Sorley’s book is relevant because it points out what actually happened in Vietnam: by employing what we now call a counter-insurgency strategy, American forces had actually won the war by 1970, only to toss it away later by abandoning the South Vietnamese government. That strategy, similar to what has been pursued successfully in Iraq with the “surge,” replaced the failed search-and-destroy effort of General William Westmoreland. Despite this history, search-and-destroy, which had failed in Iraq, is what Vice President Biden and other Democrats are urging in Afghanistan. They refer to it today as counter-terrorism.
The hero in Vietnam was General Creighton Abrams. He concluded that concentrating on killing enemy soldiers, as Westmoreland had, was a losing strategy. Under Abrams, “the object was not destruction but control, and in this case particularly control of the population.” It worked. “There came a time when the war was won,” Sorley writes. “The fighting wasn’t over but the war was won.”
A Better War is far more timely and applicable to Afghanistan in 2009 than is Lessons in Disaster, which deals with military pressure on the White House to escalate the American effort in Vietnam in 1965. We know more now than the generals or the politicians did then about what works militarily and what doesn’t. They were stumbling in the dark.
Since the 1960s, two things have happened. As Sorley argues cogently, counter-insurgency worked in Vietnam after counter-terrorism failed. In Iraq, we experienced a rerun of that scenario.
So let’s review the bidding in the current debate on Afghanistan. Biden and many Democrats, reportedly including White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, want the president to adopt a strategy that failed twice and, so far as I know, has never led to success. Gen. McChrystal and Republicans, along with Senator Joe Lieberman and a few other Democrats, are in favor of a strategy that has twice proven to be successful.