Afghanistan is not Vietnam or Algeria (Max Boot, “The Incurable Vietnam Syndrome”, The Weekly Standard, October 19, 2009). Viet Cong had a disciplined, one-party state with one of the world’s largest and most battle-hardened armies. It had the legitimacy of French anti-colonialism. Viet Cong was further supported by two superpowers, Russia and China. Almost all resources were devoted to one aim from 1954 to 1975 – annexing South Vietnam. The U.S. military defeat is more explicable and less replicable. The Taliban is not the monolith of Viet Cong. It cannot maneuver in battalion-, brigade- or division size. The support from the outside in Afghanistan is not comparable to that of North Vietnam and Viet Cong. There is little danger of a Taliban-Al Qaeda Tet offensive. Mullah Omar is no Ho Chi Minh.
Algeria was a French anti-colonialist struggle. Independence came through a sudden decision by De Gaulle giving up the French struggle for Algeria.
In the latest issue of The Weekly Standard (October 19, 2009) Ann Marlowe let the readers in on her coming biography of the “forgotten founder”. She means the French counterinsurgency officer David Galula. He published two books on counterinsurgency during his short life (he passed away at the age of 48), Counterinsurgency Warfare and Pacification in Algeria 1956 – 1958, both in English.
At the time the books received little attention in the United States and Europe. Galula was not the only officer who wrote about the subject. After his death, however, he has remained a reference in bibliographic writing and books on Vietnam in America. The first book was almost completely theoretical and was an attempt to establish “the laws of counterrevolutionary warfare.”
The new U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) by General David Petraeus, Colonel Conrad Crane and Lt. Col. John Nagl looks favourably on Galula. A view in the American military is that COIN is not appropriate for all phases in an insurgency and that the policy of “search and destroy” in Vietnam was not a clear mistake.
Galula in his first explains how insurgent movements work and the strategy for combating them. The second book is on day-to-day tactics in the Algerian war plus politics and grand strategy. The basic advice: counterinsurgency is a long, difficult, perilous slog. Just as it was in Vietnam and Algeria and probably is in Afghanistan.
The focus of the books was that the people had to be protected. The most important thing was not chasing guerrillas or terrorists. Galula’s approach was called “population-centric”. Sometimes this advise was followed by Americans in Vietnam placing small numbers of soldiers among the people they were protecting also to lead public-works projects. At times this was a successful tactic in Vietnam.
Galula, who left the French army in 1962, was a Tunisian Jew who had become French citizen thanks to his father. From 1945 he had served in China and had been able to study Mao’s revolutionary war strategy. In Algeria he served in Kabylia, one of the zones in which the French tried out their revolutionary war ideas.
In 1971 I had the opportunity to visit a training center in South Vietnam led by Col. Nguyen Be. He had started running a project near Qui Nhon. It was then a team of young men, armed for their self-protection engaged in mobilizing villages for self defense against the communists and a cooperative venture to refrigate their fish cash, so it could be sent to distant markets. South Vietnamese officials were invited to see the teams in action. A national training center was then set up in the seaside city of Vung Tau, where thousands of recruits were taught to help the villagers. Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky liked the training and later adopted ”revolutionary development” as a slogan and the teams were named Revolutionary Development Teams. In all 40,000 cadres were in time trained. It was a successful counterinsurgency technique but the refusal of a Democratic Congress to stop the military aid to South Vietnam put an end to the Vung Tao project.
Could such tactics be used in Afghanistan and to what extent has it been used? It should of course be used but maybe the danger is greater in Afghanistan. The Islamist terrorists have added a new dimension to guerrilla warfare: suicide warriors. The Taliban and their Al Qaeda associates have added this new dimension. They well now that if they can kill as many American and European soldiers as possible the ever sensitive public opinion at home will start demanding withdrawal of the counterinsurgency troops. During the Vietnam War I modestly developed a theory of “Victory in the Mind”. If only revolutionary guerrillas could win in the mind of the public opinion in the United States (and Europe) this could lead to victory. It did so in Vietnam and it could be so in Afghanistan. The Islamists could win a “victory of the mind” in the West. The principle is the same but of course the details are different.