It is almost cliche at this point to compare any American military excursion to Vietnam, but at the same time, looking at the sad conclusion of the 20-year Afghanistan debacle, the similarities have only grown more striking. As Biden withdraws the last U.S. forces, hoping to keep an embassy presence at best, it’s impossible not to notice the parallels: An enemy regime growing in power, a U.S.-friendly government on the verge of collapse, evacuations happening each day, and all eyes on the fate of an airport. As the Times reports, these are the waning days of American military presence in country:
About 650 U.S. troops are expected to remain in Afghanistan to provide security for diplomats after the last American combat troops leave in the next weeks, American officials said on Friday.
In addition, several hundred additional American forces will remain at the Kabul airport, possibly until September, to assist the Turkish troops providing security, as a temporary move until a more formal Turkey-led security operation is in place, planning previously reported by The Associated Press.
Even the journey of Afghanistan itself, from its war with Russia to combat with America, mimics the Vietnamese defeat of the French segueing into the long conflict with the U.S. The plan is to have all troops except that security force withdrawn by Sept. 11, and with the country spiraling into civil war, Biden’s advice to the U.S.-backed Afghani government is, basically, “best of luck.” And the idea that they might get lucky is far-fetched; most analysts think the Taliban will have total control before the end of 2022, at the latest, and possibly as soon as six months. Obviously, U.S. withdrawal has only emboldened the Taliban, who have stepped up their campaign since troops began to leave, and Biden is not budging on withdrawal despite the carnage to come. In this way, he has an easier time than Nixon or any other American leader did during Vietnam—Americans, by and large, have stopped caring what happens in Afghanistan.
Nor is Biden wrong. With peace talks on the verge of failing, and the war unwinnable, the only other solution is to lengthen and deepen the quagmire, putting more American troops in the line of fire in a conflict that is going to end the exact same way, whether it’s now or in a decade. It’s the choice that should have been made 15 years ago. Anyone who has read Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, or simply followed the news on the ground, understands that it was already obvious in the 2000s that this was a nightmarish, unending fight that could not be won by the Americans, and that would continue to bring almost unbelievable suffering to the people of Afghanistan. It is now the longest warn in U.S. history, has resulted in more than 20,000 casualties of Americans alone, and more than 200,000 deaths, including almost 50,000 civilians, in a span of 20 years…not to mention the economic devastation of their country.
For what? Well, a 20-year delay in the same exact outcome, except that those 20 years have been littered with intense pain in Afghanistan, and the country has become a war-torn wasteland. The initial American aim, of denying Al-Qaeda a base of operations, is no closer to being secured than ever before, despite the fact that Al-Qaeda and ISIS have seen their power temporarily wane. Once they’ve re-strengthened, it’s impossible to imagine that they won’t find safe harbor in Afghanistan, since everyone knows the Americans aren’t coming back.
In terms of total deaths, this doesn’t come close to matching Vietnam, but in terms of decimating an entire country and wasting human life and untold amounts of money on a long, fruitless war, it’s one of the great debacles of our history (and Iraq isn’t far behind, though it ended sooner).
All of which begs the question: If we understand our own historical patterns, and that invading another country on the grounds of depriving enemy ideologies of a home base (whether that ideology is communism or Islamic extremism) inevitably starts with victories, devolves into quagmire form which it is difficult to become politically unstuck, and ends in ignominious defeat many years and many deaths after it should have…can we learn from it? American appetite for war is low at the moment, but it was low at the end of Vietnam too. Nevertheless, we allowed history to repeat itself, and with predictable results.
This fall, after 20 years, the Afghanistan War will be officially over, at least over as it concerns America. In all likelihood, the Taliban will take over in short order, and even the small security force the U.S. leaves behind, as well as all diplomats, will have to leave. It’s a disgrace, an embarrassment, and a tragedy, and it happened because a group of politicians had no sense of history, and a country (ours) had no sense of proportion after a terrorist attack. Everything is worse now, on both sides, and nobody is safer. That’s the legacy of Afghanistan.
Will it be the legacy of the U.S.? Is it already? Have our imperial intentions become such a core part of the American identity that post-WWII American is defined entirely by our interventions around the world in the name of “democracy,” but actually in the name of capitalism? Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq are the most notable failures, but from South America to Asia to Africa, our influence has been harsh and unrelenting, even when it doesn’t descend into all-out war. There are bad actors around the world, and there always will be, but when the U.S. becomes involved, suffering always seems quick to follow…for us as much as anyone. There is another way here, but it involves understanding the lessons history keeps forcing down our throats, and changing our policies accordingly. Is it possible? Or are we doomed to keep living out the same patterns over and over, caught in our own inertia, playing a desperate game to preserve our power?
This will be one of America’s defining questions in the decade to come, and if the answer is that we’ll always fall into the same trap, not only does it signal further suffering inside and outside our borders, but it means that the bigger problems—the ones pertaining to the future of the human race—will continue to take a back seat as we blunder on in our foreign misadventures. There is quite a lot to do if we want a functioning world and country for our children and grandchildren, and unnecessary war of the kind we can’t seem to resist only makes things harder. It’s time to heed the past, and internalize its lessons, in the interest of the future.