Streetwise Professor

April 16, 2012

Tet Lite

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:33 am

The Taliban launched high profile attacks in Kabul, focusing on political targets, including the Afghan parliament, NATO headquarters, and western embassies.  The attacks were repelled after 18 hours of fighting.

These attacks immediately brought to mind a part-and just a part-of the Tet Offensive in Viet Nam in January, 1968.  Specifically, they remind me of the Viet Cong attacks in Saigon, and in particular on the US Embassy compound.  These attacks were made soon after the US turned over security in the capital to South Vietnamese (ARVN) troops.  The attacks produced surprise, but were quickly crushed, resulting the deaths of virtually all of the VC sappers engaged.

These attacks had a political impact far beyond their their utterly trivial military consequences.  As detailed in Peter Braestrup’s Big Story, these attacks convinced an already skeptical US press of the futility of the war.  Walter Cronkite witnessed the attacks, and supposedly said: “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning this war?”  Cronkite returned from Viet Nam and announced on the air that the war was lost. (A perfect illustration of the idiocy of drawing broad conclusions about the progress of a war on the basis of a single skirmish.  No unflappable U.S. Grant he.)  Cronkite’s disaffection specifically, and that of the media generally, signally contributed to LBJ’s collapse of will, which culminated in his decision not to seek reelection in 1968.

The North Vietnamese planners of Tet, most notably General Giap, understood that Washington, DC was the strategic center of gravity in the conflict, and that the media provided a way to attack it.  That part of Tet succeeded brilliantly, far beyond anything Giap could have hoped.  For the VC, the rest of Tet was an utter disaster militarily.  They were savaged, and the VC was never effective militarily thereafter: North Vietnamese regular forces bore the brunt of the fighting afterwards.

But that didn’t matter, because the strike at the center of gravity was so wildly successful.  The Taliban appear to be  attempting to adopt a similar strategy, but to avoid Giap’s errors.  They are evidently focusing on the high profile attacks aimed at the political center of gravity-western capitals-and eschewing broad scale attacks against US and NATO military forces that would result in crushing losses.

Given the Obama administration’s obvious distaste for the war, particularly in the face of an election, and Sarkozy’s fraught political situation in France (where he looks doomed to defeat), the Taliban are right to conclude that squishy political leadership is the center of gravity in Afghanistan.  However, Afghanistan is not at the forefront of American minds in 2012 as Viet Nam was in 1968.  Media coverage is sporadic at best, and for a variety of reasons the electorate is not happy with the conflict, but for most the conflict is a peripheral one.  The number of troops engaged is small by comparison to 1968, and the number of casualties far smaller.  This all means that the political impact of the Taliban attacks is likely to be far less than that of the VC assault in 1968.

Moreover, whereas Viet Nam deeply divided the Democratic Party in 1968, Afghanistan does not pose the same threat of intra-party insurrection to Obama as Viet Nam did to LBJ.

As a result, I don’t think that these attacks will have the same seismic effects as the Saigon assault.  Indeed, the Taliban are pretty much pushing on an open door.  Obama wants out, has long wanted out, and put the US on a trajectory to get out two years ago.  His will was never engaged here: the Afghanistan issue was a prop in the 2008 campaign that he used to deflect charges that he was weak on national security, and after that became an irritant and distraction to him. Moreover, Afghanistan is marginal as a political issue, and what happens there is highly unlikely to affect political events here.

I therefore expect that these attacks will not alter significantly the course of events in the coming months.  That course was set long ago, and will continue largely unchanged as a result of what transpired in Kabul over the last couple of days.  At most, it will confirm to Obama that getting out is the correct course.

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