Geo-politics: Dien Bien Phu, Yorktown, and Afghanistan
October 6, 2010
In May 1954, elite units of the French Army found themselves surrounded by hostile forces in a remote area of Vietnam known to history as Bien Dien Phu. The French forces had mistakenly gotten themselves into a position with no hope of resupply by ground convoys. Vital food, weapons and ammunition had to be dropped by parachute, sometimes falling into the hands of enemy. On May 7, 1954, the French surrendered. That ended the French Indo-China War.
Are the forces of the United States and NATO in a similar situation in Afghanistan? Can we find other historical examples?
But first, some geography. Afghanistan is a land-locked area. One hesitates to call it a nation. The closest seaport for the resupply of our forces is the Pakistani port of Karachi. From Karachi, ground convoys have a 1,091-mile trek northward to the Khyber Pass. Two-thirds of our non-lethal supplies must cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass area.
Another one-third of our non-lethal supplies move by ground from Russian-controlled Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Sensitive lethal supplies, such as weapons, bombs and ammunition are, for the most part, flown into Afghanistan from airbases located in Russian-controlled countries. Minor amounts of lethal supplies come by air from aircraft carriers in the far-off Arabian Sea.
So what happens if, as they are doing now, the Pakistanis continue to close the Khyber and other mountain passes to U.S. ground convoys? What happens if the Russians decide to shut off our supply convoys coming out of Kazakhstan and Usbekistan? Napoleon famously said, “An army marches on its stomach.” To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “It’s Dien Bien Phu dejà vu all over again.”
From the American Revolution, here is another example. Only this time the British force being surrounded even had access to the Atlantic Ocean:
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In The Battle 100: The Stories Behind History’s Most Influential Battles, author Michael Lee Lanning, Lt. Colonel, U.S. Army (Ret.), lists the Battle of Yorktown (1781) as history’s most influential battle. The British commander-in-chief, General Clinton (no, not that Clinton), ordered British General Cornwallis to occupy the Virginia Peninsula at Yorktown. Unwittingly, Clinton put Cornwallis into a geographic position not unlike our position in Afghanistan.
Initially, Cornwallis’ force of 6,000 was in good shape and continued to be in good shape as long as the Royal Navy could resupply the British by sea. But, during the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes (Sept. 5, 1781), the French Navy routed the Royal Navy, cutting off Cornwallis from any hope of resupply by sea. Unable to move westward against a French and American infantry force of about 15,000, Cornwallis was, in effect, surrounded.
The bad news for Cornwallis was he had no hope of resupply. The good news for Cornwallis was he had only lost 150 killed and about 300 wounded. Because Clinton put him in a geographically hopeless situation, he could surrender with honor. His Red Coats had not been defeated in battle by an army of rebels. They had been defeated by geography, aided by the French Navy.
In the Afghan/Pakistan War, the Taliban don’t have to win. They need only hide among the innocent counting on collateral damage to cause the Pakistanis to protest the collateral damage caused by our armed drones by shutting down the Khyber Pass. A la Vietnam, the Taliban probably figure the American public will tire of Obama’s War, recognize a Dien Bien Phu or a Yorktown when they see one, and go home. Like Cornwallis, we would not be defeated in battle, but by geo-politics.
Currently, the Obamessiahs, via the Afghan and Pakistan governments, are trying to negotiate some kind of compromise with the Taliban. But the Taliban know our supplies are at the mercy of the Pakistanis and the Russians. Like Washington at Yorktown, all the Taliban have to do is not lose.
– William Hamilton, a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval War College, was also educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.