Vietnam, a unwinnable war?

Because 1965 was already a different situation from what they were going for when they first went in. But they quickly fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy. Of course in this case the sunk cost wasn't just resources and lives, but ideology and international prestige. But equally it's not that simple either sometimes things don't go your way exactly as you'd like and you do persevere at a cost.



I absolutely agree. But the alternative (general invasion into Laos and N.Vietnam), might in theory solve that issue but it will create other ones*. That's my point. My point is also the US knew this from the very beginning so it was never going to happen. So we can sit here and say oh well if they'd done 'A' it would have solved a problem, all we like, but if they were never going to do 'A' for other reasons it's moot as a realistic option.

Untimely the US were not looking to get into conquering SEAsia for capitalism situation


*that is now war on two countries and giving promoting a more unified response, it will escalate things in Cambodia, you likely bring Thailand in in some fashion since they're now the anchor point for you new lines. China is very much going to react to a massive escalation into what they see as their general sphere, and people around the world will point to "American neo colonialism" and you know what it will very much look like that no matter what the rationale is. US deployment will have increase to cover all that. You've basically turned a 'oh it's not a war war we're just helping out ally with a internal policing/security action' into a general regional war. No one likes general regional wars, certainly not during the cold war, when proxy wars are supposed to be safe way to slowly manage a global confrontation without it spilling over. (One of thd lessons of Korea was that it's really hard to keep a war contained when there are interested parties)
1965 was the point when the U.S. committed ground troops in a combat situation. That LBJ & McNamara committed to a ground war without ever thinking out a long term strategy was criminal stupidity. With no end game they should have just accepted eventual defeat, and continued to provide logistical support, and training. No vital American interests were involved. At no time did they establish objectives for the war, and ask the JCS to come up with plans to achieve them. The U.S. Military had no strategy other then an open ended battle of attrition.

Cutting the HCM Trail also pretty much ends the war in Cambodia, because the Communists can't get there from the North. Instead of escalating the situation in Cambodia it deescalates it, since the war was caused by the North Vietnamese invading the country, and recruiting, and arming local insurgents. The Cambodian Government was trying to play both sides against the middle. When you ride the Tiger you can end up getting eaten. Ending the invasion ends the conflict. The Americans cutting the HCM Trail would be the best thing to happen for Cambodia in it modern history, it would've saved them from the Killing Fields.
 
1965 was the point when the U.S. committed ground troops in a combat situation. That LBJ & McNamara committed to a ground war without ever thinking out a long term strategy was criminal stupidity. With no end game they should have just accepted eventual defeat, and continued to provide logistical support, and training. No vital American interests were involved. At no time did they establish objectives for the war, and ask the JCS to come up with plans to achieve them. The U.S. Military had no strategy other then an open ended battle of attrition.

Cutting the HCM Trail also pretty much ends the war in Cambodia, because the Communists can't get there from the North. Instead of escalating the situation in Cambodia it deescalates it, since the war was caused by the North Vietnamese invading the country, and recruiting, and arming local insurgents. The Cambodian Government was trying to play both sides against the middle. When you ride the Tiger you can end up getting eaten. Ending the invasion ends the conflict. The Americans cutting the HCM Trail would be the best thing to happen for Cambodia in it modern history, it would've saved them from the Killing Fields.
As the French would point out by experience, occupying the Laotian panhandle wouldn't exactly stop the war so much as move it somewhere else. Occupying Cambodia and southern Laos would add another 250.000-odd square kilometers of land for American troops to patrol. If America's troop numbers remain similar to OTL, they'll have to overstretch themselves and leave gaps in their Cambodian and SV territories that could be exploited by the guerrillas behind the lines, which could still be pretty effective even if they wouldn't get their hands on eastern bloc equipment.
 
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that could be exploited by the guerrillas behind the lines, which could still be pretty effective even if they wouldn't get their hands on eastern bloc equipment.
Without constant resupply, they wouldn't be effective at all, and be little better than bandits.
That's something the Strategic Hamlets could deal with, as it did in Malaya
 
Without constant resupply, they wouldn't be effective at all, and be little better than bandits.
That's something the Strategic Hamlets could deal with, as it did in Malaya
The strategic hamlets worked in Malaya due to the different nature of that insurgency. Unlike the Indochinese countryside, Malaya's interior mountains were settled not by a mass of productive peasants, but by numerous tribes that sustained themselves on hunting and gathering. The Malayan CP decided to rely on them for supplies and aid, which was complicated by some issues such as the fact that the MCP was dominated by ethnic Chinese who had little historical contact with these tribes which in turn would be hard pressed to spare supplies for them (they could hardly feed themselves most of the time). British authorities and collaborators could thus easily cut off the guerrilla's supply chain, which they did. Ethnic compartmentalization helped the British defeat the insurgency, though it continued in a smaller scale. It also helped them that Malaya was not bordered by another communist country and that colonialism was ending there anyway.
Applying a similar strategic hamlet policy to Indochina was a bit of a mistake -- there was a lot more people to move around which looked and spoke a language very similar to each other, and doing so in an extreme fashion could cause a logistical crisis as land would be left untilled. Whenever soldiers ventured out with their guns to force peasants to the hamlets, the VC would take notice of it, and many requisitioned peasants would simply run away and hide until finding recruitment with the VC's groups. As a result of it, the strategic hamlets would end up filled with unproductive children and elderly behind their barbed wire fences.
Characterizing the VC as "bandits" without the fancy equipment also doesn't do much justice to the facts at hand. They were very resilient and flexible by design and circumstance.
 
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That's the whole point. When the U.S. first intervened with ground troops in 1965, they should've pushed up the A Sau Valley, and then into Laos, to cut the HCM Trail. Military leaders wanted to do just that, but the theoretical neutrality of Laos prevented them from doing it. The U.S. fought hard to hold onto that area during the war, in the hope they could use it as the jumping off point for that war winning offensive. If they had done that the insurgency in the South would've dried up in 1966. That's what the NVA feared the most, so they deployed their strongest forces there. In 1971 when the ARVN pushed into Laos during Operation Lam Son 719 the NVA used everything they had to stop them, because they realized that was their strategic point of vulnerability. They understood if the HCM Trail was cut the war would be lost.
Looking at the insurgency's requirements, creating a 250km line while invading another country to cut off supply isn't very rational. The other military and political implications have been nicely described in the last few pages. Long term the North Vietnamese need to sap the electorate's enthusiasm for the war, and I don't see how expanding the war into another country (bringing the Laotian communists into the fray and expanding their popular support as well) won't help them do exactly that.

