Live long enough and you’ll be certain you saw the movie before. Recent conclusions that the Kabul government controls barely sixty per cent of Afghanistan (and much of that only by daylight) conjures memories of our failed efforts in Vietnam fifty years ago. We won every firefight—and lost.

The two key errors we made in Vietnam have been repeated in Afghanistan. First, our generosity, our undisciplined largesse, corrupted the host government and its military. Instead of spending our way to success, we created senior officers, Vietnamese or Afghan, who were grabbing instead of jabbing. Our enemies, then and now, had the power of poverty: With little to steal, corruption remained, at most, an occasional, local matter.

Aid doesn’t buy loyalty, only cynical displays of loyalty.

And the situation in Afghanistan is worse than it was in South Vietnam. We have looked away as billions (not mere millions) have been stolen by well-connected officials and their relatives. We’ve made excuses as commanders stole the funds or materiel meant to feed and supply their troops. We’ve insisted for over fifteen years that we’re winning (in fact, we did win in 2001 and early 2002, but needed to leave while the bodies were still smoking—had we needed to go back later, that would have been cheaper than remaining turned out to be).

The second, even more telling point is that we refused to accept the overwhelming evidence that our enemies, whether the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese Army or the Taliban and its brutal partners, had a committed local constituency. Guerrillas don’t survive without support. Terrorists don’t become terrain-commanding militaries without favor from the people. We virtually destroyed the Viet Cong—“Charlie”—but the Vietnamese Communists were able to come back from another angle, as the Taliban has done.

For many Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Taliban are freedom fighters—and we’re the redcoats.

As for assurances that we have tribal support, well, if you fly into a village in a covey of armed helicopters, dismount bristling with weapons and thickened by body armor, and you ask the village elders, “Who do you love?” you are apt to get a variant of the same answer we got in Vietnam: “You number one, GI.”

Our enemies were unable to defeat us with arms. They parried with belief.

Oh, and we never recognized one other crucial point: The stakes were higher for them than they were for us.

We not only ignore the lessons of history, but we ignore the lessons from living memory.

overlay image