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Published: ABC The Drum Online

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For those of us who lived through the pain, dishonesty and frustration of the war in Vietnam, Afghanistan is shaping up as a passable recreation, but not for Clive Williams who, as he wrote this week on The Drum – Unleashed, wants Australia to increase its role in Oruzgan Province.

He concedes our real role for being there is to bolster the US alliance and that if we continue to shirk our responsibilities it will hurt the alliance, getting bigger and bolder is his answer. He also sees value in enhancing our role from a training perspective.

But then he marginalises these justifications for our involvement by asking, “Can we succeed in defeating religiously-driven Taliban zealots?” The answer is no because the causes behind the fighting in Afghanistan are more complex. Poverty and Pakistan would be good starting points. Then there is the uncomfortable fact that many Taliban leaders and their armed supporters were members of the mujahedeen, which US Senator, Charlie Wilson, made such great sacrifices for. Others are members of warring tribes, which in the absence of NATO forces will turn on each other over the share of spoils from the heroin trade.

Clive Williams argues that Australia might win hearts and minds in Afghanistan by deploying Australian Muslims to help run the civil aid program, as if being Muslims was somehow a generic trait. I thought our level of understanding and sophistication was beyond that, but clearly not in the Australian intelligence community. He argues that Australian Afghans should be part of this Peace Corps. Afghans exist in the minds of western planners not in Afghanistan, where they are Pashtuns (Pathans), Tadjics, Hazaras and Uzbeks, the last three of whom at any point in time might get along with each other, but remain united in their hatred of the Pashtuns who treat them as second class citizens or slaves. And it is the Pashtuns that NATO both support in Kabul and fight in the provinces.

Clive leaves the questions hanging, what do we hope to achieve in Afghanistan, what are we doing there?

The US said the war in Vietnam was to contain the spread of Communism and thwart Chinese and Russian ambitions in South-East Asia. Never mind that the two were deeply suspicious of each other, the US had them in bed. For the US, Communism was monolithic and controlled out of Moscow.

The war in Vietnam consumed my generation in protest, fear of conscription or service in the Army. There was wall-to-wall media coverage with anti-war songs, literature and movies. The mistakes were there for all to see, except the US Administration and the military leadership. As always, Australian politicians, the military, significant sections of the media and the churches, particularly the Catholic Church, went along with the US establishment.

The war in Vietnam produced search and destroy, which saw civilians killed, whilst the Vietcong and North Vietnamese regular troops went underground or in other ways made themselves scarce only to re-emerge once US troops had moved on. The US troops were able to hold towns and villages for as long as they could be supplied, but they were unable to hold the countryside. The best they could do was patrol.

The war in Vietnam also produced some notable statements such as, ‘We had to destroy that village in order to save it.’

The democratic regime in South Vietnam was corrupt, so corrupt it was rotten. Young men did not want to fight for it. Torture of prisoners was common. Yet these were the goodies, the champions of a brighter and free future.

It all went pear shaped and for awhile, until 9/11, it seemed the only people in the free world who thought otherwise were George Bush and John Howard.

Bush let his dogs off the lead and they tore into Afghanistan, crushed a very surprised and unprepared Taliban and shot through with the blood of Iraq in their nostrils, but without the scalp of Osama bin Laden.

The Inter Service Intelligence Agency (ISI) recovered their balance and began training a new generation of Taliban fighters, which like the mujahideen before them, had many reasons for fighting but eventually were loosely united through the common enemy of a foreign occupying army, of which the US was the largest and driving force.

The US and its reluctant allies are locked into a war with no exit strategy. After 9/11 the US decided to go to war against global terrorism which they defined as radical and fundamental Islam. It is a rebirth of the mindset that fought radical and fundamental communism; America the knight in white armour, freeing the world from the evils of the Kaiser, Third Reich and Japanese militarism. With those considerable successes it took on world communism and helped the collapse of the Soviet Empire, but China lives on and prospers. Even so America has opened another front by taking up arms against international terrorism. Maybe it can win that war, but Afghanistan is not the place to do it.

The topography, lack of infrastructure, climate and a culture which rested on the use of arms defeated the British and the Russians. They were reduced to living in forts, which is what the US forces, NATO and other friends are forced to do now in Afghanistan and which also defined an aspect of the war in Vietnam.

The government in Kabul is chronically corrupt and would not survive the pull out of foreign forces. Yet one aspect of the hackneyed ‘mission statement’ is to bring freedom and democracy to the people of Afghanistan. The Kabul government doesn’t give a toss about that and neither does the US otherwise they would not be droning to death innocent women and children and, as in Vietnam, creating new recruits for the forces they are fighting.

The US is looking for an exit strategy which involves everything but talking to their loathed enemy. For years it was the same in Vietnam.

This is a war of the insurgent, which means they live amongst and draw sustenance from civilians both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is little the US can do about that, other than kill civilians. To avoid being killed many flee as refugees, which is a concept beyond the comprehension of government in Australia, even though they have eyes and ears on the ground in Afghanistan.

Denial was a feature of the war in Vietnam and so it is in Afghanistan.

America learnt little from the war in Vietnam. Operation Moshtarak in Helmand Province in February 2010, which entailed the ‘occupation’ of the town of Marjah, is a case in point. A ‘classic’ search and destroy, where the Taliban fade away only to return when US and NATO forces withdraw to their vending machines at the Bagram Air Base.