Those assumptions provided the foundation for President Johnson’s air strategy against North Vietnam, and all of them were seriously flawed. Battles such as Ia Drang and Khe Sanh, as well as the Tet Offensive, were anomalies during the Johnson presidency; for most of his time in office, the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies rarely fought at all. Together, they fought an average of one day a month from 1965 to 1968, and as a result, their external supply requirements were minimal. VC and NVA forces in August 1967 numbered roughly 300,000, of whom 250,000 were Viet Cong. Yet that combined force needed only 34 tons of supplies a day from sources outside of South Vietnam—an amount that just seven 2½-ton trucks could carry and that was less than 1 percent of the daily tonnage imported into North Vietnam.4 No amount of bombing could stop that paltry supply total from arriving in the South. Still, in fighting an infrequent guerrilla war, the VC and NVA could cause significant losses. In 1967 and 1968, 2 years that together claimed 25,000 American lives, more than 6,000 Americans died from mines and booby traps.5

If the Communists can't get around the Laos Line none of the conditions of your post apply. American casualties would be far lower then the OTL, and far fewer men would be needed. You can hold the line with an economy of force. All the same arguments of the North's superior will could've been, and were made in Korea, but the reality was different. If they had no effective way to invade the South the war would Peter out. If North Vietnam wants to spend 10 years smashing their heads against a brick wall they can do that, but in the end all they get is a smashed head. They just can't win a stand up conventional war, no matter what peoples liberation theory tells them. Like the ROK's the RVN would get the time it needed to reform, and become a free nation.
They have 250km of line to defend, as BNC said that's going to require heavy fortification in the face of constant probing and will hardly require a conventional war from their side.
Without constant resupply, they wouldn't be effective at all, and be little better than bandits.
That's something the Strategic Hamlets could deal with, as it did in Malaya
Supply requirements are much less of an issue than you make it out to be especially in the earlier stages of the insurgency. The Malayan Emergency was a perfect storm for COIN and on a much smaller scale, even then it took much longer to quell after independence with a low level insurgency persisting, with local popular support for the government.
 
As the French would point out by experience, occupying the Laotian panhandle wouldn't exactly stop the war so much as move it somewhere else. Occupying Cambodia and southern Laos would add another 250.000-odd square kilometers of land for American troops to patrol. If America's troop numbers remain similar to OTL, they'll have to overstretch themselves and leave gaps in their Cambodian and SV territories that could be exploited by the guerrillas behind the lines, which could still be pretty effective even if they wouldn't get their hands on eastern bloc equipment.
I really can't understand why it's so hard to grasp this concept? When did I say the U.S. should occupy Cambodia, and Southern Laos? You'd only have to occupy a small portion of Laos to make it work. The Government of Laos would continue to run the Southern part of the country, and as for the part North of the 17th Parallel they only had marginal control anyway, because the North Vietnamese were occupying large part of it. Special Forces, and air power would help the Laotian Forces fight the North Vietnamese North of the line. Cambodia would be completely unaffected, except the Communist Insurgency would end for lack of North Vietnamese support, and tightened customs inspections. As the war went on more, and more of the VC forces in the South came from the North down the HCM Trail. Without those men the Guerrilla war dries up.
 
Looking at the insurgency's requirements, creating a 250km line while invading another country to cut off supply isn't very rational. The other military and political implications have been nicely described in the last few pages. Long term the North Vietnamese need to sap the electorate's enthusiasm for the war, and I don't see how expanding the war into another country (bringing the Laotian communists into the fray and expanding their popular support as well) won't help them do exactly that.

Those assumptions provided the foundation for President Johnson’s air strategy against North Vietnam, and all of them were seriously flawed. Battles such as Ia Drang and Khe Sanh, as well as the Tet Offensive, were anomalies during the Johnson presidency; for most of his time in office, the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies rarely fought at all. Together, they fought an average of one day a month from 1965 to 1968, and as a result, their external supply requirements were minimal. VC and NVA forces in August 1967 numbered roughly 300,000, of whom 250,000 were Viet Cong. Yet that combined force needed only 34 tons of supplies a day from sources outside of South Vietnam—an amount that just seven 2½-ton trucks could carry and that was less than 1 percent of the daily tonnage imported into North Vietnam.4 No amount of bombing could stop that paltry supply total from arriving in the South. Still, in fighting an infrequent guerrilla war, the VC and NVA could cause significant losses. In 1967 and 1968, 2 years that together claimed 25,000 American lives, more than 6,000 Americans died from mines and booby traps.5

They have 250km of line to defend, as BNC said that's going to require heavy fortification in the face of constant probing and will hardly require a conventional war from their side.

Supply requirements are much less of an issue than you make it out to be especially in the earlier stages of the insurgency. The Malayan Emergency was a perfect storm for COIN and on a much smaller scale, even then it took much longer to quell after independence with a low level insurgency persisting, with local popular support for the government.

Interdiction and expansion (1965–1968)[edit]​

Further information on the PAVN logistical system in Cambodia: Sihanouk Trail
In 1961 U.S. intelligence analysts estimated that 5,843 enemy infiltrators (actually 4,000) had moved south on the trail; in 1962, 12,675 (actually 5,300); in 1963, 7,693 (actually 4,700); and in 1964, 12,424.[11]:45 The supply capacity of the trail reached 20 to 30 tonnes per day in 1964 and it was estimated by the U.S. that 12,000 (actually 9,000) North Vietnamese regulars had reached South Vietnam that year.[2]:88 By 1965 the U.S. command in Saigon estimated that communist supply requirements for their southern forces amounted to 234 tons of all supplies per day and that 195 tons were moving through Laos.[11]:97

U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysts concluded that during the 1965 Laotian dry season the enemy was moving 30 trucks per day (90 tonnes) over the trail, far above the Saigon estimate,[11]:104 demonstrating a key problem which arose when discussing the North Vietnamese supply effort and U.S. attempts to halt it.

