Abandoning Vietnam, er, Afghanistan
The Taliban carefully scripted the kerfluffle to embarrass the United States. Its not like we didn't know they were in Qatar. For eighteen months, Doha has been the scene of sometimes secret, sometimes leaked U.S. talks with the Taliban -- and without the Afghan government.
But this week, Taliban representatives inaugurated a large and ornate building, complete with a flag and a banner proclaiming the diplomatic office of "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." The "Islamic Emirate" also released a statement that said, inter alia, that it "never wants to pose harms (sic) to other countries from its soil, nor will it allow anyone to cause a threat to the security of countries from the soil of Afghanistan," an apparent overture to the United States. There was an announcement then that the Obama Administration would open "peace and reconciliation" talks with the enemy of our presumed ally, Hamid Karzai.
In a huff, the Karzai government broke off security talks with the U.S. and denounced the Obama administration for violating what it called "written assurances" that the Taliban would not be considered a diplomatic entity and its offices would not resemble an embassy. Without confirming the assurances (although the New York Times reported that an administration official acknowledged there was a letter from Obama to Karzai), the administration retreated quickly. State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki said there were no U.S.-Taliban talks scheduled; Secretary of State Kerry said Karzai was "justifiably upset" over the "Islamic Emirate" sign; and the Taliban was induced to remove it.
The Taliban, understanding that it is winning the political battle, followed last week's suicide attack that killed 17 Afghans in an attack on the Supreme Court in Kabul with one that killed four American soldiers at Baghram Air Base. Then it dangled trade-bait in the form of captured U.S. Marine Bowe Bergdahl for five high-level Gitmo detainees.
The specter of Vietnam hangs over this moment as it becomes clear that the U.S. is running for the political exit even as our troops are slated to remain under deteriorating conditions until the end of 2014. If we're going to cut out and leave the place to whoever comes next, we should do it before any more American troops get killed.
President Obama is no less anxious to end American involvement in Afghanistan than President Nixon was to end it in Vietnam, and having to consider the long-term interests of weaker allies just gets in the way. The Paris Peace Accords were negotiated mainly by the United States and North Vietnam; heavy pressure was put on the South to sign. Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho received the Nobel Peace Prize; Nguyen Van Thieu received "assurances" from the United States. They were worth little in the face of the American determination, both presidential and in Congress, to be done with the war. Just over a year ago, I wrote:
There were 540,000 Americans in Vietnam at the peak of the U.S. part of the war in January 1969. Precisely four years later, in January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, and the U.S. promised continuing support to South Vietnam, where nearly 2.6 million Americans had served and more than 58,000 had died. Eight months later, Congress voted to halt all combat operations, and by December, only 50 American military personnel were left in the South. President Nixon resigned in July 1974, and two weeks later Congress reduced aid to South Vietnam by one third. In late December, the North attacked positions in the South. In January 1975, the cross-border invasion began. The North Vietnamese military expected the war to take two years. On 21 January, President Ford told a press conference the U.S. was unwilling to re-enter the war. Three months and nine days later, Saigon fell.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Taliban leader Mullah Omar told his supporters he would retake Kabul within a week of the American departure. If that's so -- and history is a pretty fair guide here -- why leave the troops there one day longer? Why not bring them home now and get on with the inevitable? Only, it seems, because President Obama sees the drawn-out American departure coupled with Nixonian "assurances" to President Karzai as a way to "end the wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) responsibly."
The "responsible" end of the Iraq War looks a lot like the end of Vietnam. At Ft. Bliss last year, celebrating the second anniversary of the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq (an odd anniversary) Mr. Obama told the assembled troops, "Make no mistake, ending the wars responsibly makes us safer and our military even stronger, and ending these wars is letting us do something else; restoring American leadership."
The soldiers gave him the most restrained reception possible commensurate with his status as Commander in Chief.
As a result of the administration's failure to reach a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops except trainers and embassy guards were withdrawn at the end of 2011. Six months after the last troops left, Senate Democrats withdrew promised support for aid and police training. Nearly 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq from 2003-2011, and the troops understood that reneging on the promise of continued support wasted their service and the sacrifice oftheir 4,200 dead and 33,000 injured comrades.
Since our departure, disaffected Sunnis, including a revived al Qaeda, have been attacking the pro-Iranian Shi'ite government in a simmering war that has claimed thousands of Iraqi lives, primarily civilians. More than 1,000 people died in May. From Iraq, the fighters have gone to Syria to sow carnage there.
President Nixon and President Obama both learned that weak allies are pesky things. Weak governments abroad -- Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, where we trained the army that overthrew the democratic government, Libya -- learned painfully that the United States may be induced to come in, but their own requirements will always be secondary to those of the Americans.
By itself, these lessons are neither a call for American intervention anywhere (read, Syria), nor one for isolation. But demands that the United States "do something" with its military in some other country are best tempered by the realization that the definition of American strategic interest has become conflated with the political interest of the president and the Congress.
In that case, it is fair, whether in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, to ask as then-Senator Kerry did in 1971, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center.