Pulling a Vietnam in Afghanistan

Mired in Afghanistan, America’s retreat strategy mirrors its Vietnam war campaign

Updated - August 05, 2019 10:49 am IST

Published - August 05, 2019 12:02 am IST

By the late 1960s, it became evident to American leaders that they could not win the Vietnam war. Richard Nixon, who was elected President in 1968, assigned Henry Kissinger, the National Security Adviser, to hold talks with the communist North Vietnam, seeking “peace with honour”. The Americans were actually prolonging a war they had already lost. The goal was not to defeat North Vietnam but to stop them from taking over the South, the American ally. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, called this approach the “stalemate machine”.

Cut to today’s Afghanistan. It’s hard to miss the similarities in the U.S.’s strategy. After 18 years of fighting — longer than America’s direct military involvement in Vietnam — the U.S. has realised that it cannot win the Afghan war. The American goal is no longer defeating the Taliban but to stop them, at least for now, from taking over Kabul. Veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad is the new Kissinger. Just as Nixon wanted to get out of Vietnam, President Donald Trump too wants to get out of Afghanistan.

The U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam goes back to the last years of French colonial rule. The U.S. first backed France against the Viet Minh guerrillas. After France exited Vietnam in 1954, the U.S. backed South Vietnam against the communist-led North. Initially, the U.S. involvement was limited to advisory roles. But after the U.S. destroyer, USS Maddox, was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the Vietnamese coast, in August 1964, the Lyndon Johnson administration steadily escalated the U.S.’s role. At its peak, in 1968, American troop deployment in Vietnam reached 549,500 personnel. The U.S. went into Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, launching its war on terror. At the peak of the war here, there were over 1,00,000 troops. Despite the massive deployment of troops and superior air power, the U.S. got stuck in the war and failed to stabilise the country.

From a position of weakness

In Vietnam, the U.S. was negotiating from a position of weakness. By the late 1960s, American public opinion had largely turned against the war. Despite massive troop deployment, both the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies had failed to make substantial gains in the war. America’s search and destroy operations in communist-dominated villages in the south and its disastrous air campaign in the north only fuelled Vietnamese hostility. The U.S. had dropped more than three times as many bombs on Vietnam as the Allied forces had during the Second World War. Besides, the South Vietnamese regime that the U.S. had supported was unpopular, oppressive and weak at the same time. In a visit to Saigon, the South’s capital, a few months after he assumed the presidency, Nixon promised peace and asked the communists to reciprocate. He badly wanted a deal, and Mr. Kissinger was his bet.

Nixon first started “Vietnamising” the war — reducing U.S. troop presence in Vietnam and shifting the focus from direct participation in land war to training and advisory roles, while continuing with air strikes. At the same time, Mr. Kissinger started talks with Le Duc Tho, a North Vietnamese revolutionary and diplomat. When talks were deadlocked, the U.S. offered to pull out of the South as a compromise. In 1973, the U.S., North Vietnam and representatives of South Vietnam and Viet Cong, the communist guerillas from the South, signed the Paris Peace Accords. The North and the South agreed to a ceasefire and continue holding peace talks, while the U.S. agreed to pull troops out of Vietnam.

In the case of Afghanistan as well, the U.S. is negotiating from a position of weakness. The war entered a stalemate long ago. America’s allies in Afghanistan stand divided. The government in Kabul, which the U.S. backs, is known for infighting and chronic corruption. The security forces are struggling to ensure basic security to the public, even in the capital city. Like Nixon’s “Vietnamisation”, U.S. President Barack Obama had started “Afghanising” the war — pulling out most troops and moving the remainder to training and advisory roles. The Afghan war is also unpopular in America. Mr. Trump, who campaigned to wind down America’s foreign interventions, wants to end it. But the U.S. cannot unilaterally pull out, especially when the Taliban is on the offensive. That would cause a lasting stain on America’s already battered reputation as the world’s pre-eminent military power. Hence, it needs a deal; finding one is Ambassador Khalilzad’s mission.

Advantage Taliban

Mr. Khalilzad has already held multiple rounds of talks with the Taliban’s representatives in Doha, Qatar. As in Vietnam, the main demand of the Afghan insurgents is a complete U.S. troop withdrawal. According to recent reports, the U.S. and the Taliban have agreed to a road map for peace: the U.S.’s withdrawal in return for the Taliban’s assurance that Afghanistan would not be used by terrorists.

The U.S. has already made two big compromises in its rush for an exit deal. It has given in to the Taliban demand that the Afghan government should be kept away from the peace process. The Taliban does not recognise the Kabul government and has made it clear that it would hold talks with the government only after a pullout of foreign troops. Second, the U.S. continued to hold talks even in the absence of a ceasefire. As a result, the Taliban continued its terror campaign even when the peace process was under way. Their latest target was the Amrulla hSaleh, the former intelligence chief and a vice presidential candidate for the September 28 elections, who was injured in an attack on his office on July 28.

U.S. officials have hoped that a deal could be reached by September 1. It is anybody’s guess what will happen to the Afghan government once America is out. When the U.S. was forced to pull out of Vietnam, the Southern and Northern governments hadn’t reached any settlement but for the ceasefire. The plan was for talks to continue, seeking a final agreement. The ceasefire did not last long. In the two years after the U.S. pulled out, the communists captured Saigon and the government crumbled like a house of cards.

In the case of Afghanistan, there is not even a ceasefire between the government and the Taliban even as the U.S. is preparing to make an exit. The winning side is the Taliban, which, unlike the Viet Cong, is a anti-modern, anti-woman, anti-minority fundamentalist machine, whose earlier regime was notorious for excessive sectarian violence. The Taliban is part of the problem, not a solution. The Communists unified Vietnam, and after early years of struggle, modernised the economy and rebuilt the country into an Asian powerhouse. For Afghanistan, the tunnel gets longer and darker.


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