United States officials had only estimates of its enemy's capabilities; intelligence collection agencies often conflicted with each other. Thanks to improvements to the trail system (including opening new routes that would connect to the Sihanouk Trail in Cambodia), the quantity of supplies transported during 1965 almost equaled the combined total for the previous five years. During the year interdiction of the system had become one of the top American priorities, but operations against it were complicated by the limited forces available at the time and Laos's ostensible neutrality.[12]

The intricacies of Laotian affairs, and U.S. and North Vietnamese interference in them, led to a mutual policy of each ignoring the other, at least in the public eye.[12] This did not prevent the North Vietnamese from violating Lao neutrality by protecting and expanding their supply conduit, and by supporting their Pathet Lao allies in their war against the central government. U.S. intervention came in the form of building and supporting a CIA-backed clandestine army in its fight with the communists and constant bombing of the trail. They also provided support for the Lao government.[13]
[14]

Continuing

A common historical perspective supports the efficacy of the campaigns (despite their failure to halt or slow infiltration), as they did restrict enemy materiel and manpower in Laos and Cambodia. This viewpoint pervaded some official U.S. government histories of the conflict. John Schlight, in his A War Too Long, said of the PAVN's logistical apparatus, "This sustained effort, requiring the full-time activities of tens of thousands of soldiers, who might otherwise have been fighting in South Vietnam, seems proof positive that the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail had disrupted the North Vietnamese war effort."[16]

Despite U.S. anti-infiltration efforts, the estimated number of PAVN infiltrators for 1966 was between 58,000 and 90,000 troops, including five full enemy regiments.[7]:182 A June 1966 DIA estimate credited the North Vietnamese with 1,000 km (600 mi) of passable roads within the corridor, at least 300 km (200 mi) of which were good enough for year-round use.[17] In 1967 Senior Colonel (later General) Đồng Sỹ Nguyên assumed command of the 559th Group. In comparison to the above DIA estimate, by the end of the year the North Vietnamese had completed 2,959 km of vehicle capable roads, including 275 kilometers of main roads, 576 kilometers of bypasses, and 450 entry roads and storage areas.[18]

It was learned by U.S. intelligence that the enemy was using the Kong and Bang Fai Rivers to transport food, fuel, and munitions shipments by loading materiel into half-filled steel drums and then launching them into the rivers. They were later collected downstream by nets and booms. Unknown to the US, the enemy had also begun to transport and store more than 81,000 tonnes of supplies "to be utilized in a future offensive".[2]:208 That future offensive was launched during the lunar new year Tết holiday of 1968, and to prepare for it, 200,000 PAVN troops, including seven infantry regiments and 20 independent battalions, made the trip south.
[17]

Continued


Fuel pipeline[edit]​

Initially, NVA fuel was carried by porters, but this was inefficient and time consuming, and thus highlighted the need to extend the pipeline at a much faster rate. The responsibility to build the pipeline fell to Lieutenant Colonel Phan Tu Quang, who became the first Chief of the Fuel Supply Department, and Major Mai Trong Phuoc, who was the Commander of Road Work Team 18, the secret name for the workers who built the pipeline.[10]:92

Early in 1969, the pipeline crossed the Lao frontier through the Mu Gia Pass and, by 1970, it reached the approaches to the A Shau Valley in South Vietnam. The plastic pipeline, equipped with numerous small pumping stations, managed to transfer diesel fuel, gasoline, and kerosene all through the same pipe. Due to the efforts of the PAVN 592nd Pipelaying Regiment, the number of pipelines entering Laos increased to six that year.[2]:392

The 559th Group, still under the command of General Đồng Sỹ Nguyên, was made the equivalent of a Military Region in 1970 and the group was given the additional name, the "Truong Son Army". It was composed of four units, one division and three equivalent units: the 968th Infantry Division; 470th Group; 565th MAG; and 571st Rear Group.[10]:59 The units controlled fuel pipeline battalions.[10]:168

In July 1971, the Truong Son Army was reorganized into five divisional headquarters: the 470th, 471st, 472nd, 473rd, and the 571st.[10]:168 The group consisted of four truck transportation regiments, two petroleum pipeline regiments, three anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) regiments, eight engineer regiments, and the 968th Infantry Division. By the end of 1970 the 559th was running 27 "Binh Trams", which transported 40,000 tonnes of supplies with a 3.4% loss rate during the year.[2]:261

Colonel Quang and Major Phuoc would eventually build 5,000 km of pipeline and ship over 270,000 tonnes of petrol. Sections of the pipeline were still in use in the 1990s.[10]:92

Truck relay system[edit]

Trucked supplies traveled in convoys from North Vietnam in relays, with trucks shuttling from only one way station to the next. The vehicles were then unloaded and reloaded onto "fresh" trucks at each station. If a truck was disabled or destroyed, it was replaced from the assets of the next northern station and so on until it was replaced by a new one in North Vietnam. Eventually, the last commo-liaison station in Laos or Cambodia was reached and the vehicles were unloaded. The supplies were then cached, loaded onto watercraft, or man-portered into South Vietnam.[6]:218

Continued

The North Vietnamese also responded to the American aerial threat by the increased use of heavy concentrations of anti-aircraft artillery. By 1968 this was mainly composed of 37 mm and 57 mm radar-controlled weapons. The next year, 85 mm and 100 mm guns appeared, and by the end of Commando Hunt, over 1,500 guns defended the system.[7]:313

Of all the weapons systems used against the trail, according to the official North Vietnamese history of the conflict, the AC-130 Spectre fixed-wing gunship was the most formidable adversary. The Spectres "established control over and successfully suppressed, to a certain extent at least, our nighttime supply operations".[2]:261 The history claimed that allied aircraft destroyed some 4,000 trucks during the 1970–71 dry season, of which the C-130s alone destroyed 2,432 trucks.[2]:261

A Spectre countermeasure was unveiled on 29 March 1972, when a Spectre was shot down on a night mission by a surface-to-air SA-7 missile near Tchepone.[7]:369 This was the first U.S. aircraft shot down by a SAM that far south during the conflict. PAVN responded to U.S. nighttime bombing by building the 1,000 kilometer-long Road K ("Green Road") from north of Lum Bum to lower Laos. During "Commando Hunt IV" (30 April–9 October 1971), U.S., South Vietnamese, and Laotian forces began to feel the North Vietnamese reaction to General Lon Nol's coup in Cambodia and the subsequent closure of the port of Sihanoukville to its supply shipments.[23] As early as 1969 PAVN had begun its largest logistical effort of the entire conflict.[22]:20

