Forty-five years after the fall of Saigon all the prerequisites for a similar scenario are unfolding in Afghanistan. And if the past holds any lessons for the future, Washington could not hope for a more auspicious outcome.
For the United States, both Vietnam and Afghanistan were the offshoots of much wider conflicts. Vietnam was an offshoot of the Cold War, with Washington believing that if the spread of Communism in Vietnam was not checked it would spread to other countries in the region and ultimately impact the global balance of power. That Communism in Vietnam was the offshoot of a local, postcolonial situation, and the possibility that geo-policy in the region would ultimately trump ideology was never even considered. Thus a combination of fear, arrogance and ignorance steered the United States into going to war in Vietnam.
Afghanistan was the offshoot of the “global war on terror,” and by invading the country Washington sought both to destroy al-Qaeda as an organization and the Taliban regime, which had provided its base in Afghanistan.
Invading Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban regime proved to be the easy part of the endeavor. What to do next with Afghanistan proved the challenge.
An American general once commented that the United States is good at blowing things up but not much else. In Europe, after the end of the Second World War, the United States was fortunate enough to deal with developed industrialized societies where reconstruction was just a matter of availability of resources. The provision of these resources through the Marshall Plan was all that Western Europe needed to get back on its feet.
Physical resources as such were not the issue either in Vietnam or Afghanistan. Granted there was a need for resources, but as the existing social structures were not geared to absorb and process them, foreign aid only served to destabilize a society already under stress. Conversely what was at issue was the creation, by the United States, of a self-supporting local authority that could keep at bay, in the case of Afghanistan the Taliban, and in the case of Vietnam, the Communists. In both cases the end result was an abysmal failure.
The negotiations that were to lead to the signing of a peace agreement in Vietnam and in Afghanistan went through substantively similar processes. In both cases one of the main obstacles to the negotiation came not so much from Washington’s opposite number, be it the Vietnamese Communists or the Taliban, but by the client government that the United States had put in place.
Neither the government in Saigon nor the one in Kabul had any interest in seeing the confrontation shift from the military to the political arena. Likewise, both being dependent for their survival on an American military presence, any agreement that would reduce that presence would not play out in their favor.
Why in Vietnam the Communists and in Afghanistan the Taliban did not need the open intervention of a foreign party in order for them to hold their own is of course the next question that comes to mind, and the answer begs no dispute; because neither of the two parties had the necessary grounding within the country to stay in power without a massive outside prop.
The Vietnam peace agreement delayed the inevitable by two years. When Saigon fell, on April 30, 1975, US forces departed Vietnam, and whatever was left of an American presence was booted out of the country that day, lock, stock and barrel. For the United States it could not have been a better outcome. The slate had been wiped clean.
After the signing on February 29, 2020, of a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban, a somewhat similar development is now within the realm of the possible, namely the collapse of the Kabul government and a return to power of the Taliban.
In Vietnam, after their victory, it took 20 years for the Communists to come to their senses and for geopolitics to trump ideology. It might well take 10 times that long in Afghanistan for a similar process to develop, but it is also irrelevant. By then Afghanistan and its Taliban will have become a problem for Iran, China, Pakistan and India but not for the United States. And except for a few bruised egos in Washington, the world will not be a better, or a worse, place for it.