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A Taliban Tet Offensive

April 15, 2012 - Harry Eagar
Reports today, though incomplete, suggest the Taliban have started a Tet-type offensive, attacking bases around Afghanistan (and possibly coordinating attacks in Pakistan) and coming close to, if not actually attacking, the centers of government and foreign military command.

The scale will be much smaller than in Vietnam in 1968, but no doubt the strategy is the same and already it is succeeding.

To understand, it will be necessary to understand Tet, and it is only stating what should be, but has never been, obvious: Tet was a decisive victory for the Communists.

Although some newspapermen understood Tet at the time, the military high command and the civilian government never did. They counted the bodies and thought they had won the battle. Historians, for the most part, have also thought that Tet was a Communist defeat, and rightwingers have concluded that if Tet was a huge defeat for Communism, then the subsequent humiliating withdrawal of the Americans and collapse of the South Vietnamese government must have had some other cause -- their favorite answer is American college students.

But, of course, if Tet was a Communist victory, then the subsequent tail-between-the-legs pullout of the pitiful, whimpering giant and the last, corrupt days of the more-or-less imaginary Saigon regime don't need any further explanation.

To understand strategic victory or defeat, if is necessary to know what the strategic goals were. Thus, to take an example close to home, if the strategic goal of Japan in 1941 was to preclude US interference with Japanese expansion in Asia, then the so-called victory at Pearl Harbor was a fatal strategic defeat.

In 1967, the strategy of the US in Vietnam was to pacify the cities and some of the countryside, so that fencesitters would feel confident in collaborating with the Saigon regime. To that end, the Americans announced that the cities were safe. The slogan was "winning hearts and minds," although in typically incompetent fashion, actions on the ground were brilliantly effective at turning hearts against the Americans. The other, unofficial but more realist slogan was "if you've got 'em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow."

It isn't as if the Afghans haven't tried to signal the dumb Americans about their heart-feelings. Karzai's harping on night raids into homes could not be clearer. To an Afghan, Taliban respect for his home will overbalance his objections (if any) to, say, murdering schoolgirls. On the other hand, having the Americans pay to have the Chinese build roads is far, far down on the Afghan's list of desirables, while having his home respected is near the top.

This approach in Vietnsm was typically stupid, since all the Communists then had to do was to show that the cities were not safe. The Communists had the means -- a large force of poorly trained and equipped soldiery that they didn't much care about.

Whether the North Vietnamese and their Russian advisers were cynical enough to think along this line or not, that is how Tet played out. The Communists lost some not-very-capable military units, and the Americans and Saigon regime lost all credibility.

The American military is famous for making the same incompetent mistakes over and over. For the past two years, it has been announcing the imminent pacification of Afghanistan , although this was obviously a fantasy. (Read the Guardian article about Lt. Col. Daniel Davis and his conclusions. Nut graf: "The report detailed an alarming picture of Taliban advances and spiralling violence. Afghan security forces were unwilling or unable to fight, or actively aiding the enemy. That picture was contrasted with repeated rosy statements from US military leaders." Sounds just like South Vietnam in 1967, doesn't it?)

The Taliban may be incapable of mounting the large-scale conventional attacks used at Tet, but if we haven't learned anything from our failures, our opponents have. It isn't necessary to slug it out with American firepower. If you can make the Americans swap helicopters for bicycles -- and this is ridiculously easy to do -- then a tiny effort can result in a jackpot payoff.

It has been obvious that we lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the strategic goals were to install modern-type governments, there was never any chance of that happening.


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