Opinion: U.S. should heed Vietnam lessons

May 8, 2013


By Frank Snepp

Los Angeles Times

Thirty-eight years ago last week, I was among the last CIA officers to be choppered off the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon as the North Vietnamese took the country. Just two years before that chaotic rush for the exits, the Nixon administration had withdrawn the last American troops from the war zone and had declared indigenous forces strong enough, and the government reliable enough, to withstand whatever the enemy might throw into the fray after U.S. forces were gone.

That’s the same story we told ourselves in Iraq when we pulled out of that country in 2011. And today, as American troops are being drawn down in Afghanistan, we’re hearing variations on the same claims once again. Yet security remains so fragile in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it is impossible not to worry that we are deluding ourselves and that we failed to learn the most important lessons of Vietnam.

Buying off insurgents

One major ingredient of both the Afghanistan and Iraqi experiments was the use of American dollars to buy off insurgents, wean them from their al-Qaida or Taliban suitors and win the indulgence, however grudging, of the leadership in Kabul or Baghdad. Such payments may help ensure a lull in the violence to allow U.S. forces to withdraw. But the enduring fallacy of such tactics was made clear in Vietnam.

The strategic hamlet and pacification programs of the early and mid-1960s featured U.S. operatives fanning out through the countryside to buy the quiescence of village and hamlet chiefs. But in the end, the only thing that this money purchased was a continued Balkanization of the political landscape. The local beneficiaries, including special police and paramilitary units, identified with their American bagmen, not with Vietnam’s central government, and the government in turn remained suspicious of their loyalties. The moment U.S. dollars and protection were withdrawn, the central government cracked down, destroying whatever calm existed.

Such an adjustment is now going on in Iraq, where reports are mounting of Shiite vengeance against Sunnis. In Afghanistan, the “stabilizing” effect of U.S. forces and money is belied by a ragged security picture throughout the country and the resurgence of warlords.

Civilian deaths

In the last year and a half, as the Obama administration has staggered into its Afghan end-game, armed American drones and special commando operations have replaced the expensive counter-insurgency template designed by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus. But the resulting campaign of targeted killing may not be an improvement because it contains the same ghastly flaws the Phoenix program had in Vietnam. The Phoenix program, a de facto assassination operation run by the CIA and U.S. military and carried out by provincial Vietnamese units, helped put the Viet Cong on the ropes temporarily, by eliminating many of their most experienced fighters and political operatives.

But for all this, the North Vietnamese went on to win. In the end, Phoenix drove people into the arms of the enemy by killing civilians. The cause was often imperfect intelligence from local sources more interested in settling personal scores than in taking out the real enemy. News reports suggest that today’s drone program suffers from similarly tainted targeting, as do periodic security sweeps that continue to deliver Taliban and al-Qaida suspects to allied detention centers.

Picking the wrong friends

Another problem in Vietnam was our choice of bedfellows. By the time I chauffeured the fleeing President Nguyen Van Thieu to Ton Son Nhut air base in late April 1975, some of us in the embassy had come to realize that political or military stability could not coexist with corrupt local leadership. But the last American ambassador to Vietnam had made allowances for Thieu and bent intelligence to cover his faults. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we have continued to choose our allies unwisely and tolerate their corruption.

Richard Holbrooke, who until his death in 2010 was Obama’s special adviser for Pakistan and Afghanistan, wrestled with another lesson from the Vietnam War, one he learned as a young pacification specialist in the Mekong Delta and a diplomat in Saigon. It was this: A war can’t go well if the enemy is able to move in and out of the country safely thanks to sanctuaries in adjacent countries.

In Vietnam, he’d seen how the Viet Cong slipped into the south easily through Laos and Cambodia, which may have been why Holbrooke labored so diligently to persuade the Pakistanis to break off their enabler’s role in the Afghan insurgency. But the tribal borderlands, along with factions of Pakistani intelligence, remain wellsprings of support for the Taliban and its fellow travelers in Al Qaida. Even Osama bin Laden was able to find a safe haven in Pakistan for years.

Truth is a casualty

During my own 5 1/2 years in Vietnam, as a CIA analyst, interrogator and operative, I learned another relevant but bitter lesson: Truth does not easily survive the pressures of American troop draw-downs or shifts in policy. The last commanders and intelligence officers on the parapets of a fading U.S. commitment invariably try to put a good face on things, however little cause for optimism there is.

