Vietnam has been described and analyzed in many ways and from many viewpoints. It was one of the longest running conflicts in US history. In the end, it turned out to be an enduring defeat of America’s vision, approach and battle plans.
The reality is that the Vietnam War was a war for the unification and independence of Vietnam. Look at the results. In April 1975, Saigon fell and Vietnam was reunited. Since that day, Vietnam has never been a problem for America or for any other country in Asia. Today, Vietnam is a hot frontier market and increasingly a favorite destination for American companies as they reduce their operations in China. Today, Vietnam is on the verge of becoming an American ally in the American-Asean desire to contain China.
American society of the 1960s-1970s never grasped this central reality of the Vietnam war. How could it? America was obsessed in those days with the cold war against the Soviet Union. From this lens, any one who was not for America was automatically considered for Soviet Union. This is why America never accepted Ho Chi Minh as a Vietnamese patriot whose main aim was a free united Vietnam. America never wondered how a leader who fought against the full might of America could ever become a vassal of Soviet Union or China.
America was blinded to this reality for two reasons. First, its own global conflict against the Soviet Union made all local conflicts irrelevant except as a tool in America’s global war. Second and perhaps just as important, America entered Vietnam as the successor of the French colonial empire. The history of the French and America’s automatic acceptance of the French viewpoint blinded America from the beginning.
As a result, America fought the entire war on the wrong side of history, the history of Vietnam, the history of people who rise up to unite as one society and as one country.
Today, America is embroiled in another far away conflict, a conflict that is proving just as futile as the Vietnam conflict, a conflict that looks like a certain defeat for America. The entire world is watching this war just the way the world watched the Vietnam war. The parallels are eerie. American society is again split but no one seems to have a clue. So the dumb, futile effort goes on draining American money, lives and will. We think America has become trapped in another Vietnam War because America has made the same grievous mistake it did in the 1960s & 1970s.
America is once again on the wrong side of history and exactly for the same reasons. The theater is Afghanistan.
First, America is obsessed with a global war against Islamic Terror. Just as all politics is local, all wars are local. But with its global obsession, America finds itself unable to focus on the real reason for the Afghan conflict. Secondly, America has entered the Afghan conflict as the successor to the British colonial empire. So America find itself blinded to the central reality of the Afghan conflict. How could it not? American society remains just as insular and european in its outlook as it was in 1960s & 1970s.
The central reason for the Afghan conflict is the reunification and independence of Afghanistan. In 1893, the British Indian regime partitioned Afghanistan into North Afghanistan, the area north of the Khyber Pass, and South Afghanistan, the Pashtun area south of the Khyber Pass. To pacify the warring Pashtun tribes, the British established the predominantly Pashtun Frontier Corps.
This partition of Afghanistan, the so called Durand Line, is considered to be the border between today’s Afghanistan and Pakistan, the successor regime to British India. But the Afghan government and, more importantly, the Pashtun people refuse to accept this colonial line as the border. The Taleban travel across this artificial border with impunity and often under heavy fire from both American forces and the Pakistani Army. But it is their land and they are fighting for it.
Pakistan understands this reality and it is doing everything it can to stop the march of history. Just look at the maps below. If South Afghanistan ever reunites with North Afghanistan, Pakistan would be a mere shell. No one in the world would ever care about Pakistan any more. The reunited Afghanistan would be again at the center of the Silk Road, at the center of the vibrant emerging region of Central Asia and at the crossroads of the trade routes between China and the Middle East.
(Green area is South Afghanistan – source wikipedia) (Light blue area is South Afghanistan – source Wikipedia)
The real solution for the Afghan War is for America to get on the right side of history, to support the reunification of Afghanistan and to correct the awful colonial mistake of the British. This is the big idea that could unite all the Pashtuns and get the moderate Pashtuns to become engaged. The reality is that the majority of Pashtuns elected the non-religious parties in the last election. The moderate Pashtun majority rejects the Taleban.
But today, the Taleban are the only game for the Pashtuns. They are the only group that is fighting the combined might of the American forces and the Pakistani military regime. And the Taleban are winning.
Under today’s American policy, the end result is a foregone conclusion. America will leave Afghanistan in disarray and ignominy; the Taleban will take over North Afghanistan. Then they will continue the war of attrition against the Pakistani Army to take de facto physical control of South Afghanistan.
Unlike Vietnam, we do not see a Ho Chi Minh, a General Giap among the Taleban. We do not see the ability to govern in peacetime. But history suggests that a leader might emerge among the Pashtuns who could unite and govern. If such a leader does emerge, then the unification of Afghanistan could signal the eventual surrender of Pakistani Panjab to the new reunited Afghanistan. Thats is also the lesson of history, at least the history of the past 1,000 years.
It will take decades for America to get reengaged in Afghanistan or in Central Asia. The new Great Game will be left to China, Iran, Turkey and Russia.
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