How a few burqa-clad militants terrified the West

The so-called ‘Kabul offensive’ by the Taliban was nothing like the Tet Offensive in Vietnam – but it’s telling that the two are being compared.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics USA

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Following the Taliban assault on Western embassies in Kabul this week, commentators have been rummaging through their history books to find comparable events. Some, having wrestled against their critical faculties and won, likened the Kabul assault to the Tet Offensive of 1968, when Viet Cong forces launched a surprise assault on American forces in Vietnam. Others, admitting that the Taliban attack wasn’t quite of Tet proportions, have claimed that it did nonetheless signal ‘Taliban resolve’. The militants were apparently showing their determination to ‘battle Western forces to the hour of their exit’.

In truth, history is not a good guide to what is unfolding in Afghanistan. Because what we’re witnessing is not an old-style stand-off between Western forces and implacable militants, or even a new-fangled ‘clash of civilisations’ between Yanks and Islamists, but something new, weird and dangerous. The current instability is best understood as the violent spin-off of what we might call the meandering militarism of Western forces, the fact that American and British troops are physically present in Afghanistan but spiritually and morally absent. The West has boots on the ground, yes, but Western leaders continually express their desire to leave. And it is that advertisement of the West’s lack of resolve, the public displays of lassitude, which invites various factions to try to push the West over the edge.

No sooner had the first rocket-propelled grenade hit the outer wall of the American embassy in Kabul than observers were, in the words of Reuters, ‘drawing comparisons with the 1968 Tet Offensive’. The American ambassador to Afghanistan had to bat aside questions about an ‘Afghan Tet Offensive’, arguing that ‘a half a dozen RPG rounds from 800 metres away – that isn’t Tet, that’s harassment’. And yet reporters continued to talk about ‘the Tet Offensive’s parallels to Afghanistan’. An expert on Middle Eastern security at King’s College London tweeted: ‘Looks like a Taliban version of the Tet Offensive going on in Kabul.’

Comparing the Taliban’s tiny, opportunistic chucking of hand grenades with the Tet Offensive of 1968 takes historical illiteracy to a new and alarming low. Both physically and politically, both in terms of what happened and what it meant, there’s no comparison between what the Taliban did this week and what the Vietnamese did 43 years ago. This week’s Kabul Offensive (as history probably won’t record it) lasted from Tuesday lunchtime till Wednesday morning, a total of 20 hours, during which time a handful of burqa-clad insurgents took over a half-constructed building and took pot shots at the US and other embassies. Five Afghan policemen and 11 civilians were killed. In January 1968, 80,000 Viet Cong forces launched a countrywide assault on America and her allies, lasting for two months, during which time 100 cities and towns were attacked and 2,500 US forces were killed. There were ‘mini Tets’ throughout 1968.

It isn’t only the scale but also the nature of the offensives that is glaringly different. The Tet Offensive was a clash between an ideologically driven, mass liberation movement and an American military on an international moral mission against what it judged to be the ‘evils’ of Communism. More broadly, Tet spoke to a bigger international divide, between the West and its allies on one side and Soviet-supported, China-backed Vietnamese forces on the other. Today, in Afghanistan, there’s merely an increasingly isolated, directionless Western military force in one camp and a cut-off, eccentric Islamist movement in the other. Also, the Tet Offensive occurred at a time of huge political upheaval in America, fuelling domestic opposition to the Vietnam War and deepening the profound malaise of the old US elite. The ‘Kabul Offensive’ is likely only to have made the increasingly Afghan-cynical American public say: ‘We’re still there? Why?’

The strikingly different political backdrops to the Tet and Kabul offensives mean that even those who admit that Kabul was not quite the same as Tet still go too far when they claim that it did nonetheless demonstrate ‘Taliban resolve’. This is effectively to argue that Kabul was a smaller version of Tet – fewer insurgents and less fighting, yes, but the same goal: ‘to battle Western forces to the hour of their exit’. In truth, the pathetic Kabul offensive speaks, not to any strength or vision on the part of the Taliban, but rather to the weakness and discombobulation of the Western occupation.

The key dynamic in Afghanistan now is not American resolve to rule or insurgents’ determination to liberate – the two forces that clashed epically in Vietnam 40 years ago – but the moral disarray of the occupying forces. It is that which nurtures sporadic outbursts of small-scale violence, as the Taliban effectively seeks to make real America’s expressions of spiritual disinterest in Afghanistan by trying to edge it out of the picture. The Taliban is now entirely parasitical on the defeatism of the Western forces in Afghanistan and of the West more broadly.

America and Britain’s presence in Afghanistan is a kind of phantom occupation. It has a semblance of physical reality, in the sense that troops occasionally still carry out patrols, but no political backbone. The presence of tens of thousands of Western troops is not matched by anything like political will on the part of Western leaders. Indeed, virtually every statement Washington and London now make about Afghanistan concerns their eventual, much longed-for withdrawal from that country. In December 2009, President Obama sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan while also announcing that in July 2011 ‘our troops will begin to come home’. In 2010, NATO held a summit at which it announced that all its forces would withdraw by 2014. That was followed up by UK prime minister David Cameron promising that all Brits will be out by 2015. These non-stop declarations of a desire to withdraw, the bizarre setting of super-specific timetables, act as an invitation to the Taliban to launch attacks. Sensing there’s no substance, no moral arc, to the Western military presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban instinctively recognises that even small-scale assaults can have a pretty big impact on occupying forces that don’t really have the stomach to occupy.

And it is right – as demonstrated by the fact that even its Kabul offensive, which killed fewer people than spree killer Thomas Hamilton did in Dunblane in 1996, is breathlessly discussed as a new Tet. The impact of the Taliban’s actions is determined, magnified and exploded, by the reaction of the institutions being targeted. It is fundamentally their fear and disarray, their frequently stated desire to get out of all this, which gives small Taliban missions their impact, allowing even a Columbine-style attack on a few embassies to be compared to the historic events of 1968. Yet the Tet Offensive changed the course of the Vietnam War, opening Washington’s eyes to the fact that it could not win, and by extension it changed the course of modern history; in contrast, the Kabul offensive was a mere reaction to, an exploitation of, America’s already-stated desire to withdraw. It was the cynical chucking of hand grenades from the sidelines in an attempt to hurry history along.

Amid all the talk about a new Tet, one commentator argues that, actually, this week’s offensive was more an attempt to ‘strengthen the Taliban’s position [for when Western forces leave]’. Indeed. The more that the occupying forces advertise their lack of moral stomach for the Afghan project, the more they invite various forces to make a stab for influence in whatever will happen in 2011, 2014, 2015. Recent events confirm that a defeatist Western occupation, one fuelled by fleeting face-saving considerations more than colonial desires, can be just as destabilising and inflammatory as a coherent one.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics USA


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