enemies employ their own very different attrition strategy. Instead of slugging it out toe-to-toe in large suicidal offensives, they've planned a savvy, conservative campaign meant to save fighters and resources while sending an unmistakable message to the Afghan population, and simultaneously exposing the futility of the conflict to the American public.
The attrition of U.S. support for the war is unmistakable. As late as 2009, according to a poll by ABC News and the Washington Post, 56% of Americans believed the Afghan War was still worth fighting. Just days before the Haqqanis' coordinated attacks, that number had sunk to 35%. Over the same span, the number of Americans convinced that the war is not worth fighting jumped from 41% to 60%. Whatever the Pentagon's spin, the latest Haqqani offensive is likely to contribute to these trends, and Pentagon press releases about enemy dead are powerless to reverse them.
In the era of an all-voluntary military, of the "warrior corporation rdquo; and its warzone mercenaries, breaching the "green zone" of American public opinion matters less than in the Vietnam era, but it still makes a difference. The Haqqanis and their Taliban allies may be taking no territory, but in this guerrilla war it turns out that the territory that really matters, on all sides of the battle lines, is the territory inside people's heads -- and there the Pentagon is losing.
On April 12th, the same day that the ABC News/Washington Post poll was released, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James Routt flew his last combat mission in Afghanistan. It was a noteworthy flight. After all, Routt began his career flying B-52 bombers at the end of the Vietnam War, and was even involved in support efforts for Operation Linebacker II, President Richard Nixon's infamous "Christmas bombing" of North Vietnam.
Just a few years after those raids, Nixon was a disgraced ex-president and America's Vietnamese enemies had won the war. Decades later, the U.S. stands on the brink of another, more devastating defeat at the hands of far lesser foes, a minority insurgency with weaker allies (and no great power backers). It's an enemy that has fought far fewer battles and lost far fewer fighters, despite facing off against a far more sophisticated American war machine.
While Routt is hanging up his bomber jacket and walking away from another American defeat in Asia, the Pentagon continues its efforts to conjure up, if not victory then something other than failure, out of a me'lange of money, dead bodies, and rosy press releases. The Haqqanis and their allies, on the other hand, having evidently learned the lessons of the Vietnam War, will undoubtedly continue their carefully controlled war of attrition, while Washington pursues the losing variant it's been clinging to for years.
The Pentagon might have swapped the Vietnam Syndrome for an Afghan one, but its playbook remains mired in the Vietnam era. It seems intent on proving that channeling William Westmoreland is the least effective way imaginable to win a war on the Eurasian mainland.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. This article is the latest article in his new series on the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse , on Tumblr, and on Facebook.
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