The Laotian towns of Attapeu and Salavan, at the foot of the Bolaven Plateau were seized by the North Vietnamese during 1970, opening the length of the Kong River system into Cambodia. Hanoi also created the 470th Transportation Group to manage the flow of men and supplies to the new battlefields in Cambodia.[7]:191< This new "Liberation Route" turned west from the trail at Muong May, at the south end of Laos, and paralleled the Kong River into Cambodia. Eventually this new route extended past Siem Prang and reached the Mekong River near Stung Treng.[2]:382

During 1971 PAVN took Paksong and advanced to Pakse, at the heart of the Bolaven Plateau region of Laos. The following year, Khong Sedone fell to the North Vietnamese. PAVN continued a campaign to clear the eastern flank of the trail that it had begun in 1968. By 1968, U.S. Special Forces camps at Khe Sanh and Khâm Đức, both of which were used by MACV-SOG as forward operations bases for its reconnaissance effort, had either been abandoned or overrun. In 1970, the same fate befell another camp at Dak Seang. What had once been a 30-kilometre-wide (20 mi) supply corridor now stretched for 140 km (90 mi) from east to west.


This how the North reacted to the threat to cut the HCM Trail, because they considered it a mortal threat.

In early-February 1971, 16,000 (later 20,000) ARVN troops rolled across the Laotian border along Route 9 and headed for the PAVN logistical center at Tchepone. "Operation Lam Son 719", the long-sought assault on the Ho Chi Minh trail itself and the ultimate test of the U.S. policy of Vietnamization, had begun.[24][7]:317–361 Unfortunately for the South Vietnamese, U.S. ground troops were prohibited by law from participation in the incursion, and the U.S. was restricted to providing air support, artillery fire, and helicopter aviation units.[25]

At first the operation went well, with little resistance from the North Vietnamese. By early March 1971 the situation changed. Hanoi made the decision to stand and fight. It began to muster forces which would eventually number 60,000 PAVN troops as well as several thousand allied Pathet Lao troops and Lao irregulars, outnumbering the ARVN by almost three to one.[26]:75

The fighting in southeastern Laos was unlike any yet seen in the Vietnam War, since the PAVN abandoned its old hit-and-run tactics and launched a conventional counterattack. The PAVN first launched massed infantry attacks supported by armor and heavy artillery to crush ARVN positions on the flanks of the main advance. Coordinated anti-aircraft fire made tactical air support and resupply difficult and costly, with 108 helicopters shot down and 618 others damaged.[25]:358



PAVN forces began to squeeze in on the main line of the ARVN advance. Although an airborne assault managed to seize Tchepone, it was a useless victory, as the South Vietnamese could only hold the town for a short period before being withdrawn due to attacks on the main column. The only way the invasion force managed to extricate itself from Laos was through the massive application of U.S. air support. By 25 March 1971 the last ARVN troops recrossed the border, closely followed by their enemy. As a test of Vietnamization, "Lam Son 719" failed; half of the invasion force was lost during the operation.[25]:359

South Vietnamese troops were poorly led and the elite Ranger and Airborne elements had been decimated. "Lam Son 719" did manage to postpone a planned PAVN offensive against the northern provinces of South Vietnam for one year. By spring 1972 the Americans and South Vietnamese realized that the enemy was planning a major offensive, but did not know where or when. The answer came on 30 March 1972 when 30,000 PAVN troops, supported by more than 300 tanks, crossed the border and invaded Quảng Trị Province. The "Nguyen Hue Offensive"—better known as the "Easter Offensive"—was underway.
[27]

And finally

By 1973, the PAVN logistical system consisted of a two-lane paved (with crushed limestone and gravel) highway that ran from the mountain passes of North Vietnam to the Chu Pong Massif in South Vietnam. By 1974 it was possible to travel a completely paved four-lane route from the Central Highlands to Tây Ninh Province, northwest of Saigon. The single oil pipeline that had once terminated near the A Shau Valley now consisted of four lines (the largest 20 cm [eight inches] in diameter) and extended south to Lộc Ninh.[7]:371 In July 1973 the 259th Group was redesignated the Truong Son Command, the regimental sectors were converted to divisions, and the binh trams were designated as regiments. By late-1974 forces under the new command included AAA Division 377, Transportation Division 571, Engineering Division 473, the 968th Infantry Division, and sectoral divisions 470, 471, and 472.[29]

Command then devolved upon PAVN Major General Hoàng Thế Thiện. In December 1974 the first phase of a limited PAVN offensive in South Vietnam began.[30][31] Its success inspired Hanoi to try for an expanded but still limited, offensive to improve its bargaining position with Saigon. In March, General Văn Tiến Dũng launched "Campaign 275", the success of which prompted the general to push Hanoi for a final all-out offensive to take all of South Vietnam.[30]:225 After an ineffective attempt to halt the offensive, Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces on 30 April 1975.[30]:133–135


So the North Vietnamese strategy was based on the Trail, and it's branches, and they made a huge engineering, and logistical effort to build, and support it. Without it all they have is a frontal assault at the 17th Parallel.
 
They have 250km of line to defend, as BNC said that's going to require heavy fortification in the face of constant probing and will hardly require a conventional war from their side.
No, just firebases, within artillery range of each other
The big problem with the US, is getting the VC/PAVN into sustained combat
Khe Sanh was one way todo that, keeping them in range of US firepower
 
I really can't understand why it's so hard to grasp this concept? When did I say the U.S. should occupy Cambodia, and Southern Laos? You'd only have to occupy a small portion of Laos to make it work. The Government of Laos would continue to run the Southern part of the country, and as for the part North of the 17th Parallel they only had marginal control anyway, because the North Vietnamese were occupying large part of it. Special Forces, and air power would help the Laotian Forces fight the North Vietnamese North of the line. Cambodia would be completely unaffected, except the Communist Insurgency would end for lack of North Vietnamese support, and tightened customs inspections. As the war went on more, and more of the VC forces in the South came from the North down the HCM Trail. Without those men the Guerrilla war dries up.
Again, one only has to look at the bigger picture to see why the American chief of staff thought an invasion of any Laotian territory would be very risky and elicit a dangerous response: they're losing goodwill in the international stage, losing domestic acquiescence for the war, and the Chinese and Soviets are eyeing the situation as an opportunity.
You also seem to misunderstand the delicate situation Laos found itself in at the time:
-There was the Pathet Lao supported by Hanoi, which we know. While not still a numerical majority, they still exerted considerable influence over their target audience.
-There was a pro-western anti-communist faction under Phoumi Nosavan that only controlled the capital Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and the immediate surroundings. They were supplied from Thailand, but their influence over the eastern borderlands was downright nonexistent.
-There was a "neutralist" faction under Kong Le in the Plain of Jars that often veered between both sides in the grand stage. There was one thing they agreed upon, which was that the Lao nation should be kept whole. They were gradually worn down over the 60's and most of their splinters defected to and swelled the ranks of the Pathet Lao, if i'm not mistaken.
-Finally, there were minority groups such as the Hmong and the central highland tribes who were armed and supported by the United States but whose cultural exclusion made them relatively easy to spot and isolate.

