Does American military history repeat itself? Is there a similarity between the American war in Vietnam and the American-led NATO occupation of Afghanistan? Both operations are an American or majority-American force occupying a relatively undeveloped nation, and fighting against a locally-based insurgency. In the case of Vietnam the American-led operation failed. In the case of Afghanistan the ISAF appears to be losing.
In both cases, the insurgency has connections in neighboring nations. In both cases, American forces carried out (and are carrying out) secretive attacks on these neighboring nations. In the case of Vietnam, the US carried out a secretive bombing campaign in neighboring, neutral Cambodia. The Cambodian campaign killed unknown thousands of people and empowered the Khmer Rouge. In the case of Afghanistan, the CIA is carrying out a secretive campaign of drone strikes in neighboring Pakistan, attempting to destroy the majority-Pashtun insurgency called the Taliban, an insurgency that does not recognize the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This CIA campaign is arguably destabilizing the social structure of Pakistan and turning public opinion sharply against the US. In both cases, American wars metastisize outward.
In The Atlantic, writer Henry Grabar has written about the many similarities between the Vietnam-era bombing campaign in Cambodia, and the current drone campaign in Pakistan *. Mr. Grabar’s article shows that the shape of failing US wars is similar over time. Failing US wars tend to sprawl outward into neighboring lands in an attempt to destroy bases of resupply and eliminate enemy forces taking refuge outside the defined theatre. This “mission creep” is not only dubious from a perspective of international law, it is also strategically dangerous, and disastrous from a humanitarian standpoint.
* “What the U.S. Bombing of Cambodia Tells Us About Obama’s Drone Campaign”, The Atlantic, by Henry Grabar, Feb. 14, 2013.
… As critics wonder what kind of backlash might ensue from drone attacks that kill civilians and terrorize communities, Cambodia provides a telling historical precedent.
Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives — more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II — on Cambodia, whose population was then smaller than New York City’s. Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea.
The bombing had two primary effects on survivors. First, hundreds of thousands of villagers fled towards the safety of the capital Phnom Penh, de-stabilizing Cambodia’s urban-rural balance. By the end of the war, the country’s delicate food supply system was upended, and the capital was so overcrowded that residents were eating bark off of trees.
Secondly, the attacks radicalized a population that had previously been neutral in the country’s politics. The severity of the advanced air campaign — “I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them,” then-U.S. President Richard Nixon told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger — fomented immense anger in the Cambodian countryside. Charles Meyer, an aide to the deposed Prince Sihanouk, said that it was “difficult to imagine the intensity of [the peasants’] hatred towards those who are destroying their villages and property.” Journalist Richard Dudman was more precise. “The bombing and the shooting,” he wrote after a period in captivity in the Cambodian jungle, “was radicalizing the people of rural Cambodia and was turning the country into a massive, dedicated, and effective rural base.”