America’s drawdown from Afghanistan will empower the Taliban, with tragic but almost inevitable consequences.
Secretary of State Blinken’s recent letter to the Afghan president threatening a full U.S. military withdrawal by May 1 absent greater cooperation with the Taliban recalls President Nixon’s similarly ominous letter to South Vietnam President Thieu in 1972. Henry Kissinger had drafted that letter, telling Thieu that the U.S. would implement an accord with North Vietnam even without Thieu’s support.
Nixon didn’t like Kissinger’s draft but recalled Eisenhower’s advice: “A true executive can sign a poor letter without changing it.”
Understandably, Thieu was unenthusiastic about the impending Paris accord Kissinger had negotiated with Hanoi. It allowed North Vietnam to keep its current forces inside South Vietnam. Upon the letter’s receipt, Thieu had asked if any successful peace allowed an invader to remain in place.
Nixon responded to Thieu’s disquiet by promising that if North Vietnam violated the accord there would be “swift and severe retaliatory action.” Of course, when North Vietnam inevitably did violate, Nixon could not respond because Congress in 1973 prohibited further U.S. combat action. South Vietnam would survive two more years, providing the “decent interval” Kissinger desired between U.S. withdrawal and Saigon’s collapse. Nixon more idealistically had hoped for South Vietnam’s survival.
Thieu failed to understood the limits of American strategic patience. The U.S. had invested 20 years in Vietnam, including the lives of over 50,000 men. Besides the human and financial costs, the war had destructively divided Americans. Sustaining South Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s was arguably imperative as the U.S. sought to defend Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and others from Soviet and/or Chinese backed insurgencies during the heights of Cold War. But by the 1970s those countries were more secure and Indochina was no longer as strategically important.
The collapse of South Vietnam and the rest of Indochina was calamitous in human costs: hundreds of thousands killed under their new communist overlords, millions of refugees, and the populations of three nations captive under Leninist police states. America had tried to prevent this humanitarian and human rights disaster. Two presidencies were destroyed in the effort. But after two decades America was unwilling to expend more when there was no direct threat to America.
Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese and others fought valiantly and sacrificially to preserve their nations and prevent the disaster. But ultimately, non-communist Indochina lacked the political will and means to resist conquest by more determined Marxist foes.
Maybe the same is partly true for Afghanistan. America has invested two decades there, including several thousand dead Americans and hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet the Taliban, dethroned in 2002 in the wake of 9-11, remains robust and threatening. Although non-Taliban Afghanistan is a democracy with elections and titular protections for free speech, Freedom House ranks the country as “not free,” scoring it 27 out of 100. Mostly Taliban terror is blamed, but so too are regime corruption and political divisions that inhibit functioning nationhood.
The current regime is infinitely preferable to the Taliban, whose Islamist rule, if fully restored, would be tyrannical and murderous. A re-Talibanized Afghanistan would likely equal the repressions North Vietnam inflicted on the conquered south. Some of its barbarities may rank with Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge.
The U.S. is advocating a new non-elected interim government in Afghanistan that would include the Taliban. Ostensibly this new regime would facilitate new national elections and a new, more Islamicized constitution. The Taliban views parliamentary democracy as an idolatrous moral corruption from Christendom. It’s hard to imagine any incentive that would induce most of the Taliban to collaborate in any meaningful electoral process. (Of course, North Vietnam and its Viet Cong proxies also had no interest in elections, although some Americans fecklessly touted a coalition government.)
Unlike North Vietnam, the Taliban lacks the power fully to impose its rule over all Afghanistan, however much it craves to do so. A post-U.S. Afghanistan would presumably be further tribalized and suffer expanded civil war. Presumably the U.S. would periodically intervene through drones and air power to nullify major terror threats against U.S interests. It all seems very bleak.
Or maybe absent U.S. ground troops the Kabul regime will gain credibility as a national force and find within itself renewed strength. We can hope. Many brave Afghans have died in pursuit of a better nation for themselves. Whatever happens, unlike in Indochina in the 1970s, the U.S. will not retreat altogether, lest Afghanistan again become a haven for external terror.
But the U.S. effort directly to superintend through force and dollars a functioning semi-democratic regime in Afghanistan appears to be closing, after 20 years of exertions. A typically American Christian perspective will from this experience want to draw absolutist conclusions. America should never have tried! Or America must never quit! Similar absolutisms were and are applied to the U.S. experience in Vietnam.
Such absolutisms in historical judgment should be avoided. U.S policymakers in the 1960s on Vietnam were guided by a particular perception of American interests and ideals, often mandated by public opinion. The same is true for U.S. withdrawal from Indochina in the 1970s. And the same is true of U.S. decisions on Afghanistan across two decades, motivated by Taliban collaboration with al Qaeda . The lessons to be learned are not as clear as some may insist.
Nations great and small largely determine their own destiny under the mercy or judgment of an ever watchful Providence. Afghanistan will choose its paths. And the U.S. will charts its own. But those paths likely will cross again, as only God knows. And future leaders will again write “bad” letters with unintended if sometimes inevitable consequences.