Once upon a time the United States successfully led a coalition of free countries that decisively defeated the fascist Axis Powers, led by Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. When that war ended we put together a coalition of free countries that stood up to communist left-wing dictators Joseph Stalin and Mao Tze Tung. Even before WWII ended, the communists had started brutal civil wars in an attempt to take over two countries, Greece and the Philippines. ‘Our side’ won both wars. In both cases, the United States provided training, advice, and supplies, but no “boots on the ground,” spending money but almost no American lives. We also successfully organized a UN backed coalition that defended a third country, South Korea, from a communist attack in 1950. We tailored our objectives to defending South Korea rather than conquering North Korea because the additional cost was not worth it, given that the USSR and China had acquired nuclear weapons; decisive victories on the order of World War II were no longer possible. This period also saw an unprecedented degree of bipartisan cooperation on foreign affairs, characterized by the idea that “politics stop at the water’s edge,” a term attributed to Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg explaining his support for Democratic President Harry S. Truman’s foreign and defense policies.
And then that all changed. In 1964, we sent 500,000 American troops to fight a communist invasion in Vietnam and suffered a humiliating defeat at the cost of 53,000 American lives, trillions in treasure and a horrific death toll among our Vietnamese allies. Very few other countries joined us. Political turmoil over the Vietnam War brought down two Presidents. In the end we ‘declared victory’ and withdrew from Vietnam. A year later we even stopped economic support to its beleaguered government and the communists won a complete victory, humiliating the United States. Now, forty six years after being kicked out of Vietnam, the Trump administration negotiated a surrender agreement in Afghanistan with the Taliban, the Islamist insurgents, that makes our flight from Vietnam look like a brave fighting retreat.
Why did the United States deal so successfully with an insurgency in Greece and then botch it in Vietnam and now in Afghanistan? (The jury is still out in Iraq; we don’t even know who is ‘our side’ there.) It appears that we suffered a colossal collective memory loss and, quite literally, forgot every lesson we had learned in Greece. What did we do right in Greece that we did wrong thereafter?
The Truman administration sent General James Van Fleet to Greece with a military mission that never exceeded 250 men. Van Fleet had one objective: helping the Greek Army defeat the communists. He made it clear to all that this was a Greek war, not an American war. His military mission was there “to equip, train and advise” the Greek Armed forces, not to fight in their war. He forbade any American advisors from engaging in combat and from co-locating with Greek units involved in combat. One American pilot training his Greek counterparts on newly delivered dive bombers could not resist going on bombing missions himself. He was shot down and killed. When informed of what happened, Van Fleet reportedly replied, “the SOB is lucky he’s dead.” At the same time, the American Ambassador in Greece, Henry Grady, made it clear to Greek politicians that the United States would not accept any political interference with the Greek Armed Forces. (The Greek politicians had a habit of demanding the Army be deployed to protect their electoral districts and appointing relatives to senior military positions.) Grady’s economic assistance mission was staffed entirely by U.S. Government officials and the U.S. put great pressure on Greece to prevent corruption, especially corruption that would affect the war effort. Finally, the United States put diplomatic pressure on the neighboring communist countries to stop supporting the Greek communists and even hinted to Albania that we might support a Greek invasion. Van Fleet arrived in February 1948; the Greeks achieved complete victory over the communists by November 1949.
In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the United States sent American troops to do most of the fighting, shunting aside local forces. (In Iraq, we even disbanded the battle-tested Iraqi Army!) American exceptionalism has become an enormous ego trip that has convinced us that we are the toughest guys on the block. Even when the local army is in the fight, we act as if U.S. forces can do it better and rarely assist them to acquire the capacity to do the job themselves. In Afghanistan we trained and equipped some very capable special forces units but kept them dependent on U.S. forces for logistics, artillery, and air support. Americans fly most of the combat missions and provide all higher echelon logistics and maintenance support. To make matters worse, we have contracted that work to private companies rather than career professionals. A few dozen U.S. companies and some Afghan officials with whom they cooperate have profited to the tune of billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars. We complain about Pakistan's support for the Taliban, but it ignores us.
We are about to suffer another humiliation on the order of Vietnam. Our retreat will only tarnish our reputation, harm our international credibility, and undermine our alliances. The terrorists who brought us 9/11 will rebuild their bases in Afghanistan. Most Americans may not care but our defeat will also condemn the Afghan people to rule by brutal religious fanatics. God help the women and children of that country. We may still have a chance to reverse the situation but it would require politicians and the public to accept the fact that we forgot whatever we learned from great leaders some seventy years ago.