America's Wars of Attrition
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Recently, after insurgents unleashed sophisticated, synchronized attacks across Afghanistan involving dozens of fighters armed with suicide vests, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms, as well as car bombs, the Pentagon was quick to emphasize what hadn’t happened. “I’m not minimizing the seriousness of this, but this was in no way akin to the Tet Offensive,” said George Little, the Pentagon’s top spokesman. “We are looking at suicide bombers, RPG [rocket propelled grenade], mortar fire, etcetera. This was not a large-scale offensive sweeping into Kabul or other parts of the country.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta weighed in similarly. “There were,” he insisted, “no tactical gains here. These are isolated attacks that are done for symbolic purposes, and they have not regained any territory.” Such sentiments were echoed by many in the media, who emphasized that the attacks “didn’t accomplish much” or were “ unsuccessful.”
Even granting the need to spin the assaults as failures, the official American reaction to the coordinated attacks in Kabul, the Afghan capital, as well as at Jalalabad airbase, and in Paktika and Logar Provinces, reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of guerrilla warfare and, in particular, of the type being waged by the Haqqani network, a crime syndicate transformed by the conflict into a leading insurgent group. Here’s the “lede” that should have run in every newspaper in America: More than 40 years after the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive, after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, even after reviving counterinsurgency doctrine (only to see it crash-and-burn in short order), the U.S. military still doesn’t get it.
Think of this as a remarkably unblemished record of “failure to understand” stretching from the 1960s to 2012, and undoubtedly beyond.
The Lessons of Tet
When Vietnamese revolutionary forces launched the 1968 Tet Offensive, attacking Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, as well as four other major cities, 35 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 district seats, and 50 other hamlets nationwide, they were hoping to spark a general uprising. What they did instead was spotlight the fact that months of optimistic talk by American officials about tremendous strategic gains and a foreseeable victory had been farcical in the extreme.
Tet made the top U.S. commander, General William Westmoreland, infamous for having claimed just months earlier that an end to America’s war was on the horizon. As he stood before TV cameras on the battle-scarred grounds of the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon -- after a small team of Vietcong sappers breached its walls and shot it out with surprised U.S. forces -- pronouncing the offensive a failure, he appeared to Americans at home totally out of touch, if not delusional.
Since that moment, it should have been clear that tactical success, even success in any usual sense, is never the be-all or end-all of insurgent warfare. Guerrillas the world over grasped what had happened in Vietnam. They took its lessons to heart, and even took them a step further. They understood, for instance, that you don’t need to lose 58,000 fighters, as the Vietnamese did at Tet, to win important psychological victories. You need only highlight your enemy’s vulnerabilities, its helplessness to stop you.
The Haqqanis certainly got it, and so just over a week ago sacrificed 57,961 fewer fighters to make a similar point. Striking a psychological blow while losing only 39 guerrillas, they are distinctly living in the twenty-first century in global war-making terms. On the other hand, whether its top civilian and military commanders realize it or not, the Pentagon is still stuck in Saigon, 1968.