Why the Afghanistan Papers Are an Eerie Reminder of Vietnam
By Vijay Prashad* – Independent Media
Noam Chomsky recently celebrated his 91st birthday. As an homage
to Noam, I spent the day with one of his lesser-known books—The Backroom Boys (1973).
The book is made up of two spectacular essays, the first a close reading of the
Pentagon Papers. To read this book alongside the trove
of documents released by the U.S. government as part of its own
internal study on the ongoing U.S. war on Afghanistan is telling. Both the
Pentagon Papers on Vietnam and the recent Washington Post disclosures on
Afghanistan show that the U.S. government lied to its citizenry about a war
that could never be won. If you substitute the word “Afghanistan” for the word
“Vietnam,” you could read Noam’s essays from 1973 and imagine that they were
There was one quote in the Afghanistan papers that stopped me. It
was almost as if I had read this before in the Pentagon Papers. In 2015, an
unnamed National Security Council official said,
“It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers
trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an
accurate picture.” With regard to Vietnam, the Military Assistance Command,
Vietnam (MACV) constantly inflated “body counts”—the number of dead
Vietnamese—as a metric of impending victory. This is clear in both the Pentagon
Papers and in the papers at the Johnson Library (Austin, Texas).
One soldier who worked in MACV would often go along with the
generals to observe the battlefield. His words, collected by
Toshio Whelchel, are worth reading: “once we flew over an area after a B-52
raid and the devastation was incredible. There were all these plastic bags out
there with our guys supposedly counting bodies of enemy killed. But they were
merely picking up body fragments—anything to put in the bag—and counting each
one as a single kill.” These numbers pleased Washington; they were what was
sold to the public as a metric to gauge how well the war was going.
Noam’s essay on the Pentagon Papers begins with the words of a U.S.
air force pilot who explains the “finer selling points” of napalm. A certain
generation knows exactly what “napalm” is, but younger readers might not be
aware of it. Napalm is one of the most hideous weapons ever made—petroleum
based, with gel that makes the fuel stick to the human skin. It was used with
great gusto against the Korean and Vietnamese people.
The pilot who drops napalm on the civilians says, “We sure are
pleased with those backroom boys at Dow [Chemical]. The original product wasn’t
so hot—if the gooks were quick enough they could scrape it off. So the boys
started adding polystyrene—now it sticks like shit to a blanket. It’ll even
burn under water now.”
These sentences require patience. The airman is talking about the
Vietnamese. He uses the term “gooks,” which seems to have had its origins in
the U.S. invasion of the Philippines in 1898, and then was used to refer to
Haitians and Nicaraguans, Costa Ricans and Arabs—anyone that the U.S. military
and air force seemed to be killing. The term was used to describe the
“natives,” the people whose bodies were worth only what work they could do for
the “masters.” This is the vocabulary that does not go away. It reappears in
Chillingly, the airman says that he would like the weapon to be
more lethal, the chances of civilians being able to save themselves nullified.
of National Liberation
In the backrooms, the scientists make the weapons and the analysts
debate the war. What was so stunning about the Pentagon Papers was that the entire
establishment knew that the United States would not be able to defeat the
Vietnamese people, and that even with the use of such barbaric weapons as
napalm and Agent Orange, the Vietnamese would not lose their morale.
In 1967, eight years before the U.S. quit Vietnam, the director of
Systems Analysis at the Pentagon wrote, “I think we’re up against an enemy who
just may have found a dangerously clever strategy for licking the United
States. Unless we recognize and counter it now, that strategy may become all
too popular in the future.” He referred to wars of national liberation.
They—not guerrilla tactics—had to be vanquished. National liberation was out of
the question. That was the basic premise of why the U.S. government lied to its
public. It was fighting a war that it could not win because its adversary—the
Vietnamese people—believed in their fight and would not stop until they had
Afghanistan does not have an army of national liberation anywhere
near the caliber of the Viet Minh. It has the Taliban, whose brutality was born
out of the crucible of the war of the warlords from the 1990s. From the ground
upward, however, the Taliban—however brutal it has been—appears at least as a
force against an alien invader whose asymmetrical warfare does nothing to lift
the confidence of the population. The Taliban do not promise land reform or
social liberation, but they live and die alongside the rest of the civilian
population. That is what makes them more popular than the drones and the
Special Forces, and even the Afghan National Army. The “dangerously clever
strategy” of the Taliban is that they are rooted amongst their brethren. No
bombing raid can break that link.
Ever since the United States government set up the Office of the
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in 2008, I
have read all its reports and engaged many of its staff members. It was clear to
them—often very decent people—that this war against Afghanistan was an
abomination. It was clear to those of us who covered this war that the United
States was going to devastate further this poor country, and then leave because
it could not attain ends that it had so poorly defined.
Nothing in the recently released SIGAR documents surprised me, or
many of my colleagues. We had heard these things from Afghan officials and from
Western intelligence and military officials over the years; such comments have
littered the reports that we have filed on the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, these documents are welcome, since they—like the WikiLeaks
revelations—shine a light on the mendacity of the U.S. governments regarding
these wars against Afghanistan and then Iraq.
Colonel Bob Crowley, who was a senior counterinsurgency adviser to
the U.S. military commanders in 2013-14, told the
SIGAR researchers, “Every data point was altered to present the best picture
possible. Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that
everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream
cone.” “Truth,” Crowley said,
“was rarely welcome” at the U.S. military headquarters in Kabul; it was rarely
welcomed in Washington, D.C., either. The U.S. government was lying to justify
its war in Afghanistan. Data is not to be trusted; the words of officials are
not to be taken seriously.
As early as 2003, a CIA analyst told me that there were no
territorial gains being made in Afghanistan; after bombing runs, and after
troops went in to “capture and hold” the land, they found themselves retreating
to their bases, leaving the devastation, and watching as the Taliban came back
to take power. No gains were made in the 18 years since the war began.
of the Afghans
The reporting on these documents has nothing from the Afghan side.
The outrage is merely this: U.S. citizens have been lied to for a war that was
a waste from the very start. The New
York Times—using estimates from the Brown University Cost of War
Project—ran a full page of graphics to dispel the metrics, and to talk about
the waste of this war. These are all undeniable facts.
But what about the Afghans, whose lives have been destroyed
further, whose aspirations are reduced to ashes?
The U.S. press coverage says that the administrations of Bush,
Obama, and Trump lied to the U.S. public; but this is not all. What about the
war crimes committed against the people of Afghanistan, and what about the fact
that this entire operation—without any clear war aim—is a disastrous crime
against the Afghan people?
The U.S. government continues to put pressure on the International
Criminal Court, refusing to allow any development in the investigation of war
crimes in Afghanistan. At the very least, and on behalf of the millions of
Afghans whose lives have been eroded, someone needs to stand in the dock,
someone needs to take responsibility. They did not for the illegal war in
Vietnam and Cambodia; they will not for this war, and therefore—because they
have impunity—there will be another war.
Chomsky’s book from 1973 was a warning. He wrote judiciously that
the U.S. war on Vietnam and the lies used to justify the war were not a “mad
aberration.” That warning was not taken seriously. It is not being taken
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, journalist, commentator and a Marxist
intellectual. He is the Executive Director of Tricontinental: Institute for
Social Research and the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books. This article was sended to Other News by Jenny Pierson, Manager of
Editorial Projects, Programs Administrator, Independent Media Institute, on Dec.