I served as a civilian advisor during the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam. As I write this, I am in regular voice/email contact with a young Afghan friend and former colleague hiding in Kabul. After moving his wife and children to safety in India, he returned to join the resistance movement led by the former Afghan vice president, Amrullah Saleh, who describes himself as the “interim president of Afghanistan.”
I doubt either the resistance or my friend’s participation would be taking place, absent the last 20 years.
Last Acts: The immediate comparisons between the two helicopter-filled, chaotic, violent evacuations from Saigon and Kabul are understandable. However, the ongoing US airlift out of the Kabul International Airport is on a much larger scale (115,000 flown to safety). It is taking place in a far more dangerous, unsettled environment.
In Saigon, the North Vietnamese forces occupied the city and did not threaten the evacuation..Forty-six years later, the Taliban are not in complete control of Kabul and are violently challenged by terrorists.
On August 26, one of these armed groups, ISIS-K, detonated a suicide vest at an airport gate, killing 13 US service members, some 200 Afghan civilians, and wounding many more. That evening, President Biden recommitted the US to continue the escape flights until 8/31/21.
The Two Wars: Some American and European. Pundits have seized on the similarity of the two evacuation catastrophes to assert more broadly that US military lapses “…snatched defeat from the jaws of victory” in both conflicts. Far too simplistic for me and raises an old question: what does “victory” or “win” mean? For many Americans, it means a surrender ceremony by the enemy aboard a US battleship (cf MacArthur, the USS Missouri and 9/02/1945) and nothing less.
The following paragraphs are based on observations made during my years in South Vietnam and Afghanistan. I intend to counter the knee-jerk anti-military reaction above by describing two major civilian-based factors that significantly shaped the American outcomes in both wars. I’ll address the first, Domestic American Politics, in this article and the second, Host Country’s Customs, Culture, and Social Development, in a second. The latter is more difficult to grasp because it is deeply embedded in the psyches of the two societies: However, the following is an example of what I’ll take up in the second article.
Nationality and its Responsibilities: Vietnamese, divided or now united, have always had a strong sense of nationality and its responsibilities. Most Afghans have none because culturally, their principal allegiance is local to the people who share their identifiers, i.e., family, clan, ethnicity, home village, and tribe. Fighting to protect a distant political construct –their country—strikes many Afghan males as unnatural as does swearing allegiance to an inanimate object, i.e., the US Constitution.
Domestic US Politics and Insertion/Withdrawal of American Forces:
Vietnam: (1965 – 75)
Kennedy – The Cold War and its belief World Communism was an active threat to Democracy everywhere was very much present on January 20, 1961, when the JFK Administration began. Less than three months later, Kennedy authorized the disastrous Bay of Pigs assault, aimed at stopping Soviet Communism’s spread in our hemisphere, i.e., Cuba.
Not long after that, American military advisors began trickling into South Vietnam with a similar mission: strengthen its military forces to deter North Vietnam. Remember the Domino Effect? If Saigon fell to the Communist government in Hanoi, all other Southeast Asian nations would quickly follow.
Nixon – Seven years later, domestic politics directly impacted the withdrawal of US Forces from Vietnam. It was 1968, and a significant presidential election was underway. LBJ had chosen not to run for reelection, so his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was the Democratic candidate. Richard Nixon was the Republican.
Front and center on most Americans’ minds were the Vietnam War, its mounting KIA numbers (total 58,000), and the draft. Tens of thousands of American families (voters) were burying members or caring for them when they returned seriously wounded. Large, angry demonstrations outside the White House and elsewhere had been occurring regularly. Draftees were escaping to Canada.
And then, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, unleashing violent Black rage across the country and exacerbating the existing unrest. Martial Law was declared in Washington, DC, as riots filled streets and buildings burned.
A week before the election, LBJ paused bombing in Vietnam, and there were rumors from Paris that the Peace Talks were on the verge of agreement. Humphrey’s polling number rose sharply. Nixon acted quickly to torpedo the negotiations. He used Anna Chennault as his intermediary to convince South Vietnam’s President Thieu that Republicans would deliver a better deal for him than the Democrats. The Peace Talks stalled, and Nixon won the election.
Six months after Nixon’s 1969 inauguration, he ordered the withdrawal of 35,000 US troops. Almost four years later, In March 1973, two months after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, the last 7000 left. The Accords were almost immediately broken by Hanoi.
Ford – The ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) was the world’s 4th largest, was well trained and armed and engaged in combat for years. But, it and the country suffered from serious top-level political leadership corruption – nepotism- and from similarly motivated, smaller-scale problems among some senior officers. However, it fought on after the American military withdrawal and was able to delay the NVA’s advance on Saigon for two years.
