Repeating the mistakes of Vietnam today in Afghanistan

Repeating the mistakes of Vietnam today in Afghanistan
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It seems everything old is new again — at least at the Pentagon. This month, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman Mattis The US can't go back to business as usual with Pakistan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don't default MORE officially activated the First Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB). The 1st SFAB is a new unit with an old mission: "train, advise, assist, enable and accompany host-nation conventional forces in infantry, armor, cavalry, engineer, artillery and combined-arms warfare."

Not surprisingly, the SFAB’s first mission is to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) and help bring them up to a point where they can act autonomously without the need for ISAF troops. Yet one must wonder, haven't the U.S. and its allies spent billions of dollars in blood and treasure doing just that for the past 17 years in Afghanistan and for decades around the globe?


The historical parallels to the Vietnam War are striking. In 1962, the Department of Defense created the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) to support the surge in U.S. military assistance to South Vietnam. The MACV controlled every advisory and assistance effort in Vietnam. The combined unit was ultimately disbanded in March 1973 with little to show.


Traditionally, the U.S. military has treated the symptom, not the disease. Like Vietnam, Afghanistan is no different. No matter how well trained the ANA is. No matter the money, equipment and expertize the U.S. invests. If the country and the region continue to be actively destabilized by Pakistan and Iran the nation and the Afghan military is unlikely to ever be a stable, formidable fighting force.

Seventeen years into the war in Afghanistan, is the 1st SFAB lipstick on a pig as critics claim? The skepticism of the SFAB mission, come particularly from the special forces community. Is this an attempt by “Big Army” to muscle in on Special Operation’s territory? Or will the training Brigades add a professional methodology to the Army’s often slapdash, perfunctory and unsystematic, attempts at establishing “allied” armies?

For 16 years and two U.S. administrations — G.W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHead of North Carolina's health department steps down Appeals court appears wary of Trump's suit to block documents from Jan. 6 committee Patent trolls kill startups, but the Biden administration has the power to help  MORE — the military has seemingly muddled through with obligatory efforts to build the Afghan Army. With President TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE in the White House, the military is back in control of waging wars. ISIS has been massively degraded; the Kurds have been armed and contingencies are in place to stop North Korea’s unacceptable nuclear missile program. 

Can the Pentagon under Trump and Mattis turn the mission in Afghanistan around, or as critics maintain will the SFAB flounder? The Green Berets, Army special operations soldiers that focus on building militaries, have been training Afghan troops for nearly two decades. The mission however has always been overwhelming. The sheer magnitude of the task has necessitated the intervention of units, not trained for advisory work and ill equipped for the role to step into the breach. The results of the Navy, Army, USMC stop gap has at best been spotty.

A key part of the Trump administration’s overhauled strategy focuses on the revamped SFAB led training mission. Another fundamental plank is the tremendously successful surge in strategic air strikes in support of Afghan forces and their U.S. “advisers.” This massive increase in deployed firepower has served to debilitate ISIS and the Taliban. The Trump/Mattis plan also involves increasing U.S. troop levels from 11,000 to around 15,000. 

Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley is a strong proponent of the SFAB concept. "The SFAB gives us purpose-built formations designed to execute the critical mission of security force assistance without having to rip apart conventional BCTs."

Essentially, the SFABs are designed to relieve pressure on our overworked special operators, and that is a good thing. It remains to be seen though if there is the political will after 17 years to see the mission through. It is unclear if we will pursue the root cause — Pakistan and Iran — or maintain the status quo. To quote Marty McFly and Doc in the movie Back to the Future, “Marty: What about all that talk about screwing up the future? Doc: Well, I figured, what the hell?”

Gregory Keeley is a retired lieutenant commander with service in both the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. He is a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pacific. LCDR Keeley also served as senior advisor to a vice chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, Rep. Jim Saxton (R-Pa.), and to a chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.).