The US did infiltrate and disrupt the HCMT through covert special ops formations who were airdropped in with generic indistinctive uniforms and untraceable firearms. They also sent out air raids across the area with the objective to observe parts of the trail, bomb any formations they could find, and destroy valuable targets such as fuel and ammo depots. There was an invasion of the panhandle in 1971 by ARVN troops with US support. Overall, all of these were costly mounting failures.
What you're proposing is a direct invasion of the Laotian Panhandle by the US using committed ground troops backed by air power to occupy, damage and dismantle the trail. An occupation of a border strip would not have sufficed, they would have to go all the way to the Mekong for their objectives to be achieved. We have to analyze why the US didn't carry that out despite the notion that it would have been a silver bullet and the fact that NV troops already occupied Laos:
While i do concede that this would have been an immediate blow to infiltration efforts by the NVA and VC into SV and Cambodian territory, it would, as mentioned, have risked an escalation of the war. Laos, not just the leftist guerrilla groups but quite a lot more of the whole nation, would have thoroughly allied with NV to resist what would have been a very clear act of aggression and violation of their sovereignty by the US. Congress would be guaranteed to be furious and restrict the president's legal ability to handle troops and equipment. The CIA would be concerned at seeing the uniformed ones trudging upon what was agreed to be their territory. The Soviets and Chinese would be eager to help and apply military pressure on other parts of the world to distract the Americans and amp up the armament of NV and Laos, nukes could have been involved... there's a lot that could go wrong, and all three of the war's presidents knew it. That's why they did not pursue the option of trespassing into the Laotian border. Justifying it would have been a nightmare.
 
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Would like to point out that the 1972 NVA Offensive against South Vietnam was a complete failure, and the US only provided air support (ground forces had already been withdrawn).

Strategies implemented by the Nixon administration were extremely successful. The only reason it didn't work out is because these Strategies were implemented after the American people were already against the war, which was then compounded by Watergate.

If Johnson or Kennedy implemented Nixon's Strategies at the very beginning, South Vietnam would be a independent country today.

People fail to realize that the NVA couldn't replace their casualties in the long run and was only a matter of time until they'd have to give up. The Vietnam War is simply a matter of basic math. Just kill more of the enemy than they kill of you. The only reason why things didn't pan out right is because we have up before the equation could be finished.
Did Robert McNamara find an AH.com account?
 
Without constant resupply, they wouldn't be effective at all, and be little better than bandits.
That's something the Strategic Hamlets could deal with, as it did in Malaya
Strategic Hamlets failed in South Vietnam because it failed to take into account the ties the peasants had to their land. It failed because the peasants didn't want to reliquish their claims to that land. Anything that failed to recognise the fundamental differences between Vietnam and Malay society is doomed to failure.
 
I decline to comment further in the face of utter disregard of extra-military factors. Odds were stacked extremely against US success. There was opposition to the war on the domestic, political, and international front, the geography and terrain were unfavorable, the allies they had were very unreliable, the Vietnamese refused to yield, the bombing campaigns were counter-productive... overall, the United States' political establishment ordered soldiers to go to Vietnam with no damn purpose to begin with. Veterans left the war as either PTSD-riddled messes, committed pacifists, or as bitter reactionaries bordering on downright fascism. Caught between pacifist pressures to stay out of the war and hawkish desires to expand it, the government of the United States adopted a clunky compromise plan of intervention that was guaranteed to satisfy no one. In the war that ensued, almost every single one of the principles America claims to stand for were thrown into the trash and exposed for everyone to see.
So long as historical revisionists continue to insist that the war was fair and that America would have won were it not for Yoko Ono for some reason, a proper widespread understanding of it will remain impossible and overshadowed by interests weaponizing the war into a narrative for identitarian antagonism and violence against people who have nothing to gain by allowing their country's armed forces to bomb a third world backwater nation to the stone age.

Peace out.
 
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Strategic Hamlets failed in South Vietnam because it failed to take into account the ties the peasants had to their land. It failed because the peasants didn't want to reliquish their claims to that land. Anything that failed to recognise the fundamental differences between Vietnam and Malay society is doomed to failure.
Think the people in Malaya loved their ancestral land any less?
No Farmer, anywhere, wants to leave their land
 
No, just firebases, within artillery range of each other
The big problem with the US, is getting the VC/PAVN into sustained combat
Khe Sanh was one way todo that, keeping them in range of US firepower
Fire bases wouldn't work well for a mission requiring wide perimeter patrols to stop logistics. That reliance on artillery means long supply chains would have to be set up, which the PAVN and VC quickly learned to focus their attacks on*. Their 122mm and 130mm artillery usually outranged American artillery so air support was needed. Now the Americans could work their way around this with good air support communications. However, the ARVN had less access to these channels which culminated in Lam Son 719 where they were shelled with impunity. By their nature, firebases discourage a wide patrol perimeter by soldiers and encourage staying near the firebases for safety, defeating the purpose of the line in the first place. Although, this line would have a clear goal in mind something that was in short supply throughout the war.

*Khe Sanh being the biggest exception with the fire base being the target. Interestingly though US forces managed a better kill rate in other battles than this one.


