Will Kabul become America's Dien Bien Phu?
With President Biden's August 31 withdrawal deadline looming and the Taliban's insistence that it not be extended, the unanswered question is what the Taliban will do, and how Biden will respond should the evacuation effort stall and U.S. military forces remain at Kabul's international airport on September 1?
Based on the current political and military circumstances, the surrounding topography, and the unforced and tenuous political and military position Biden chose, it is not difficult to see some parallels with France's position in Vietnam at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Begun on 13 March 1954 and ending 56 days later with France's disastrous capitulation and humiliating withdrawal from Southeast Asia, Dien Bien Phu nearly 70 years later offers a cautionary example of history's lessons for the political intelligentsia and senior military officers.
French national political stasis; military hubris; and strategic, operational, and tactical incompetence led to the Vietminh (North Vietnam's communist army)'s defeat of an ostensibly superior Western power. Vietminh forces were able to quickly mobilize and amass a 5-to-1 advantage over the French at the start of the battle. The Vietminh emplaced heavy artillery in the surrounding hills and employed effective anti-aircraft fire, supported by herculean logistics, to destroy an encircled French garrison of 16,000 men huddled at a small and isolated airfield.
"Dien Bien Phu," wrote Lieutenant Colonel Shull, "is in a 75 square mile valley bottom ringed by small mountains of 1,400 to 1,800 feet. Once the Vietminh seized these mountains, emplaced artillery, and blocked the French from moving beyond their fortifications, the French loss became inevitable." The Vietminh disabled the airfield on the second day of the battle and for the next 54 days laid siege to the French garrison, unleashing unrelenting attacks resulting in all but 100 French killed, wounded, or captured. Could a similar fate befall America in Kabul?
Based on various reports, U.S. military personnel number approximately 6,000 at Kabul's international airport. What remains uncertain is the size and cohesion of Taliban forces in Kabul, their access to armaments suited for siege warfare, logistical capabilities for resupply and sustainment, and their ability to neutralize or significantly degrade U.S. and NATO air support and resupply. The Taliban also indisputably control Afghanistan, Kabul, and the extended perimeter of the airfield. This has effectively limited the president's and military's options.
Kabul's airport is ringed by peaks to the north, east, and south that could easily be occupied by Taliban with artillery and heavy mortars. American and allied forces are surrounded on the valley floor and high ground. The Taliban has already used this tactical advantage in their "negotiations" with US envoys. Aside from the one runway at the airfield, which the Taliban could cripple in a matter of minutes, the U.S. and allied forces will have no other means of escape. Even if U.S. and allied forces broke the perimeter, where could they go?
Image via Pixabay.
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