When the U.S. loses resolve: The Afghanistan-Vietnam parallels

Sol W. Sanders  

For those of us who lived through it, current negotiations for the American exit from Afghanistan smells much too much like the end of the U.S. commitment in Vietnam.

Washington, after a decade of enormous sacrifice of life and treasure, has chosen to negotiate with the enemy following diplomatic “modalities” pretty much on his terms.

What has faded is Washington’s resolve to crush completely the hosts of the perpetrators of 9/11 by setting up an alternative regime in Kabul.

An American helicopter boards fleeing personnel in 1975 near the American Embasy in Saigon.  /Hubert van Es/AFP/Getty Images
An American helicopter boards fleeing personnel in 1975 near the American Embasy in Saigon. /Hubert van Es/AFP/Getty Images

Now, whatever the failings of the Karzai government, Washington finds itself in bitter confrontation with its own creature. That parallels the long history of embittered relations with the Saigon regime in the negotiations leading to the Vietnamese Communist victory.

In fact, President Obama’s dual strategy at the outset of his first administration was doomed: the surge in the American military effort was vitiated by his simultaneous announcement of a withdrawal deadline.

With their deep roots in a primitive tribal society and dedicated to an authoritarian religion, the Taliban have waited while waging a growing guerrilla campaign. Wiping them out in some of the world’s most demanding terrain was always going to be extremely difficult. It was in fact an effort to remold a culture, a gigantic task but one postwar American had helped accomplish in Nazi-conquered Europe, war devastated Japan and South Korea and beleaguered Taiwan.

More than anything else it required dedication that the Taliban could not mistake as a temporary engagement. Perhaps with some long past their proper sunset date, it is important to remember that keeping world peace has meant a continued U.S. military presence from Iceland [finally out in 2006] to Japan for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Although badly hammered by a highly professional and technocratic U.S. military, there is no reason to believe the Taliban’s commitment to its ideology has changed. Its leadership is as ignorant, fanatical and demented as it has always been — characterized by making its own co-religionists major targets in its campaign of terror.

But the U.S. public is tired of war, critical of vast treasure expended while the Great Recession lingers at home. The always short attention span of a continental society with so many diversions, trivial and serious, is exhausted.

There are, of course, important and significant differences with “Vietnam”, for, as with all historical analogies, this one is basically flawed.

In Vietnam, after paying with more than 50,000 lives, the U.S. had finally established a respected and respectable regime — a decade after President John F. Kennedy’s murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

But the Congress, with the connivance of such diverse figures as Henry Kissinger and Averill Harriman, pulled the rug from under a magnificent little U.S.-style army Washington had created but totally dependent on Stateside logistics.

Both these strategists saw “Vietnam” not only as a political liability for Democratic Administrations, but primarily as a chip in a worldwide poker game. Both believed, mistakenly as it turned out, Vietnam was a tool in using Communist China in Washington’s overwhelming Cold War struggle with the Soviets.

The very fact that Doha in a tiny but petroleum rich Persian Gulf ministates has been chosen as the scene of negotiations with the Taliban is evidence of initial American concessions. Qatar’s absolute rulers, the megalomaniacal Al Thani family, play all sides against the middle.

Despite Qatar housing the U.S. Central Command’s Forward Headquarters and Combined Air Operations Center, the Al Thanis have poured some $35 billion into backing the Al Jazeera network, voice of Osama bin Laden, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt with its longstanding record of Islamic terrorism, and now the jihadists in the Syrian opposition to the regime of Bashar Assad. It all reminds one of the insidious role the French played in the last great Indochina negotiation in Paris which ended with denying the Saigon regime the ability to defend itself.

But the most significant difference from the prelude to Washington’s ignominious final departure from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975, is that it then had so few direct international geopolitical implications.

For more than a decade it did erode American prestige, and the ghost of shame and betrayal dominated U.S. domestic politics for a generation. But a demoralized American military quickly rebuilt its morale and effectiveness. And those who had been loudest in denying the true nature of the Hanoi regime simply looked away when tens of thousands were thrown into concentration camps, other thousands were lost at sea in the desperate effort of more than two million people to escape the Communists in small, clandestine boats. It was made even easier to avoid the reality of the withdrawal when 750,000 Vietnamese refugees quickly integrated themselves into the American mainstream with enormous vitality and ingenuity.

But the Hanoi Communist regime, intent on wiping out opposition in the South and continuing its non-functioning Stalinist economic policies, was never a post-Vietnam War threat to the U.S. Nor was its Communist Bloc contribution to the continuing Cold War significant.

As Lee Kwan Yu, Singapore’s longtime chief executive, and other leaders in Southeast Asia, calculated, the long, grueling American commitment in Vietnam permitted the Southeast Asia states to stabilize their newly independent regimes. That was why one of the principal reasons for the U.S. Vietnam engagement, the fear of a broader Asian “domino effect” of a Communist Vietnamese takeover with Chinese support never came to pass.

Therein lies the major difference between what is now going forward in Doha. Muslim fanaticism continues to grow – the murder of female school students, suicide attacks on “secularists”, assassinations of teachers and others administering vaccinations, suicide bombings against public figures, continuing to sanctify honor killings and other barbaric aspects of Islamic sharia law. There is every probability that the Taliban will continue to target U.S. interests at home and abroad in collaboration with other jihadist groups.

Neighboring Pakistan’s allied terrorists who also style themselves Taliban is an indicator that if anything fanaticism among the Pushtoon tribes on both sides of the border has not diminished. The argument that was once in power their fanaticism might diminish is the kind of wishful thinking that anti-Vietnam War agitators bought into so blithely.

Nor is the argument that the Taliban is simply being “asked in” to participate in coalition government very convincing. Since Gen. George Marshall undermined Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government with agitation for coalition with the Chinese Communists to fight the Japanese militarists, such U.S fostering of what the West regards as normal functioning of a democratic system, brings total disaster. It took the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1990 to rid East and Central Europe of the product of such thinking.

During the decade of American efforts to subdue Islamic fanaticism in Afghanistan, the final successful pursuit of its most prominent leader, Osama bin Laden, has not cut its tentacles. The movement has metastasized into copycat elements in North Africa, Yemen, Gaza and southern Lebanon [Hizbullah], and now threatens to establish bases in Syria and West Africa.

The American withdrawal risks that once again Afghanistan could fall back into isolation and as an important sanctuary for radical Islam, endangering first of all the very shaky representative government in Pakistan. The handover to the Karzai government, always dicey, is now further endangered with negotiations with the very movement which gave the jihadists their first operating base.

Americans worship success, in negotiations as in other walks of life. But up against an implacable enemy who refuses to make more than nominal concessions, a successful negotiation has so often turned into unilateral U.S. concessions and betrayal of American interests.

Sol W. Sanders, (solsanders@cox.net), is a contributing editor for WorldTribune.com and East-Asia-Intel.com and blogs at yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com

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