The American war in Afghanistan came to a long-overdue end on the evening of Aug. 30, when the last U.S. military plane, a C-17 transport, lumbered into the skies above the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Among its passengers was the last American soldier to depart this hard, mountainous, war-ravaged country, Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. Shortly thereafter, the Taliban’s senior spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, announced to the Afghan people: “This victory belongs to us all.”
The harried American withdrawal, replete with scenes of desperate Afghans clinging to the rear of a giant U.S. Air Force transport as began its takeoff, parents passing a baby to Marine guards on the tense perimeter of the airport, and horrific mayhem following two massive suicide bombings by Islamic State of Khorasan terrorists, succeeded in evacuating about 123,000 people—an astonishing feat, carried out with great skill and courage by the American military.
Nonetheless, the evacuation will be seen by historians for generations for what it was: the sobering last act in yet another lost American war.
Inevitably the exhausting saga of the final U.S military operation in Afghanistan evokes memories of another grim evacuation: Operation Frequent Wind, the dramatic, last-ditch effort to evacuate the last Americans remaining in Saigon, along with their South Vietnamese allies on April 29-30, 1975. That operation, also carried out with extraordinary cool-headedness by U.S. Marines under intense pressure, succeeded in bringing out every American, but thousands of South Vietnamese who had worked for the United States as faithful servants of the cause were left to fend for themselves. Many ended up serving multiple-year tours in communist re-education camps, or drowning in rickety boats in the South China Sea as they tried to make their escape.
The Marines who took the last chopper off the embassy roof around 7:50 a.m. on April 30, 1975, were blinded for a few minutes by tear gas they had fired to keep desperate Vietnamese from trying to jump into their overloaded aircraft. It was somehow fitting that the last Americans who left Vietnam did so when they were for all intents and purposes blind.
Any soldier or Marine can tell you that orchestrating a “retrograde movement” is among the trickiest and most delicate of military maneuvers. In Kabul, this extremely difficult operation was unnecessarily complicated and compromised by the failure of senior decision-makers in the White House and State Department to anticipate the rapid collapse of the Kabul government’s armed forces and government in the face of a determined and well-organized adversary, the Taliban. Their failure is all the more inexplicable in light of the fact that both the CIA and the State Department provided the president with sound intelligence estimates during the last weeks of the Taliban’s stunning advance.
The same thing happened in 1975, more or less, as the ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, mysteriously refused to give the order to evacuate when the writing was on the wall, and CIA operatives had already begun evacuating their Vietnamese allies surreptitiously.
The forced withdrawal from Afghanistan ranks among the most humiliating episodes in all of America’s 400-year history, for it symbolizes in dramatic fashion the end of a horrendously destructive failed crusade to export American-style democracy by arrogant policymakers transfixed by their own country’s raw military power.
It is depressing, to say the least, but we failed in Afghanistan for many of the same reasons we stumbled in Vietnam, almost 50 years ago.
At the outset of each conflict, U.S. policymakers were woefully ignorant of the political and cultural dynamics of the nation they aimed to transform. And so, to a greater degree than is usually realized, the United States went into both conflicts half-blind, convinced that the righteousness of the cause would compensate for ignorance, and ensure success.
The Johnson administration made the absurd assumption that deep in the heart of every Vietnamese there was an American yearning to be born. George W. Bush and his advisers made the same assumption about the Afghan people. Time proved the utter bankruptcy of this assumption in both cases, as well several others, including the idea that the United States possessed the wisdom and wherewithal to crush a well-organized insurgency while it simultaneously built an entirely new government apparatus.
Like Vietnam, Afghanistan was an “irregular war,” a brutal counterinsurgency struggle in which the United States failed to find a way to counter the ingenious protracted war strategy adopted by its adversary. The Taliban’s way of war, much like the Vietcong’s, pivoted largely on hanging on and outlasting the Americans and their vast array of war machines. They were willing to suffer innumerable tactical setbacks—including being driven out of Afghanistan entirely back in 2002—sure in the knowledge that eventually the United States would weary of supporting a corrupt and dysfunctional government, pack up, and go home. Like the Vietcong, the Taliban drew comfort and sustenance from its possession of a sanctuary, in this case Pakistan, and from the inability of the United States or its allies to seal off the flow of enemy fighters into Afghanistan.
Once America grew tired of the fighting, the Taliban high command reckoned, it would be a relatively simple matter to conquer the broken and illegitimate administration that the United States had tried to create and support. So it was.
The strategy worked brilliantly, just as it had in Vietnam.
