Retired Maj. Gen. Arnold L. Punaro has a rather mournful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. We apparently learned nothing from our experience in Vietnam:
Defense Department leaders have assured Congress and the American people that the military would study the war in Afghanistan to learn lessons from America’s 20-year involvement and painful exit. This will be an important exercise, but not a new one.
Many lessons from Afghanistan mirror ones from Vietnam. This time, we owe it to our fighting sons and daughters not merely to identify the lessons of failure but also to integrate them into our military so they aren’t repeated.
From the start, the U.S. engagements in Vietnam and Afghanistan suffered from a lack of clarity and coherent strategy. Despite the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the U.S. remained in Afghanistan, and leaders continued to misunderstand the differences between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies. We should have known better. In Vietnam we similarly lacked knowledge of the broader social, political and economic dynamics underpinning the situation and broader region.
We also “Americanized” the war in Afghanistan despite the failure of the same strategy in the Vietnam War. We defaulted to teaching our allies to fight like U.S. soldiers, with U.S. weapons and technologies and American-style training. We failed to teach our partners in either case self-sustaining logistics and maintenance skills, thereby setting them up for failure.
In Afghanistan we witnessed a stream of inaccurate accounts and unreliable analyses of the situation on the ground, much as we had in Vietnam. In both cases, the failure to address reality laid the groundwork for failed nations and botched evacuations.
I feel confident in predicting that the Powers That Be will not take Maj. Gen. Punaro’s advice to heart. The only way to win is not to play.