Interdiction and expansion (1965–1968)[edit]

Further information on the PAVN logistical system in Cambodia: Sihanouk Trail
In 1961 U.S. intelligence analysts estimated that 5,843 enemy infiltrators (actually 4,000) had moved south on the trail; in 1962, 12,675 (actually 5,300); in 1963, 7,693 (actually 4,700); and in 1964, 12,424.[11]:45 The supply capacity of the trail reached 20 to 30 tonnes per day in 1964 and it was estimated by the U.S. that 12,000 (actually 9,000) North Vietnamese regulars had reached South Vietnam that year.[2]:88 By 1965 the U.S. command in Saigon estimated that communist supply requirements for their southern forces amounted to 234 tons of all supplies per day and that 195 tons were moving through Laos.[11]:97

U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysts concluded that during the 1965 Laotian dry season the enemy was moving 30 trucks per day (90 tonnes) over the trail, far above the Saigon estimate,[11]:104 demonstrating a key problem which arose when discussing the North Vietnamese supply effort and U.S. attempts to halt it.

United States officials had only estimates of its enemy's capabilities; intelligence collection agencies often conflicted with each other. Thanks to improvements to the trail system (including opening new routes that would connect to the Sihanouk Trail in Cambodia), the quantity of supplies transported during 1965 almost equaled the combined total for the previous five years. During the year interdiction of the system had become one of the top American priorities, but operations against it were complicated by the limited forces available at the time and Laos's ostensible neutrality.[12]

The intricacies of Laotian affairs, and U.S. and North Vietnamese interference in them, led to a mutual policy of each ignoring the other, at least in the public eye.[12] This did not prevent the North Vietnamese from violating Lao neutrality by protecting and expanding their supply conduit, and by supporting their Pathet Lao allies in their war against the central government. U.S. intervention came in the form of building and supporting a CIA-backed clandestine army in its fight with the communists and constant bombing of the trail. They also provided support for the Lao government.[13]
[14]
This was the start of the shift into the 3rd stage of the military part of the Protracted War.
Continuing

A common historical perspective supports the efficacy of the campaigns (despite their failure to halt or slow infiltration), as they did restrict enemy materiel and manpower in Laos and Cambodia. This viewpoint pervaded some official U.S. government histories of the conflict. John Schlight, in his A War Too Long, said of the PAVN's logistical apparatus, "This sustained effort, requiring the full-time activities of tens of thousands of soldiers, who might otherwise have been fighting in South Vietnam, seems proof positive that the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail had disrupted the North Vietnamese war effort."[16]

Despite U.S. anti-infiltration efforts, the estimated number of PAVN infiltrators for 1966 was between 58,000 and 90,000 troops, including five full enemy regiments.[7]:182 A June 1966 DIA estimate credited the North Vietnamese with 1,000 km (600 mi) of passable roads within the corridor, at least 300 km (200 mi) of which were good enough for year-round use.[17] In 1967 Senior Colonel (later General) Đồng Sỹ Nguyên assumed command of the 559th Group. In comparison to the above DIA estimate, by the end of the year the North Vietnamese had completed 2,959 km of vehicle capable roads, including 275 kilometers of main roads, 576 kilometers of bypasses, and 450 entry roads and storage areas.[18]

It was learned by U.S. intelligence that the enemy was using the Kong and Bang Fai Rivers to transport food, fuel, and munitions shipments by loading materiel into half-filled steel drums and then launching them into the rivers. They were later collected downstream by nets and booms. Unknown to the US, the enemy had also begun to transport and store more than 81,000 tonnes of supplies "to be utilized in a future offensive".[2]:208 That future offensive was launched during the lunar new year Tết holiday of 1968, and to prepare for it, 200,000 PAVN troops, including seven infantry regiments and 20 independent battalions, made the trip south.
[17]
As you mentioned earlier, Westmoreland wanted to invade Laos to cut out the HCM trail, Johnson not even being willing to acknowledge the sorties and especially the killed and captured arimen over Laos refused (this being in 1968). According to Westmoreland “Johnson would take no step that might possibly be interpreted as broadening the war, which he had publicly announced he would not do." invading Laos would hardly be in the realm of reality in this kind of sphere.
Continued


Fuel pipeline[edit]

Initially, NVA fuel was carried by porters, but this was inefficient and time consuming, and thus highlighted the need to extend the pipeline at a much faster rate. The responsibility to build the pipeline fell to Lieutenant Colonel Phan Tu Quang, who became the first Chief of the Fuel Supply Department, and Major Mai Trong Phuoc, who was the Commander of Road Work Team 18, the secret name for the workers who built the pipeline.[10]:92

Early in 1969, the pipeline crossed the Lao frontier through the Mu Gia Pass and, by 1970, it reached the approaches to the A Shau Valley in South Vietnam. The plastic pipeline, equipped with numerous small pumping stations, managed to transfer diesel fuel, gasoline, and kerosene all through the same pipe. Due to the efforts of the PAVN 592nd Pipelaying Regiment, the number of pipelines entering Laos increased to six that year.[2]:392

The 559th Group, still under the command of General Đồng Sỹ Nguyên, was made the equivalent of a Military Region in 1970 and the group was given the additional name, the "Truong Son Army". It was composed of four units, one division and three equivalent units: the 968th Infantry Division; 470th Group; 565th MAG; and 571st Rear Group.[10]:59 The units controlled fuel pipeline battalions.[10]:168

In July 1971, the Truong Son Army was reorganized into five divisional headquarters: the 470th, 471st, 472nd, 473rd, and the 571st.[10]:168 The group consisted of four truck transportation regiments, two petroleum pipeline regiments, three anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) regiments, eight engineer regiments, and the 968th Infantry Division. By the end of 1970 the 559th was running 27 "Binh Trams", which transported 40,000 tonnes of supplies with a 3.4% loss rate during the year.[2]:261

Colonel Quang and Major Phuoc would eventually build 5,000 km of pipeline and ship over 270,000 tonnes of petrol. Sections of the pipeline were still in use in the 1990s.[10]:92


Truck relay system[edit]

Trucked supplies traveled in convoys from North Vietnam in relays, with trucks shuttling from only one way station to the next. The vehicles were then unloaded and reloaded onto "fresh" trucks at each station. If a truck was disabled or destroyed, it was replaced from the assets of the next northern station and so on until it was replaced by a new one in North Vietnam. Eventually, the last commo-liaison station in Laos or Cambodia was reached and the vehicles were unloaded. The supplies were then cached, loaded onto watercraft, or man-portered into South Vietnam.[6]:218