However, on April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese tanks breached Saigon’s last defenses, and the now-familiar disaster unfolded at the US Embassy.
Afghanistan (2001 – 2021):
G.W. Bush -All adult Americans alive on 9/11/2001 understand clearly why President Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan. His goals were clear: destroy Al Qaeda, capture/kill Bin Laden, and topple the Taliban government. The Bin Laden project took seven more years, but the other objectives were largely achieved fairly quickly. Notice, building a new, modern democratic Afghanistan wasn’t mentioned.
However, over a year later, President Bush transferred most US troops there to the Iraq War. They returned, but many Afghans by then had lost their immediate post-invasion excitement, hope, and expectations, while many others just wanted the latest foreign occupier gone.
Obama – The American voters were losing patience with the US involvement in Afghanistan when President Obama was reelected in 2012. Polls showed a large plurality favored withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, the issue of withdrawal itself quickly became a partisan political assault weapon,
Republicans demanded the Obama Administration pursue “victory” and provide the troops to achieve it. President Obama personally favored ending American military involvement and mentioned removal by the end-2014. But, under intense pressure, he ordered a 33,000 surge.
Trump: President Trump frequently decried the Forever Wars, blaming his predecessors, and embarked on a negotiation with the Taliban to lay the foundation for US military withdrawal. It excluded the Afghan government, implying Americans, not Afghans, were his only concern.
The agreement was signed on 2/29/2020. The US would remove all US Forces, and the Taliban would not target them and would also enter peace negotiations with the Kabul government. They kept the first but stalled the second until events overtook it. There was no provision regarding the secure departure of all American and some Afghan civilians.
Biden – President Biden made withdrawal from Afghanistan a foreign policy priority, supported by many Americans. He announced he would implement the Trump/Taliban agreement, with an end date of 9/11/21, the 20th. Anniversary. The President subsequently advanced the date to 8/31/21.
Kabul: The Denouement
In nine days, the Taliban captured most of Afghanistan and entered Kabul on Sunday, 8/15/21, where they encountered little resistance and found the Ghani Government inert and/or gone. Its president is rumored to have arrived in the UAE with bags of cash. On the same day, the US Embassy lowered the flag and moved its much-reduced staff to the Airport.
The Taliban leaders, their Pakistani mentors (ISI), and other friends/sympathizers and financiers had used the intervening decades to reconstitute their military forces, carefully plan their resurgence, become more worldly, develop an international network and ensure the Taliban became very computer and social media savvy. And it did.
They were, therefore, able to spread their rebranding campaign to millions and even tried to convince Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun ethnic and tribal chiefs, and they had become more moderate, more modern, and collaborative.
On August 17, 2021, the Taliban organized its first and very professional news conference with international journalists warmly welcomed. They took questions, identified a spokesman, and pressed their new image on all attendees: “We’re just politicians trying to organize a new government.”
First, I know for many today, the notion and for many, many years the practice that American domestic politics ended at its borders seems quaint, even innocent. However, it was a principle of government behavior accepted by both major political parties. It certainly placed some restraint on the behavior of different presidential administrations, probably until Vietnam and Richard Nixon.
The short earlier narrative demonstrated, I hope, the effect domestic US politics had on decisions regarding military deployments to South Vietnam and Afghanistan, their retention there, and their eventual withdrawals. Centering these decisions in a by definition, partisan presidential administration virtually assures domestic political considerations will figure into key conclusions regarding combat engagements of US Forces.
The corrective action can be simply described but is hard to implement. Although, tiny steps have begun in Congress to cancel earlier grants of war powers to the president.
I’ll let James Madison explain my point:” The Constitution supposes, what the history of all Governments demonstrates, that the executive is the branch of power most interested in war and most prone to it. It has, with studied care, vested it in the legislature (Art 1, Section 8: Congress has the power to declare war, and Article II, Section 2 names the president as the commander in chief. The former is the decision-maker, and the latter is the implementer.
Maybe the principal framers of the Constitution were thinking about Europe’s 100 years or 30 years wars when they subjected US war-making to the separation of powers principle. Possibly, but more likely, it was their experience with the British monarchy that concentrating power in a single entity could subject the American, like the British, people, to arbitrary and oppressive decisions.
Congress was given the two principal war powers: (1) to decide the US should enter a war and (2) the sole power to fund it. If a 21st Century Congress can reclaim its Constitutional powers, then that will ensure that these life and death decisions will be made by the widest possible political consensus.
Tom Timberman is an Army vet, lawyer, former senior Foreign Service officer, adjunct professor at GWU, and economic development team leader or foreign government advisor in war zones. He is the author of four books, lectures locally and at US and European universities. He and his wife are 24 year residents of Kent County.