In both wars, the United States had enormous military power at its disposal, but very little political power, and even less understanding of how politics actually functioned locally. But as the history of irregular war tells us again and again, in conflicts between powerful conventional armies and local insurgencies, politics, political organization, and mobilization are invariably more important factors in determining the outcome than battles.
In irregular warfare, coercive politics—assassination, terrorism, subversion, propaganda, the methodical construction of a shadow government—figure prominently, and cannot be countered by strictly military means alone. Human relationships and political mobilization are more important than military technology, and restraint in the use of armed force, rather than sheer firepower, is often critical to success. In these kinds of conflicts, said a prominent recent U.S. Army Special Forces officer, “You can’t kill your way to victory.”
When Major Harry Summers told his North Vietnamese counterpart on a small team of officers who were negotiating the terms for the American evacuation of Saigon that the communists had never defeated the Americans in a major battle, the officer, a Colonel Tu, replied, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” How right he was!
The United States never lost a multi-battalion battle in Afghanistan, but in light of the failure to build a legitimate, functional government, the Americans’ tactical victories were essentially “irrelevant.”
In both of these tragic counterinsurgency conflicts, the lion’s share of the nation-building work fell by default on the U.S. military, which is neither properly trained to undertake such work, nor temperamentally suited for it. The efforts of the State Department, USAID, and other civilian agencies and NGOs were notoriously disjointed and ineffective. In both Afghanistan and Vietnam, billions were spent each year on ambitious social engineering projects, but the host governments remained dysfunctional, corrupt and utterly unresponsive to the needs of the population.
As both conflicts morphed from stalemate to quagmire to looming disaster, the American public was fed a steady, unremitting diet of upbeat assessments of progress being made on the ground, served up by presidents, their advisers, and commanding generals. These assessments, it is now all too clear, were fairy tales, born of a lethal amalgam of wishful thinking, obtuseness, and outright dissembling.
As the futility of the fighting became more and more apparent in both these conflicts, American ground forces were ultimately withdrawn, and the American people were assured by the White House that the cause was not lost, that the good fight would be carried on by our local allies.
But this, too, was dissembling.
Only the most naïve observers of the scene in Vietnam in 1973 on the eve of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces believed the South Vietnamese Army could stand up to the combined forces of the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong on its own. They had invariably been bested by the enemy during the war with the Americans. How could they be expected to survive against such powerful, well-motivated forces as the Vietnamese communists without them?
Even granting that, the South Vietnamese managed to hang on for more than two years after the last Americans departed Vietnam in March 1973, and they were defeated by a powerful conventional army force of more than 20 divisions, several of them amply supplied with tanks. So corrupt and hollow was the regime in Kabul that it folded just four months after President Biden announced the final American withdrawal.
This precipitous collapse of the Kabul government certainly has no upside for the long-suffering Afghan people, who seemingly cannot escape the curse of devastating civil war. Indeed, it may not be long before the country’s warlords resume the fight against the Taliban. But the failure of the government or the army to put up much a fight, I think, go a long way toward confirming the wisdom of President Biden’s decision to withdraw. The Kabul government was fatally, irrevocably shaky, and had been kept on life support by the United States troops and dollars. Yet the very presence of the world’s largest, most powerful foreign army only served to erode the government’s sliver of legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.
Where these two failed wars differ fundamentally is on the question of their impact on American society. Vietnam was at the heart of a tumultuous social revolution in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The war pervaded every aspect of American life, and came perilously close to tearing the social fabric of the country irrevocably. “Nothing did more than the conflict in Vietnam to alter the course of post–World War II society and politics, or unleash the emotions that polarized the nation after 1965” than Vietnam, writes Brown historian James T. Patterson. Few historians would disagree. More than any single event of this time, the war broke the trust between the government and the people. It was the first war the United States had ever lost.
Afghanistan has aroused no such passions, nor has it altered significantly the lives of many Americans outside the relatively small universe of the American military and their families. The conflict went on and on, and Americans in general seemed to care less and less about it. In truth, the major reason the war lasted so long is that the American people didn’t care enough about it to demand that it end.
The collective weight of three lost wars—Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—surely demands a searching re-examination of how the United States goes about making the decision to go to war, and how it develops strategies for achieving its objectives. It would also seem to call for a less activist foreign policy—a foreign policy of military restraint that would focus on the use of the United States’ economic and political power rather than the military to shape the world.
But don’t count on any of this happening soon. As Mary L. Dudziak, a law professor at Duke who has written extensively about war, told The New York Times, “In our toxic political environment, Republicans are likely to use this moment to undermine President Biden, and partisanship may foreclose the deeper re-examination of American war politics that is sorely needed now, and was also needed after the war in Vietnam.”