Continued

The North Vietnamese also responded to the American aerial threat by the increased use of heavy concentrations of anti-aircraft artillery. By 1968 this was mainly composed of 37 mm and 57 mm radar-controlled weapons. The next year, 85 mm and 100 mm guns appeared, and by the end of Commando Hunt, over 1,500 guns defended the system.[7]:313

Of all the weapons systems used against the trail, according to the official North Vietnamese history of the conflict, the AC-130 Spectre fixed-wing gunship was the most formidable adversary. The Spectres "established control over and successfully suppressed, to a certain extent at least, our nighttime supply operations".[2]:261 The history claimed that allied aircraft destroyed some 4,000 trucks during the 1970–71 dry season, of which the C-130s alone destroyed 2,432 trucks.[2]:261

A Spectre countermeasure was unveiled on 29 March 1972, when a Spectre was shot down on a night mission by a surface-to-air SA-7 missile near Tchepone.[7]:369 This was the first U.S. aircraft shot down by a SAM that far south during the conflict. PAVN responded to U.S. nighttime bombing by building the 1,000 kilometer-long Road K ("Green Road") from north of Lum Bum to lower Laos. During "Commando Hunt IV" (30 April–9 October 1971), U.S., South Vietnamese, and Laotian forces began to feel the North Vietnamese reaction to General Lon Nol's coup in Cambodia and the subsequent closure of the port of Sihanoukville to its supply shipments.[23] As early as 1969 PAVN had begun its largest logistical effort of the entire conflict.[22]:20

The Laotian towns of Attapeu and Salavan, at the foot of the Bolaven Plateau were seized by the North Vietnamese during 1970, opening the length of the Kong River system into Cambodia. Hanoi also created the 470th Transportation Group to manage the flow of men and supplies to the new battlefields in Cambodia.[7]:191< This new "Liberation Route" turned west from the trail at Muong May, at the south end of Laos, and paralleled the Kong River into Cambodia. Eventually this new route extended past Siem Prang and reached the Mekong River near Stung Treng.[2]:382

During 1971 PAVN took Paksong and advanced to Pakse, at the heart of the Bolaven Plateau region of Laos. The following year, Khong Sedone fell to the North Vietnamese. PAVN continued a campaign to clear the eastern flank of the trail that it had begun in 1968. By 1968, U.S. Special Forces camps at Khe Sanh and Khâm Đức, both of which were used by MACV-SOG as forward operations bases for its reconnaissance effort, had either been abandoned or overrun. In 1970, the same fate befell another camp at Dak Seang. What had once been a 30-kilometre-wide (20 mi) supply corridor now stretched for 140 km (90 mi) from east to west.


This how the North reacted to the threat to cut the HCM Trail, because they considered it a mortal threat.

In early-February 1971, 16,000 (later 20,000) ARVN troops rolled across the Laotian border along Route 9 and headed for the PAVN logistical center at Tchepone. "Operation Lam Son 719", the long-sought assault on the Ho Chi Minh trail itself and the ultimate test of the U.S. policy of Vietnamization, had begun.[24][7]:317–361 Unfortunately for the South Vietnamese, U.S. ground troops were prohibited by law from participation in the incursion, and the U.S. was restricted to providing air support, artillery fire, and helicopter aviation units.[25]

At first the operation went well, with little resistance from the North Vietnamese. By early March 1971 the situation changed. Hanoi made the decision to stand and fight. It began to muster forces which would eventually number 60,000 PAVN troops as well as several thousand allied Pathet Lao troops and Lao irregulars, outnumbering the ARVN by almost three to one.[26]:75

The fighting in southeastern Laos was unlike any yet seen in the Vietnam War, since the PAVN abandoned its old hit-and-run tactics and launched a conventional counterattack. The PAVN first launched massed infantry attacks supported by armor and heavy artillery to crush ARVN positions on the flanks of the main advance. Coordinated anti-aircraft fire made tactical air support and resupply difficult and costly, with 108 helicopters shot down and 618 others damaged.[25]:358



PAVN forces began to squeeze in on the main line of the ARVN advance. Although an airborne assault managed to seize Tchepone, it was a useless victory, as the South Vietnamese could only hold the town for a short period before being withdrawn due to attacks on the main column. The only way the invasion force managed to extricate itself from Laos was through the massive application of U.S. air support. By 25 March 1971 the last ARVN troops recrossed the border, closely followed by their enemy. As a test of Vietnamization, "Lam Son 719" failed; half of the invasion force was lost during the operation.[25]:359

South Vietnamese troops were poorly led and the elite Ranger and Airborne elements had been decimated. "Lam Son 719" did manage to postpone a planned PAVN offensive against the northern provinces of South Vietnam for one year. By spring 1972 the Americans and South Vietnamese realized that the enemy was planning a major offensive, but did not know where or when. The answer came on 30 March 1972 when 30,000 PAVN troops, supported by more than 300 tanks, crossed the border and invaded Quảng Trị Province. The "Nguyen Hue Offensive"—better known as the "Easter Offensive"—was underway.
[27]

And finally

By 1973, the PAVN logistical system consisted of a two-lane paved (with crushed limestone and gravel) highway that ran from the mountain passes of North Vietnam to the Chu Pong Massif in South Vietnam. By 1974 it was possible to travel a completely paved four-lane route from the Central Highlands to Tây Ninh Province, northwest of Saigon. The single oil pipeline that had once terminated near the A Shau Valley now consisted of four lines (the largest 20 cm [eight inches] in diameter) and extended south to Lộc Ninh.[7]:371 In July 1973 the 259th Group was redesignated the Truong Son Command, the regimental sectors were converted to divisions, and the binh trams were designated as regiments. By late-1974 forces under the new command included AAA Division 377, Transportation Division 571, Engineering Division 473, the 968th Infantry Division, and sectoral divisions 470, 471, and 472.[29]

Command then devolved upon PAVN Major General Hoàng Thế Thiện. In December 1974 the first phase of a limited PAVN offensive in South Vietnam began.[30][31] Its success inspired Hanoi to try for an expanded but still limited, offensive to improve its bargaining position with Saigon. In March, General Văn Tiến Dũng launched "Campaign 275", the success of which prompted the general to push Hanoi for a final all-out offensive to take all of South Vietnam.[30]:225 After an ineffective attempt to halt the offensive, Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces on 30 April 1975.[30]:133–135


So the North Vietnamese strategy was based on the Trail, and it's branches, and they made a huge engineering, and logistical effort to build, and support it. Without it all they have is a frontal assault at the 17th Parallel.
Lam Son 719 was a disaster as your quotes cover. US forces didn't enter Laos on the ground and the planning was intentionally short due to opsec concerns. Unquestionably the HCM was key to the PAVN's war effort. The PAVN in the face of high casualties attacked with great tenacity.

