The American war in Afghanistan was not meant to be another Vietnam. “I don’t make quagmires,” said Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of the initial American invasion, who died last week. In the end, the former US Secretary of Defense made two quagmires, casually assuming that Afghanistan was “won” in the spring of 2003 when he sent US troops to fight in Iraq.
US combat troops had been in Vietnam for eight years, but have been in Afghanistan for 20 years. It is by far the longest war in the United States.
Joe Biden has insisted the pullout isn’t quite over, but the few hundred US troops remaining in Afghanistan are there to stand guard. The abandonment of Bagram Air Base on Friday marked the real end of the US military presence in the country.
Built by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, Bagram was the hub of American operations for two decades as well as a notorious prison camp. US planes will continue to fly over Afghanistan but will be launched “beyond the horizon” from warships and bases in other countries.
As in Vietnam, the United States leaves after a peace deal with an enemy it tried to destroy and failed. As in Vietnam, the emboldened enemy is not expected to keep the peace. Saigon held out against the North Vietnamese army for two years after the US withdrawal. Some US intelligence estimates don’t even give Kabul six months.
The embassy in the Afghan capital has its own “emergency action plan” for worst-case scenarios, disclosed by Politics Friday, inevitably reminiscent of the humiliating scramble from the roof of the Saigon mission in April 1975. Yesterday as today, those who worked with the Americans, such as the military interpreters, pleaded to be evacuated to their side.
According to the United Nations, at least 50 of the approximately 400 Afghan districts have fallen to the Taliban since May. With the United States gone, Afghan civilians attempt to organize self-defense militias to defend their villages from the forces waiting in the countryside around them.
Vietnam’s military lesson was that the United States could not conduct a counterinsurgency thousands of miles from home against an enemy ideologically rooted in a community that ultimately viewed American troops as occupiers. It was a lesson learned – then forgotten in the fervor that followed the September 11 attacks.
Rumsfeld believed he could dodge the shadow of Vietnam by using a small number of US special forces in partnership with local warlords, but that is after all how US involvement in Vietnam began in 1964, with small groups of “A-Team” advisers forming regular and paramilitary groups. in the south.
By the end of Afghanistan, young Americans were deployed who were not even born when the war began, in some cases serving alongside their parents who served there several times.
Both wars functioned as a mutilation, attracting more and more troops, money and equipment to justify and protect what had already been spent or lost. After the Americans and Afghans died to oust the Taliban, open schools for girls, and bolster the military, the withdrawal appeared to be a betrayal.
This state of mind kept the “Eternal War” alive, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. Those who collect weapons to defend their villages and many Afghan women and civil society activists now feel betrayed by the Americans who leave.
Whatever happens, more death and suffering is inevitable. Joe Biden and the United States will not be able to escape some responsibility, even if they are no longer there.