Does anyone remember Vietnam?

Abdel-Moneim Said
Thursday 22 Aug 2019

Protracted war is a feature of conflict in the Middle East, where parties aim not to win, but not to lose

Wars, as we study them in history, have victors and losers, the courageous and the cowardly, heroes and traitors. They also have a beginning and an end. In the modern age, balances of power made a big difference to how war is handled.

Strategic research centres calculated strategic balances and, after a period of infatuation with the sources of hard power, preferences shifted in favour of soft power.

Even though soft power is impossible to calculate, think tanks poured a lot of skill and ingenuity into formulating the basic components of those equations.

Even then, strategic “assessments” were always conservative and they always had to make allowance for unknowns and the unpredictable. 

World War II testified to how victory belongs to the side that has the balances of power in its favour. That side was the Allies after the US entered the war.

The Vietnam War testified otherwise. The US couldn’t use its nuclear weapon, which excluded an important factor from the equation. Public opinion in the US turned out to be a detracting factor.

But more importantly, the definition of victory and defeat had changed. The US emerged from Vietnam the loser because it couldn’t win. Patience and endurance had become major weapons in that war.

There came a point when the South Vietnamese could no longer be convinced that the US would be able to protect them and when the perpetuation of the war was a worse scenario than capitulating to the North.

The Vietnamese war lasted eight years, which is to say three years longer than World War II. Now, decades later, the unified Vietnam is a capitalist nation, the US is one of its main trading partners and it is impossible to say who really won in the end.

In all events, the Vietnam War is remote and it is rarely brought up in the contexts of discussions on war. Moreover, it no longer inspires Hollywood filmmakers, even though the subject had been explored for a long time because of its dramatic poignancy, and because of the many faults and foibles it told.

Apparently, filmmakers have since turned to films about captives who have to be rescued, if possible, in a sci-fi war setting. 

One of the most important unlearned lessons from the war in Vietnam is that when wars drag on, there comes a time when people forget when and why they started, after which they are mystified as to why and how they end.

The US is currently on the verge of concluding a peace agreement with the Taliban in negotiations hosted by Doha which, as we know, opens its arms to terrorist groups around the world, including the Taliban.

One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, we’ll learn at least some of the details of these talks. Meanwhile, what matters now is that the US did not win its war in Afghanistan.

After 18 years in the longest war the US has ever fought, US troops will withdraw from Afghanistan, despite how the balances of power favoured them early on.

They had overthrown the Taliban, driven them out of Kabul, kept them cornered in the south and begun to invest their military and economic capacities in building the Afghan state with the help of NATO. 

But the Taliban’s strategy was less to win than to avoid defeat. It resembled the defensive strategy we often see in football when lesser teams take on Germany or Brazil and resolve to come out with their heads held high.

So, they concentrate their players in front of their goal in order to prevent the stronger team from scoring. The longer they can keep the major team from scoring, the greater are the chances of eroding that team’s morale.

The Taliban’s strategy was the Vietcong’s strategy in Vietnam. It was George Washington’s strategy in the US War of Independence. He didn’t win any battle against British imperial forces. Rather, he withdrew before defeat and prepared for a new battle with his remaining soldiers.

In the end, the British capitulated to the Americans’ demand for the right of self-determination. 

All the wars in the Middle East fall into this category. They also come packed with enough complexity to ensure that they last a very long time.

All Middle Eastern wars started as civil wars, as was the case in Afghanistan and in Vietnam before that. But it would be an oversimplification to reduce these civil wars to just a battle between north and south.

Within those dualities there were many others. In Iraq, it was not just the US versus Saddam Hussein. There were also the battles between the Sunna and Shia, between the Arabs and Kurds, and between the various factions and alignments within each one of these sides.

The multiplicity of combinations is sufficient to ensure that the fighting drags on, that ceasefires break down, that truces last just long enough for the warring parties to catch their breath or to justify the jobs of UN employees.

The conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, Palestine and Afghanistan are what political scientists call “protracted conflicts”.

They unfold at various sectarian, tribal and regional levels that operate in accordance with different notions of time and conflict management than those established in the modern era.

In this era, conflict is a project with a beginning and an end, and with a structure and a value-added function. Not so in the “Middle East era” where perpetuity is a constant. That’s why wars in the Middle East never end regardless of the amount of dead and wounded, destruction and agony.

That’s why the fall of Saddam didn’t end the war in Iraq and the death of Muammar Gaddafi didn’t resolve the crisis in Libya. It is why Bashar Al-Assad had no problem levelling three-fourths of Syria and why he has the patience to live with 60 per cent of the country as he waits to see where the Kurdish-Turkish war leads.

The Islamic State group is in the process of rebuilding itself in Iraq and Syria. Khalifa Haftar’s forces are still at the walls of Tripoli while Ghassan Salamé prays that the Eid Al-Adha truce holds.

The wars in the Middle East never end because Middle Eastern parties remain while foreign parties decide to leave which, domestically at least, is interpreted as victory.

The exception so far to this theory of perpetual war is to be found in the countries that pursued the course of peace in the framework of a spirit of modernism that gives life meaning.

As for the Palestinians and Israelis, their conflict is governed by a somewhat different set of equations because they are both here to stay. There are 12 million people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

Half are Palestinians and the other half are Israelis. Neither can the Palestinians throw the Israelis into the sea nor can the Israelis throw the Palestinians into the vast desert of the Middle East.

Since the 1990s, the two people have existed in both conflict and coexistence, whether inside Israel with the Arab Israelis or in the West Bank with the settlers.

It is not surprising that the oldest and best-known conflict in the region has been the least costly of the Middle East’s wars in terms of death and destruction. In Palestine, no one speaks of Vietnam anymore. They speak about how to move toward a relationship that makes life worth living at the lowest possible cost.

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Does anyone remember Vietnam?

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