PAVN forces suffered horrendous numbers of casualties from aircraft and armed helicopter attacks, artillery bombardment and small arms fire.[33] In each instance, however, the attacks were pressed home with a professional competence and determination that both impressed and shocked those that observed them.[34] William D. Morrow, Jr., an advisor with the ARVN Airborne Division during the incursion, was succinct in his appraisal of North Vietnamese forces – "they would have defeated any army that tried the invasion."[20]:361 According to the official PAVN history, by March the North Vietnamese had managed to amass three infantry divisions (2nd, 304th and 308th), the 64th Regiment of the 320th Division and two independent infantry regiments (27th and 28th), eight regiments of artillery, three engineer regiments, three tank battalions, six anti-aircraft battalions, and eight sapper battalions – approximately 35,000 troops, in the battle area.[35]:372
_____________________________________________________________
During Lam Son 719, the U.S. planners had believed that any North Vietnamese forces that opposed the incursion would be caught in the open and decimated by the application of American aerial might, either in the form of tactical airstrikes or airmobility, which would provide ARVN troops with superior battlefield maneuvering capability. Firepower, as it turned out, was decisive, but "it went in favor of the enemy... Airpower played an important, but not decisive role, in that it prevented a defeat from becoming a disaster that might have been so complete as to encourage the North Vietnamese army to keep moving right into Quang Tri Province."[42]:200–1The number of helicopters destroyed or damaged during the operation shocked the proponents of U.S. Army aviation and prompted a reevaluation of basic airmobile doctrine. The 101st Airborne Division alone, for example, had 84 of its aircraft destroyed and another 430 damaged. During the operation American helicopters had flown more than 160,000 sorties and 19 U.S. Army aviators had been killed, 59 were wounded and 11 were missing at its conclusion.[7]:273 South Vietnamese helicopters had flown an additional 5,500 missions. U.S. Air Force tactical aircraft had flown more than 8,000 sorties during the incursion and had dropped 20,000 tons of bombs and napalm.[7]:272 B-52 bombers had flown another 1,358 sorties and dropped 32,000 tons of ordnance. Seven U.S. fixed-wing aircraft were shot down over southern Laos: six from the Air Force (two dead/two missing) and one from the Navy (one aviator killed).[3]:136Totally, U.S Army lost 108 helicopter destroyed (10 OH-6A, 6 OH-58, 53 UH-1H, 26 AH-1G, 3 CH-47, 2 CH-53) and another 618 damaged (25 OH-6A, 15 OH-58, 316 UH-1H, 158 AH-1G, 26 CH-47, 13 CH-53, 2 CH-54)[44] 20 percent of these helicopter damaged were so badly damaged that they were not expected to fly again[45] This figure is excluding the number of ARVN's helicopters lost.Succinctly, it could be said that the operation as a whole failed for the Americans because of the overreliance on airpower, coupled with the inability of ground troops to operate into Laos. This then became a contributing factor in the defeat of the South Vietnamese forces, as they had planned to utilize and exploit airpower to out perform and out maneuver the PAVN. Further communications issues, and the inability of the ARVN to properly allocate and plan resources for such a large operation no doubt compounded the problems faced in the field, which seemed not to be reported to the higher command structures, especially in Washington.

Backing up a little here and going back to the previous quote, the relevant time period is 1965-66, when you said the US should have set this line up.

PDF warning
"However, in an August 1966 cable to CINCPAC (Information copies to the White House, State Department, Secretary of Defense, JCS, and CIA) which outlines MACV's concept of operations for 1966 and probable strategy for 1967, no mention is made of the need for or possibility of employing large ground forces in Laos.77/ President Johnson's repeated statements of "We want no wider war" effectively shelved such plans for several years." page 3-47-48.
Pages 3-40 to 3-53 cover the purposal of invading Laos.

The key part of this whole thing is the personalities and international aspects at play. Johnson promised no expansion of the war and he kept the air sorties against the HCM trail under wraps, stating the US was flying recon over Laos at Laos' government's request. It took until March 1970 for Nixon to admit under pressure that they were bombing the trail. It is simply implausible that Johnson or Nixon would decide to invade Laos, drastically expanding both the war and media heat.
 
Anyone who seriously argues that we lost the Vietnam War because of leftist protests at home is engaged in Nazi-esque “stab in the back” mythmaking. The decision to draw down was taken before the peace movement really got going, so the causality does not exist.

The real reason the US began withdrawal was geopolitical sensibility. The US military had no plan for actually winning the war and could only suggest maintaining the status quo indefinitely. This was promising to be very costly. The primary reason for the pullout was that the US couldn't afford to stay in Vietnam indefinitely AND contain Russia in Europe at the same time without mobilizing. Since mobilization over a backwater like Vietnam would be both massively disruptive economically and untenable politically, that left pulling out from one of the theatres - and no one with one iota of geopolitical sense was going to trade Europe for Veitnam.
 
Long term the North Vietnamese need to sap the electorate's enthusiasm for the war
The VWP, DRVN and PAVN’s plan for war from 1968 was the “General Offensive” line. Prior to 1968 their line was “General Offensive / General Uprising.” Both focused exclusively on the PRG/NFL controlled areas and RVN areas. North Vietnam did not consider US electorates’ opinion.
 
The VWP, DRVN and PAVN’s plan for war from 1968 was the “General Offensive” line. Prior to 1968 their line was “General Offensive / General Uprising.” Both focused exclusively on the PRG/NFL controlled areas and RVN areas. North Vietnam did not consider US electorates’ opinion.
I meant more the ramifications of the war rather than any active strategy. Johnson and Nixon were constrained by the public's decreasing enthusiasm as the war continued and attrition increased, precluding any expansion of the war into Laos and Cambodia with US boots with ground. That, and the broader cost-benefit analysis resulted in the US drawing down and leaving.
 
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