Monday, April 4, 2011

The New Laos

The Vietnam War was lost when JFK surrendered Laos to the North Vietnamese.

In Southeast Asia, Laos had descended by 1961 into a threeway civil war that was becoming internationalized as part of the Cold War. Struggling to control the country were Pathet Lao Communists, backed by North Vietnam and the Soviet Union; Souvanna Phouma's neutralist Laotian government, which at times enjoyed the favor of the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China (PRC), and the United States; and a revolutionary committee headed by Gen. Phoumi Nosavan, which received covert support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The administration of President John F. Kennedy believed that geography made Laos a poor place to use military force to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Pathet Lao advances, however, suggested that covert U.S. support would be insufficient to save General Nosavan or prevent Souvanna Pouma from falling under the sway of the Communists. Several military actions were considered to stem a Pathet Lao victory; the most drastic proposal called for 60,000 American soldiers to occupy southern Laos.

On 11 May 1961, Soviet and British officials defused the impending crisis in Laos by orchestrating a truce and by reactivating the International Control Commission (associated with the 1954 Geneva Agreement on Indochina that led to the division of Vietnam). Five days later, a second Geneva conference was convened by the PRC, Cambodia, France, Laos, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, India, Canada, Poland, Burma, and Thailand. The negotiations led to the 23 July 1962 Declaration and Protocol on the Neutrality of Laos. These second Geneva accords called for a peaceful, neutral, independent, and democratic Laos, and for the removal of foreign military units from Laotian soil.

Hope faded quickly that the accords would lead to real neutralization, although the agreement reflected a tacit understanding that conflict in Laos would remain limited. The North Vietnamese preferred to use the country to infiltrate soldiers and material into South Vietnam. The United States, which concentrated its efforts in Vietnam, used a CIA‐led army of Laotian Hmong tribesmen to harass North Vietnamese infiltrators in Laos. The Geneva accords helped turn Laos into a sideshow to the Vietnam War, but they did not save the Laotian people from years of bloodshed.

The result was the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia. The result was the loss of the Vietnam War.

The Afghan War is lost because Pakistan is the new Laos.

MARGAH, Afghanistan — Brett Capstick was in bed when it happened. The 22-year-old Army specialist from Ohio awoke to the sound of “screaming, explosions,” he says. It was around 1:20 in the morning on Oct. 30 at a tiny American outpost in Margah, a dusty border town in eastern Paktika province.

Capstick’s unit — Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry — had been in plenty of firefights and rocket attacks since arriving at Combat Outpost Margah in August. But as he reached the roof of the outpost’s main building, Capstick realized that this … well, this was different.

The rainy, overcast night was alive with tracers and explosions. The noise was apocalyptic. The battle raging on all sides of the soccer-field-size outpost and its adjacent hilltop observation post was “all-out,” Capstick says six months later. He’s sitting in one of the mouse-infested, concrete-and-plywood buildings where two platoons of infantry hunker between exhausting, hours-long foot patrols.

That night, Capstick and his teammates manned two separate mortars while other soldiers fired rifles, machine guns and anti-tank missiles to beat back hundreds of insurgents attacking from all sides. Artillery at a nearby U.S. base added its firepower to the melee, as did Air Force jet fighters and Army Apache helicopters. When the sun rose and the dust settled, 92 insurgents lay dead around the outpost, according to Army figures. Five Americans were wounded, but none was killed.

Capstick estimates he personally fired up to 16 mortar rounds. Spec. Matt Barnes, firing his M-4 rifle from one the outposts guard towers, says he burned through at least 300 rounds. To keep Fox Company fighting through the night and following day, Blackhawk helicopters swooped into the outpost’s gravel landing zone hauling body bags filled with ammo and a fresh M-2 machine gun.

It was the one of the biggest localized fights of the 10-year-old Afghanistan war — and one of the most lopsided battlefield victories for American forces. But the nearly 12-hour Battle of Margah barely registered in the news cycle back in America.

All the same, a half-year later Margah remains an important object lesson for the U.S. military and NATO, and for politicians betting on improving security to allow them to withdraw troops from Afghanistan starting this summer.

Safe Haven

It’s an axiom of successful on unconventional war that insurgent fighters require safe havens. As long as Afghan and foreign fighters can move unmolested between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S.-led coalition will never be able to reverse Afghanistan’s deteriorating security.

In their Pakistani shelters, insurgents re-arm, refine their intelligence and hone their training. That’s the hidden lesson of the Margah battle, and of Fox Company’s ongoing operations in eastern Paktika.

True, the insurgents failed to capture the American outpost in the October fight, and few of them survived the attempt. But it was close. “A lot of us didn’t think we were going to make it,” Barnes says, sitting amid the craters and ruins of the hilltop observation post that saw the bloodiest fighting back in October.

That the Margah attackers could muster the necessary manpower and weaponry and also plan and support such a large-scale attack is a sobering sign of the insurgency’s enduring, or even increasing, strength — and a foreboding signal of the potential intensity of this spring’s fighting season.

Soon after they arrived in Margah in August, the young men of Fox Company received reports of as many as 700 insurgents crossing the nearby border all at the same time. They say they were skeptical of such huge figures … until a sizable proportion of that insurgent army appeared in the Americans’ night scopes in October, armed to the teeth and shouting “Allah akbar” as they stormed the outpost.

There we have it, Margah is not the Long Sam 719, but is pretty close to the Commando Hunt. The Commando Hunt was a loss to the U.S.; Ground interdiction of the Trail was defeated and only the air war was left. Margah shows that American troops on the border are nothing but targets. They are not interdicting anything, they are on the defensive. They are not winning. Now it is only a matter of time before the troops are withdrawn. It is the Battle of Wanat again. American troops were withdrawn after that battle and Wanat left for the Pashtoon Islamists, just as Khe Sanh was left to the NVA not long after the battle.

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