Sunday, November 29, 2009
Vietnam and the spectre of Osama
The major lesson American politicians learned from the quagmire of Vietnam was this: they could contain the outrage caused by the killing of hundreds of thousands of foreigners, including civilians (though the dissemination of gruesome images and stories had an impact), but couldn't afford significant losses to their own forces. Accordingly, after Vietnam, the United States opted for a war strategy that involved days or weeks of carpet bombing from great heights combined with missile strikes, guaranteed to cause substantial collateral damage but minimising the risk to American troops.
Yesterday, the American Senate released a report revealing the downside to that strategy. It confirmed beyond doubt that American troops had Osama bin Laden cornered in Tora Bora back in December 2001, and chose not to pursue him with massive force. It seems illogical that an army would launch a war specifically targetting those responsible for the 9/11 attack, only to let the leader of the pack get away. The only explanation is that a ground offensive in Tora Bora would have cost many American lives, something Bush and Rumsfeld baulked at allowing. They sent in a mere 100 American commandos along with a few battalions of Afghans and backed these up with the usual barrage of air strikes. The result, the Senate report confirms, was that bin Laden escaped across the border, the Afghan insurgency was boosted and a new one developed in Pakistan.
Donald Rumsfeld is reputedly a keen student of history, so I'm surprised the actions of generals from Alexander to Chingis Khan didn't teach him the importance of pursuing an adversary relentlessly, across countries and continents, until his capture or killing. Obviously the lesson of Vietnam trumped these earlier exemplars.