Afghanistan for at least the fifth time in the past eight years has experienced a “Tet-like” offensive – that is, if you believe military pundits, scholars and reporters who often cannot resist historical analogies even if it comes at the expense of true clarity. This is not to say the siege of Ghazni does not fit this paradigm. However, if we care about aptly drawing upon and capturing the true essence of case studies, the only thing that can be said, strictly speaking, is that Ghazni could be another Tet-like offensive.
The Taliban’s four-day assault on Ghazni was bloody, horrific, and stunning. After the dust settled on Wednesday, August 15, some 400 were dead, up to 150 of them civilians. The siege, albeit a tactical loss, was a victory for the insurgents in the realm of public opinion, bearing many of the same hallmarks as the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam.
One astute observer, Haroun Mir, pointed out these similarities and possible strategic consequences of the attack which he claimed “amounted to a mini Tet Offensive.”
“The Taliban have been able to contradict Washington’s narrative that the outcome of President Donald Trump’s South Asia Strategy will force the insurgents into political negotiations with Kabul,” Mir said in an article published in the Asia Times on August 13.
This refrain sounds quite familiar. The problem is the true essence of “Tet” had nothing to do with operational particularities such as body count, tactics, and/or territory lost/gained. In reality, it is hard to even draw the analogy in the immediate wake of an incident.
Tet was remarkable because it eventually made the war politically unfeasible to fight. By 1973, the year the U.S. military finally exited, nearly 75 percent of the American public felt it was a mistake for the United States to get involved in Vietnam, a 15 percent jump from 1968.
In short, Tet was the turning point.
We have been much too quick to apply this case study to Afghanistan. Some seem to be hoping for a self-fulfilling prophecy by Tetanizing spectacular attacks. Other more militant types have used Tet as an admonition: Don’t let the hippy peace activist types force the United States to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
In January of 2010, after the Taliban pulled off a coordinated wave of attacks that struck the presidential palace and several government ministries, Ralph Peters, retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and author, explained to New York Post readers how the attack hurtled him back to the late 1960s.
“Yesterday’s wave of bombings was a mini-Tet Offensive – a small-scale repeat of the attacks that triggered U.S. public opinion’s turn against the Vietnam War,” Peters argued. “They were designed to explode Western claims of progress and embarrass our leaders – and it worked.”
More than a year and half later – after a Taliban rocket attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul and a 20-hour siege – Reuters described the dilemma in the context of the Obama drawdown.
“The attacks have come just as Western forces prepare to leave as part of a plan to hand over responsibilities to the Afghan forces by 2014, prompting some to draw comparisons with the 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War,” the report, published on September 14, 2011, said.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker took umbrage with the comparison but appeared to miss the point, telling journalists that “half a dozen RPG rounds from 800 meters away – that isn’t Tet, that’s harassment.”
The Taliban on April 15, 2012 attacked Afghan parliament and the diplomatic quarter in Kabul compelling Reuters, again, to suggest the assault may prompt some to draw comparisons to, you guessed it.
“There are major differences in the scale and length of the events and casualties but the assault may still challenge assertions that America is winning,” Hamid Shalizi and Jack Kimball wrote in a piece filed from Kabul.
On September 28, 2015, the Taliban took Kunduz in the first capture of a major city since being ousted in 2001. Shortly after the development, former NATO commander James Stavridis warned that the Taliban were “trying to take a page from the outcome of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.”
U.S. Army War College Professor M. Chris Mason said Kunduz struck him as the “Taliban’s Tet Offensive,” and hit on the same theme: The superpower has no clothes.
“While the Tet Offensive in 1968 was a disaster militarily for the Viet Cong, it came as a shock to the American people, who had been fed a steady diet of positive progress reports over the years by the Pentagon,” Mason told Sputnik.
After two more years of zero progress on the ground and despite four so-called Tet-like offensives since 2010, we have yet to see the utter collapse of American support for the war. As of last August, a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll revealed that more Americans supported increasing troop levels in Afghanistan (45%) than who opposed it (41%).
If a battle referred to as a Tet-like offensive ends up not being a turning point, is it really a Tet-like offensive? Are we obliged, in hindsight, to de-Tetanize our previous claims? How are we to even know if a battle is a Tet “turning point” until the war is over?
Perhaps we should abandon the comparison including of the wars in general despite their many similarities, which include neighboring sanctuaries, an unpopular host government, resilient insurgents moving among the people as fish in the sea, and a Western superpower propping up a local force in its own image.
Yet the American people had more skin in the Vietnam War because of the draft and U.S. casualties of course were drastically higher. In the current conflict in Afghanistan the locals are shedding most of the blood and no American sons or daughters who are not professional soldiers are in harm’s way. And, let’s face it, the U.S. role is no longer counterinsurgency. Our high-tech toys allow us to target surgically from afar when need be.
And I doubt most people believe what the Pentagon has been telling us about the war, yet instead of disgust people react with indifference.
Kissinger once said that although it is true that history tends to repeat itself that does not mean it has to. In this case, that’s too bad. Sadly, the 17-year war in Afghanistan has us pining for the days of Vietnam. However, there is no outage, no effective anti-war movement, no Buffalo Springfield.
It is ironic in this age of hyper-media that shocking images of death and destruction in Afghanistan can go viral and the war still gets less play than Trump’s tweets. One wonders if a Tet-like offensive in the truest sense of the analogy is even possible when nobody cares.