There had been plenty of warning that South Vietnam was going to fall by the time it did on April 29, 1975. But denial and wishful thinking prevented us from adequately preparing for the safety of the many Vietnamese who had cast their lot with us. Their cries of panic over CIA radios on the last day still tear at my conscience.

What haunts me most as the U.S. pullout continues in Afghanistan is the fate of the locals who have trusted our assurances. Let us hope, as the agency’s Saigon station chief wrote in his last message from the embassy, that we have learned enough of history not to repeat it.

— Frank Snepp is a Peabody-award winning investigative journalist and the author of two CIA memoirs. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.


Abdu Omar 5 years, 1 month ago

We shouldn't have been in Iraq in the first place. If Israel needs water, that is their problem. Israel is not our problem since Israel never listens to us or respects our stance on political situatiuons. Let's let Israel fend for its self, they are strong enough, even from Netanyahu's point of view from statements he made in China.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 1 month ago

Israel was never mentioned in the article. Neither was water.

jafs 5 years, 1 month ago

So is this lte suggesting that we should not only invade other countries, but have an ongoing military presence there forever?

If not, what's his point?

Some might say that the inability to create a stable, lasting democratic government is a sign that we shouldn't have invaded in the first place, but I can't imagine that's what he's saying.

We knew that there were several ethnic groups in Iraq that didn't get along before we invaded them, and yet had no decent plan to deal with that.

Satirical 5 years, 1 month ago


One point it seems he is making is that the US should consider the long-term consequences of using a short-term strategy (such as buying off the enemy or neutrals).

Talking about never invading is great for the next potential conflict, but doesn't solve the very real issue of what happens to Afghanistan when we leave. What strategy does the US have to keep US sympathizers safe?

You should google what happened to the Russian sypathizers when Russia left Afghanistan, to see what could be lurking around the corner for those who helped the US.

jafs 5 years, 1 month ago

So how long do we have to stay?

And, why didn't we consider these concerns before invading, rather than after?

Invading is a short term strategy - if it's used without long term thinking and planning, we'll just keep doing the same stupid thing over and over again.

Satirical 5 years, 1 month ago

Jafs… “So how long do we have to stay?”

I don’t believe the LTE is necessarily marking the argument that staying longer will solve this problem. It appears he is saying that we need a strategy to address the aforementioned concerns.

“And, why didn't we consider these concerns before invading, rather than after?” - jafs

Again, the “what if” is a different question than "what is". I could only assume our exit strategy was to create a self-sufficient democracy which eventually wouldn’t need our help, but that discussion is moot for the purposes of this LTE. The more relevant discussion is what is our back-up exit strategy (what do we do now?).

jafs 5 years, 1 month ago

And that would be?

It's not moot at all - we didn't have a good exit strategy, clearly. And, if we continue to act without them, we'll continue to find ourselves in these messes.

Satirical 5 years, 1 month ago


Thank you for your opinion on hypothtical future conflicts. Do you have any opinions on the real life situation we are in now?

jafs 5 years, 1 month ago


We shouldn't be in it, and wouldn't have been in it, if we were smarter. And, we'll continue to be in such situations if we don't clean up our act.

It appears that we have few good options at this point - we can leave and allow the chaos to take over, or we can stay indefinitely to try to maintain some sort of order. Our being at this point was clearly predictable with just a little forethought.

What's your exit strategy advice? I notice you haven't provided any.

oldbaldguy 5 years, 1 month ago

I started in military intelligence when Vietnam was winding up. I know what Snepp is saying. We have abandoned friends in Iraq and we will in Afghanistan.

Satirical 5 years, 1 month ago


“What's your exit strategy advice? I notice you haven't provided any.”

I am not an expert on this topic, so I don't presume to offer specific advice to our policy makers. However, I think many people have in their minds a fallacy of false alternatives which you described -- either we stay indefinitely or we leave immediately and chaos will ensue. I think this LTE address exactly that false dichotomy.

I think we need to start implementing a strategy to protect US supporters once we leave Afghanistan. I think we owe a moral obligation to those who supported us, for us to support them, even after we leave. In what form or fashion I cannot say. But I think cutting and running without a strategy is immoral and will lead to the peventable deaths of many good people.

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