A couple of weeks ago Richard Holbrooke died, and Obama lost his special adviser on both Afghanistan and Iraq. His widely reported last words were “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan”. It’s been touted as a last-minute conversion or realisation, but the history behind it goes back decades.

Holbrooke in 1977 with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Phan HienHolbrooke was a substantial figure in American diplomacy, a charismatic and thoughtful man with nearly five decades of experience of the point where liberal interventionism and outright imperialism meet. His formative experiences were in Vietnam as a young man on the diplomatic and political front line from 1963, just ahead of the Gulf of Tonkin incident and LBJ’s escalation of the conflict.

Two years later he was part of Johnson’s separate Vietnam team – always a sign someone doesn’t trust the usual channels. He appears to have told the President very frankly what was going wrong, just as he did from his deathbed for Obama, though it was obvious where he stood on the later wars before he took on his final role.

The helicopter evacuation from SaigonSupporters of the Americans’ more recent military invasions always resist comparisons with Vietnam, and above all fear a repeat of the humiliating sight of helicopters evacuating personnel at the end, a sight which left such scars on the American establishment that even Ronald Reagan preferred to fight his imperial adventures by proxy.

But Holbrooke wasn’t afraid to make the parallels. First in 2007, “Iraq already presents us with the worst situation internationally in modern American history. Worse even than Vietnam.” Then, by 2008: “The conflict in Afghanistan will be far more costly and much, much longer than Americans realize. This war will eventually become the longest in American history, surpassing even Vietnam.”

The problem that unites these three wars isn’t primarily the stretched supply lines, dwindling support at home, unclear objectives or unreliable local allies, though they do share those things. The problem is intrinsic to being an occupying force: very few people who don’t directly benefit from imperial patronage like seeing their country run by foreign bureaucrats, retired politicians and generals. And a country with a military tradition that doesn’t want to be occupied will resist, and sooner or later they will tend to win, just as the American revolutionaries did almost three hundred years earlier.

Castro & TaberIn 1965, early in Holbrooke’s time in Vietnam, Robert Taber published The War Of The Flea, a classic review of guerilla warfare, both theory from Mao to Sun Tzu and practice from Cyprus to the Philippines. Born in Illinois, Taber was no academic bystander – in 1957 he conducted the first TV interview with Fidel Castro (shown together at left), and subsequently fought with the Cubans against the Americans at the Bay of Pigs.

The core of the book is Vietnam, though. Taber explains how familiar the North Vietnamese were with the theory of guerilla resistance, ideas like Mao’s strategic balance between space, will and time. Just as the Long March is best understood as a substantial exercise of will and a sacrifice of space to buy time, so the Vietcong understood the price of holding territory, especially cities or towns, and that the Americans’ desire to do so at all costs, most famously at Khe Sanh, would be a major part of their undoing. The translation into practice was honed as well, no surprise for a country where a guerilla army had defeated the French back when they called it Indochina, and where the young soldiers from that 1946-54 conflict were now the field commanders of the resistance to the Americans. He quotes Vo Nguyen Giap, who commanded Vietnamese armies from 1944 onwards and who is now apparently an environmental campaigner, as follows:

“The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of duration. Thus, the enemy will be caught in a dilemma: he has to drag out the war in order to win it, and does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long, drawn-out war.”

Guerillas attack from terrain they know far better than the occupiers, and use nimble and coordinated attacks on vulnerable supply lines to capture arms and prove themselves to the local people. Clumsy reprisals against guerilla attacks build support for their actions, recruit new members and open up new safe houses. Campaigns of attrition are waged, while the set-piece battles of attrition are avoided until the end game.

The pure exercise of will in these circumstances has led to some of the most horrific scenes in war. I had thought the example from Apocalypse Now was apocryphal, but Slavoj Žižek assures me it’s real. When the Americans ran a vaccination campaign for hearts and minds, so the story goes, the Vietcong returned the children’s arms in piles, an act of unimaginable cruelty, yet one which made very clear to the Americans that their enemy was utterly determined and implacable. More broadly, the North Vietnamese leadership knew support for the war in the US was dwindling with every shipment of young men home – and it’s no coincidence that George Bush banned cameras from these events in 2003.

Afghan fighter with RPGAfghanistan’s ongoing conflict in Helmand and beyond is broadly of the same sort. There are differences, of course – Afghan national identity counts for little, with regional and tribal loyalties coming first and ensuring that the resistance is patchy and diverse, with a real religious strand.

The wider parallels are there too, though: the Afghan defeat of the Soviets in 1989 clearly trained a generation in guerilla fighting, and as a result the current armed insurgency has access to the substantial stockpiles of weapons left behind. Calling them “Taliban” now is just shorthand, just as “mujahideen” was last time, and just as many Vietcong fighters were not necessarily “communist” – indeed, like the Cuban revolution, the Vietnamese resistance is better understood as a nationalist movement.

Writing in 1969 for the introduction to the second edition, Taber notes that “the first printing of The War of the Flea was bought in its entirety by various branches of the United States armed services“, keen to learn how they could prove him wrong and win in Vietnam. With an impressive certainty, four years ahead of the American withdrawal, he observes that “it can make little difference“, and indeed it did not. There can be no doubt that Holbrooke, later an author of one of the volumes of the Pentagon Papers, will have been one of those readers from the American diplomatic and military establishment.

Whether or not it influenced him, Holbrooke knew what Taber knew, and it applies now too. Even if you assume victory in Afghanistan on the terms of the American and British occupying forces to be genuinely desirable, it cannot be achieved. Time to go.


The Pentagon Papers include the following summary of why the Americans fought on. The overwhelming reasons for staying in Afghanistan are surely the same, perhaps replacing “Chinese” with ISI.

  • 70% – To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat.
  • 20% – To keep [South Vietnam] (and the adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.
  • 10% – To permit the people [of South Vietnam] to enjoy a better, freer way of life.
  • ALSO – To emerge from the crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used.
  • NOT – To ‘help a friend’

Also, I found out while writing this that others have made the same comparison. First, the Economist, who are more sceptical about the read-across, and Daniel White (where the top comment is by Taber’s son, confirming he died in 1995). Tangentially, Time Magazine heard from Taber and McGuinness in the Bogside in 1972.