Afghanistan -another Vietnam? Hopefully!

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The war in Afghanistan, and the retreat of the US and its allies from Kabul, is being compared to the Vietnam war and the US withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. There are enough points of similarity to make the comparison valid.

The Taliban, like the North Vietnamese, proved themselves to be formidable tacticians and fighters. They managed to contain a far better equipped enemy, mount counter-offensives using both conventional and nonconventional methods, and set up systems of taxation – as well as extortion and trade – to finance their operations. Their technical capability in areas such as repair and maintenance of small arms, and in preparation and use of IEDs was formidable, as was their intelligence network.

Like the Vietnamese, the Taliban also proved to be canny strategists. Their approach during the Doha engagement was very similar to that of the North Vietnamese during the Paris talks – negotiate but give away little; continue to fight on the ground and gain territory; and accompany this by a strong propaganda effort to undermine the morale of the weakest element in the enemy ranks.

Now that the US and its allies have left Afghanistan, there is speculation about what kind of regime are we likely to see. It may be interesting to see how Vietnam fared once the war ended and whether the new regime in Afghanistan could learn from this.

After the US pulled out of Vietnam, the Communist Party took over the Government. They had to deal with a poverty-stricken and ravaged country where infrastructure was destroyed, basic services were missing and the large swathes of the countryside were inaccessible due to landmines or the use of Agent Orange – a chemical defoliant that was aerially sprayed to destroy the forests that the Viet Cong were allegedly hiding in. There were also deep social and economic divisions, particularly between the north and the south of Vietnam, and there had been a huge flight of capital, both financial and human.

But despite the disastrous starting point, Vietnam’s development since then has been remarkable. The first decade was spent on political consolidation with the Communist Party tightening its hold on power and laying the foundations for efficient systems for administration, security, development and taxation. There was also a massive focus on education at all levels, from primary to tertiary, with top students being sent abroad for doing Master’s degrees and Doctorates.

Another achievement of that period was the establishment of high levels of participation, accountability and competence at commune level – the lowest level of Government. I personally worked in some of the poorest areas of Vietnam and the dedication and organisational skills of Government staff even in these areas was striking.

The building on the effort made in the first decade after unification, a further set of reforms was introduced in the mid to late 1980s. These reforms liberalised certain sectors and spurred rapid economic growth, transforming what was then one of the world’s poorest nations into a lower middle-income country with GPD per capita approaching $3,000.

A major factor in making these systems work was the commitment of staff at all levels of Government and the strong ideology that underpinned the development effort. The Communist Party also played a key role ensuring that resources and processes were not captured by local elites; that development efforts focused on meeting real needs; that economic growth was by and large equitable with the result that poverty rates, which were well over 70% at one point, fell to around 5%; and that foreign policy and international relations were pragmatic and subservient to the economic needs at the time. Let me share a couple of anecdotes to illustrate the commitment and view point of the people I collaborated with.

My work often involved close interaction with senior Government staff. A routine part of this was a certain degree of socialisation – a coffee together, a drink after work, or a pleasant dinner – which created a friendly, informal atmosphere where difficult issues could be discussed and hopefully sorted out. But I was puzzled by the fact that while there were plenty of official “banquets” there was never any personal invitations from our counterparts – neither to their houses nor elsewhere. The reasons became clear to me over time. The salaries of even senior Government employees were simply not enough to cover the costs of dinners or other such events.

And after several years, when I was finally invited to the house of one of my counterparts for dinner, I had the privilege – and I use the word privilege deliberately – to see how senior Government staff lived, and I also understood why they never invited us home. They were simply embarrassed.

My friend picked me up from my hotel on his 90cc Honda motorcycle; took me to his modest two-bedroom flat where he lived with his family of five; and we had a simple and frugal dinner cooked by his wife and mother-in-law. No big cars, no servants, no fancy electronic equipment. And this was a person who had a PhD from Harvard University; who at the time was a Director in the ministry I was working with; and who went on to become the Governor of a Province and then a full Minister. And he, like many others, despite their low pay and limited privileges, worked incredibly hard, often sleeping in their offices when major policy changes and decisions were being formulated and implemented.

The second anecdote regards attitudes to the past and the future. Another senior Government officer told me about living in Hanoi during the war – the planes screaming overhead night after night, the rush to the bomb shelters, and the sounds of explosions. Her father was a senior officer in the army and was never at home; and every time the phone rang her mother’s hand used to tremble as she picked up the receiver, bracing herself for bad news.

I asked her how she felt about present day Vietnam, where US investments were pouring in, the trade delegations were visiting her ministry, and the young people from the US and Europe were thronging the cafes and bars of the city. Without batting an eyelid she said, “We have to close the door to the past, and open the door to the future.” This was a phrase I went to hear many time after that.

Is it at all possible that the Taliban will continue to follow in the footsteps of the Vietnamese even after the combat phase is over? If they were to do so, they would have to overcome a series of political and social challenges such as the turning their fighters into a force for peace and security; limiting the influence of outside organisations, such as al-Qaeda or ISIS, who may wish to make Afghanistan a base for global or regional Jihad; handling the more radical groups within their own ranks; promoting education for everyone; and unleashing the power of Afghan women. They will also have to turn their attention to economic issues such as trade, finance and development programmes.

The Taliban very likely have the discipline and dedication to address these and other challenges; they certainly know the importance of delivering a better standard of living to the people; and they most certainly have the savvy and intellectual horsepower to deal with the geopolitics of the region.

The Taliban have overcome immense odds to take over the reins of Government. They now have to run the country. Good luck to the Afghan people who, after over four decades of war, deserve four decades of peace and progress as happened in Vietnam.