By Shahzad Chaudhry
March 22, 2013
After the French lost their Indo-China war in 1954, belatedly realising the futility of the conflict against a determined enemy, the Americans took over the task of ‘protecting’ South-East Asia from communism. American troops formally first deployed in Vietnam in March 1965.
The toll in this war, which lingered until April 1975, was 58,000 American soldiers dead. One to three million Vietnamese, most of them civilians, perished in the war. The Americans left a devastated country and a devastated society. The conflict in Vietnam proved to the world that it is not military might, even if it is the might of the stronger of the two superpowers of that time. It is the will of the invaded people who have decided that they would not live on as inhabitants of a colonised country.
One of the most telling images of the war was the photograph of the final group of fleeing Americans as they are picked up by a helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. It is unfortunate that Ho Chi Minh (d. 1969), a hero to the people of Vietnam since the war with the French, did not live to see the ultimate victory of the people he had led so long and so well.
It takes some reading of history to name a few American generals who led this ferocious war, but Gen Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnam’s legendary defence minister and Ho Chi Minh’s long-time associate, is read as a military tactician and strategist by any student of irregular war against a conventional force, even if it is the force of the greatest superpower in history.
Before America’s ignominious collapse and flight from Vietnam, negotiations and discussions between the two sides had already begun. American ‘will’ had been replaced by the United States’ realisation of the futility of fighting an enemy that operated by night or in the shadows and exacted its toll on them despite the military superiority of the superpower. In effect, we do not find the American experience in Afghanistan any different.
The other superpower, then, the former Soviet Union, learnt the same lesson in the killing fields of Afghanistan, reinforcing the truth in the history of warfare that a conventional force will hardly have a chance in the face of a contending guerrilla force that knows the terrain like one knows the palms of one’s own hand, because the guerrillas belong there. Pakistan is in a similar irregular war with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).
Although no match to the two defeated superpowers, it has held up well. Its initiation into an irregular war was primarily based on what can be called on-the-job learning on the battlefield. Pakistan has also done well in restricting the Fata insurgency to that region without letting it expand into other parts of Pakistan. Even in Fata the enemy is mostly within the confines of North Waziristan Agency. The army continues to battle to fully establish the government’s writ in Khyber, Orakzai and Mohmand Agencies.
If it cannot win against an enemy as determined as the Vietnamese and the Afghan, a conventional force either loses or gives up, because it has finally recognised the futility of a war without an end, not to mention the tremendous cost involved, in both human and material terms, in continuation of the conflict. It opens negotiations with the adversary to disengage itself from a futile and unwinnable conflict.
America is in the process of doing exactly the same as it seeks a face-saving exit from Afghanistan. Pakistan also has to decide how it can disengage itself from the costly war against the TTP and move towards a negotiated end, in parallel with the dialogue that the Afghan Taliban will have with the US.
In most cases, especially in long-drawn-out counterinsurgencies, victory or defeat is a relative state and mostly denotes an improvement or deterioration in the extent of control that the state may profess to claim. Without finite victory or an absolute loss to either side space exists to minimise further loss and cement advantage in a negotiated end. A pervading concern in the process of negotiation is that give-and-take in a settlement may end up in compromised principles.
There is also the case of initial positions of each side in a negotiation which must draw down to what is realistic and within reach. An effort to convert a relative victory into actual victory could mean disproportionate engagement of time and resource for a gain that could only be marginally better than its existing state.
Pakistan has a clear advantage in its ongoing conflict in Fata and may only end up committing much greater resource and time in search of an elusive finite victory when the same resource in the same time in a more productive engagement offers a possibility of success along a wider spectrum. Just as compromise without principle is blind, principle without compromise is empty.
Many refer to the Sri Lankan experience against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and how the state successfully eliminated the group. But they err when they discount the almost three-decade-long struggle as well as the confinement of the LTTE to the north-east of the island. Lack of contiguity with adjacent territory made it impossible for the group to escape. In Pakistan’s case the borders are porous with some groups already ensconced in neighbouring Afghanistan.
To the TTP the moment is right for a dialogue seeking the benefit of staving off extinction when the umbrella of the Afghan Taliban under which they have for all these years found convenient shelter is about to be removed with their sponsors finally heading back home. This is a weak moment for the TTP which perceives its lonely presence in the days ahead. Mere amnesty with the condition that they mainstream themselves may be all it takes to bring an end to the violence. The state should take the offer.
A state has all the options, including use of force or negotiations. When it chooses force alone as its first element of engagement it stoops to the level of terror which, in first place, was the cause of the conflict. It also has the option to move from one to the other at the time of its own choosing. With everything going for the state, only fear will keep the state from making the right choices. Not benefiting from the moment, while things are still going Pakistan’s way, would be a blunder.
Shahzad Chaudhry is a retired air-vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and served as its deputy chief of staff.