GUEST COMMENTARY: U.S. must learn from old foes in Africa, Asia

2013-10-12T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: U.S. must learn from old foes in Africa, AsiaBy Arthur I. Cyr nwitimes.com
October 12, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Considerable news has been generated by U. S. military strikes in two African countries, while less commentary is resulting from the passing of a major military leader in Asia, but the two stories are related. Regarding war and revolution, fundamental lessons are enduring.

On Oct. 5, the U.S. Army Delta Force carried out a raid in Tripoli, Libya. They captured al Qaida leader Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as al-Libi, accused of participating in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The bombings killed 220 people.

Shortly before the Libya operations, U.S. Navy SEALs struck in the town of Barawe in southern Somalia. Reports vary concerning the precise target. SEAL Team Six, the same unit that killed Osama bin Laden, carried out this operation. According to reports, a heavy firefight ensued and the leader of the American team leader decided to abort the mission, reportedly because children were endangered as well as diminishing odds of capturing their target alive.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 4 General Vo Nguyen Giap died at the age of 102. He commanded Vietnam’s forces in the long and costly wars against both France and the United States. In 1975, an enormous comprehensive military offensive by the Army of North Vietnam overran South Vietnam, captured the capital city of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and united the country.

Photographs and films of people fleeing the roof of the American embassy by helicopters, as revolutionary forces double-timed into the capital, were circulated worldwide. As implied, the collapse of South Vietnam’s military was sudden. For many years, these forces had fought with mixed effectiveness but durable commitment to the cause.

Hanoi’s success punctuated how quickly a military situation can change. Reflecting on the strategies of Giap and associates provides useful lessons, especially for Americans.

The Vietnamese revolutionaries were able to turn apparent strengths of enemies to their own advantage. Before joining the Nixon White House, Henry Kissinger stated publicly he did not believe the North Vietnamese wanted the Americans to leave immediately. A significant portion of enormous U.S. military supplies were being diverted to them, reflecting an extensive black market and infiltration of South Vietnam’s infrastructure.

From the beginning, the revolutionaries in Vietnam gave paramount importance to the dictum of China’s Mao Zedong that military efforts must be integrated fully with winning over the people at large. Intimidation was used, along with appeals to nationalism and resentment of foreign occupiers.

Vietnamese revolutionary leadership was greatly aided by familiarity with the West. Giap was a history teacher educated by the French. Leader Ho Chi Minh worked in Boston, Paris and parts of England as a cook, waiter and laborer.

Giap and associates consistently geared military efforts to wider political aims. The 1968 Tet offensive was aimed at destroying American public support for the war, and succeeded.

This history overall is instructive regarding contemporary threats. Al-Qaida and associated groups remain relatively small, and apparently lack wide support. The 9/11 attacks were counterproductive regarding American opinion. Nonetheless, some communities in Africa and elsewhere provide shelter.

Among relatively safe havens, Somalia is probably most worrisome. There is no effective national government, and disorder is the norm. The recent raid occurred two decades after 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed in capital Mogadishu.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of "After the Cold War." Contact him at acyr@carthage.edu. The opinions are the writer's.

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