Saturday, December 6, 2008

Pakistan's Army Meets Ho Chi Minh?

U.S. Army Vietnam, 1966
Search and Destroy Mission
Vietnam War Tunnel

Pakistan Army after a battle

Pakistan Army with captured arms.

In the last year of my teenage decade, I was part of the force sent by the United States to try and do what turned out to be, the impossible. The history of the Second Indochina War or Vietnam War as it is known to most Americans has been studied and debated since the first moment an American boot set foot on Vietnamese soil. That war will continue to be fodder for debate for as long as the United States exists.

An article recently in the New York Times about the efforts by the Pakistani Army to seize back a stronghold that the Taliban had carved out of their border region reminded me of tactics used forty years ago by a United States Army, superbly trained to confront their sworn enemy the USSR and the Warsaw Bloc.

We took an army that was designed to fight the "mother of all state on state wars" against the USSR. Our tactics and equipment were designed for total war and strategic thrusts and scorched earth methods to deny the enemy a foothold. The first two years of combat saw our best professional soldiers chewed up by a largely hidden enemy. By the time we adjusted our tactics the countries patience had worn thin and it became an exit strategy that governed our soul.

One of the first things discovered by American troops was the ability of the enemy to slip away unseen to what came to be know as VC tunnels. Many parts of South Vietnam were a warren of tunnels, built decades before, for earlier wars against the French and the Japanese.

A tactic known as Search and destroy became the norm, for an army indoctrinated to total war concepts. Airstrikes, carpet bombing, and massive artillery barrages were used to kill an enemy who was able to replenish themselves from cross border sanctuaries. The only lasting result of our kinetic force was to earn the enmity of the people we were tasked to help.

Only the United States Marines with their Combined Action Program (CAP) had any success winning the hearts and minds of the common people of Vietnam. And to top it off, they were deployed by General Westmoreland, to guard the DMZ as a buffer against North Vietnam, instead of being deployed to the village and rice rich Mekong Delta where their CAP program could have done some substantial good.

The article by JANE PERLEZ and PIR ZUBAIR SHAH, was published in the New York Times, November 10, 2008, and illustrates how some things never change. Even the final reference to Body counts and replenishment from across the border has a familiar ring to anyone of my generation.

LOE SAM, Pakistan — When Pakistan’s army retook this strategic stronghold from the Taliban last month, it discovered how deeply Islamic militants had encroached on — and literally dug into — Pakistani territory.

Behind mud-walled family compounds in the Bajaur area, a vital corridor to Afghanistan through Pakistan’s tribal belt, Taliban insurgents created a network of tunnels to store arms and move about undetected.
Some tunnels stretched for more than half a mile and were equipped with ventilation systems so that fighters could withstand a long siege. In some places, it took barrages of 500-pound bombs to break the tunnels apart.

In tactics reminiscent of those used in Vietnam, The Pakistani Army is fighting the war with the army they built, not the army designed for this kind of war. Their ability to adapt is challenged by their perceived need to be prepared for state on state combat with their neighbor India.

After the Frontier Corps failed to dislodge the Taliban from Loe Sam in early August, the army sent in 2,400 troops in early September to take on a Taliban force that has drawn militants from across the tribal region, as well as a flow of fighters from Afghanistan.
Like all Pakistani soldiers, the troops sent here had been trained and indoctrinated to fight in conventional warfare against India, considered the nation’s permanent enemy, but had barely been trained in counterinsurgency strategy and tactics.

Even the results of combat, mirror the American experience in Vietnam.
To save Loe Sam, the army has destroyed it.

The shops and homes of the 7,000 people who lived here are a heap of gray rubble, blown to bits by the army. Scraps of bedding and broken electric fans lie strewn in the dirt.

As Pakistani Army helicopters and artillery fired at militants’ strongholds in the region, about 200,000 people fled to tent camps for the displaced in Pakistan, to relatives’ homes or across the border into Afghanistan.

The aerial bombardment was necessary, Pakistani military officials say, to root out a well-armed Taliban force.

The Pakistani Army and the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force responsible for security in the tribal areas, say 83 of their soldiers have died and 300 have been wounded since early August. That compares with 61 dead among forces of the American-led coalition in Afghanistan in the first four months of 2008.

At some point, probably over a period of several years, though no official could explain exactly when, the militants dug the series of well-engineered, interconnected tunnels.

The military now believes such tunnels lace much of Bajaur, where the militants still control large swaths of territory, General Khan said in an interview at his headquarters in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province.

And finally, an echo of words spoken in countless press briefings during the Vietnam War.

.....Col. Nauman Saeed, the officer in charge of day-to-day operations at the headquarters in Khar, said he was mired in a classic guerrilla conflict.

In September, he said, Taliban leaders in Bajaur had replenished their forces with 950 more men from Afghanistan.

"You keep killing them,” Colonel Saeed said, “but you still have them around.”

The challenge is for all parties involved, Pakistan, India, the United States, Russia, China and the regional powers, to work together to confront threats such as those born out of the conditions and cultures that drive disenfranchised young men into the arms of those, who instead of asking to be left along to live with their beliefs, seek to disrupt the connectivity that is empowering billions of people across the globe. Right now is the time for confronting those whom seek to make the next article a reality.
One would hope that cooler heads in New Delhi, Islamabad, Washington and the other capitals come together to work on new strategies before the world wakes up to this news, US Should Expect Terrorist Attack by 2013 - Daily Telegraph.
UPDATE: This post from the Small Wars Journal blog Remembering Old and New by Paul Yingling offers some insight in a look back at COIN tactics in the Vietnam War.

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