Toward a Sustainable Afghan Military

You have to be careful in drawing comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam. There are significant differences in the governments of Afghanistan and South Vietnam, in the nature of and capabilities of the enemy forces, in the US military, and in our understanding of fighting a guerrilla army. But war historian Andrew West raises some valid questions.

He points out that in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese Army was, to a large extent, “Americanized” and designed to fight alongside American troops and logistical support. West says, “The plan worked remarkably well, as long as American forces and or support was close at hand. But the South Vietnamese military was never meant to fight on its own.”

When we basically pulled out in 1973, South Vietnam fell within two years. He says the Vietnamese army was not sufficiently Vietnamese to survive our departure. When North Vietnam invaded, they found lots of high-quality, but unusable, American equipment which the South Vietnamese weren’t able to maintain.

I remember reading a war memoir of a former South Vietnamese general. He said that before America entered the war in force, South Vietnam had amazing airplane mechanics who knew how to keep shot-up planes flying with the equivalent of duct tape and bailing wire. But when we entered the war, if an airplane engine wasn’t working right, our solution was to replace the whole engine. That became the new way to do things. When we left, replacing engines was no longer an option, but they didn’t know how to fix what was broken.

West looks ahead to America’s eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan. Are we building an Afghan army that can do well fighting alongside American forces, but will crumble when we leave? Are we again trying to build a First World military out of a Third World country, something which is unsustainable in our absence?

These are valid questions, but are nothing new to our military leaders, who ever live in the enduring shadow of Vietnam.

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