This 'New' US Plan In Afghanistan Sure Sounds A Lot Like A Failed Strategy We Tried In Vietnam

Analysis
Photoillustration

For months now, U.S. leadership has been working with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani to stand up a new “territorial force” to fend off Taliban elements on the local level. The new security force would consist of “self-defence units of locally recruited men serving in their own villages… to stabilise areas cleared by regular security forces and establish law and order,” as The Guardian puts it.


It’s easy to see why the United States would want to start from scratch on provincial security in Afghanistan, seeing as the Kabul government actually controls 15% less territory now than two years ago, according to the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. And it’s intuitive to want to put local tribes in control of their own security — less work for Americans, and less fertile territory for the bad guys. In theory.

The trouble with intuitive ideas is they’ve probably been tried before, to poor effect. In this case, the “Afghanistan Territorial Forces” model sure sounds a lot like a gambit we tried in Vietnam: the Regional Forces and Popular Forces, or “Ruff Puffs,” as the friendly media described them during the war.

The idea was this: Stand up villagers to defend their villages from infiltration by the Viet Cong. Nearly half a million villagers were enlisted in thousands of companies for the effort, which was as big as the rest of the South Vietnamese army at the time. The Ruff Puffs were extolled by U.S. public affairs officers as heroes. One U.S. major in 1970 extolled them as “gutsy little fellows,” according to the New York Times, before he added that “acts of terrorism by the Vietcong are ‘a primary indicator that the enemy is weak because if the enemy was strong enough it wouldn't be necessary.’” (Sound familiar, Iraq/Afghan vets?)

Anyway, you can figure out how that plan went in Vietnam. Plenty of U.S. advisors warned early on that the Ruff Puffs’ power to prevent communist infiltration of the villages was a fiction. “Their time and effort is largely spent in making sure the province chief, usually [a Vietnamese] lieutenant colonel, is kept safely out of harm’s way,” Marine counterinsurgency expert Lt. Col. William Corson wrote in The Betrayal, his stinging 1968 critique of the U.S. strategy in Vietnam. “The result of the failure of the RF to carry their share of the load is not only increased American casualties but also the unnecessary added expense to the American taxpayer who must underwrite their performance.”

That sounds uncannily like criticism we’ve heard about Afghanistan. So it’s probably worth noting that once the United States fully withdrew from Saigon and the North Vietnamese Army advanced in 1975, the half-million Ruff Puffs pretty much crumbled immediately.

Relatedly, the United Nations has already expressed concerns that a new U.S.-led territorial militia in Afghanistan will empower some of the most corrupt, anti-Kabul chieftains and local big-swingers. And other critics charge that the whole plan sounds like a reboot of the Afghan Local Police force, which was a hotbed of corruption, insurgent sympathy, and do-nothingism. “Since the Afghan Army suffers from leadership problems at the unit level,” one Brookings Institution expert told the Times in September, “there is no guarantee that army will be significantly more capable of controlling the new militias than the previous police leadership managed with the A.L.P.”

Everything old is new again!

But then again maybe I’m being cynical and reductive in this extended parallel between Afghanistan and Vietnam. Any thoughts on the contrasts between America’s two great Asian land wars? Tell me in the comments or email me. I’ll share the best critiques and comments.

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Marine Maj. Jose J. Anzaldua Jr. spent more than three years as a prisoner of war during the height of the Vietnam War. Now, more than 45 years after his release, Sig Sauer is paying tribute to his service with a special gift.

Sig Sauer on Friday unveiled a unique 1911 pistol engraved with Anzaldua's name, the details of his imprisonment in Vietnam, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" accompanied by the POW-MIA flag on the grip to commemorate POW-MIA Recognition Day.

The gunmaker also released a short documentary entitled "Once A Marine, Always A Marine" — a fitting title given Anzaldua's courageous actions in the line of duty

Marine Maj. Jose Anzaldua's commemorative 1911 pistol

(Sig Sauer)

Born in Texas in 1950, Anzaldua enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam as an intelligence scout assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

On Jan. 23, 1970, he was captured during a foot patrol and spent 1,160 days in captivity in various locations across North Vietnam — including he infamous Hỏa Lò Prison known among American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton" — before he was freed during Operation Homecoming on March 27, 1973.

Anzaldua may have been a prisoner, but he never stopped fighting. After his release, he received two Bronze Stars with combat "V" valor devices and a Prisoner of War Medal for displaying "extraordinary leadership and devotion to his companions" during his time in captivity. From one of his Bronze Star citations:

Using his knowledge of the Vietnamese language, he was diligent, resourceful, and invaluable as a collector of intelligence information for the senior officer interned in the prison camp.

In addition, while performing as interpreter for other United States prisoners making known their needs to their captors, [Anzaldua] regularly, at the grave risk of sever retaliation to himself, delivered and received messages for the senior officer.

On one occasion, when detected, he refused to implicate any of his fellow prisoners, even though severe punitive action was expected.

Anzaldua also received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism in December 1969, when he entered the flaming wreckage of a U.S. helicopter that crashed nearr his battalion command post in the country's Quang Nam Province and rescued the crew chief and a Vietnamese civilian "although painfully burned himself," according to his citation.

After a brief stay at Camp Pendleton following his 1973 release, Anzaldua attended Officer Candidate School at MCB Quantico, Virginia, earning his commission in 1974. He retired from the Corps in 1992 after 24 years of service.

Sig Sauer presented the commemorative 1911 pistol to Anzaldua in a private ceremony at the gunmaker's headquarters in Newington, New Hampshire. The pistol's unique features include:

  • 1911 Pistol: the 1911 pistol was carried by U.S. forces throughout the Vietnam War, and by Major Anzaldua throughout his service. The commemorative 1911 POW pistol features a high-polish DLC finish on both the frame and slide, and is chambered in.45 AUTO with an SAO trigger. All pistol engravings are done in 24k gold;
  • Right Slide Engraving: the Prisoner of War ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor and "Major Jose Anzaldua" engravings;
  • Top Slide Engraving: engraved oak leaf insignia representing the Major's rank at the time of retirement and a pair of dog tags inscribed with the date, latitude and longitude of the location where Major Anzaldua was taken as a prisoner, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" taken from the POW-MIA flag;
  • Left Side Engraving: the Vietnam War service ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor engraving;
  • Pistol Grips: anodized aluminum grips with POW-MIA flag.

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