Senior American officials were adamant: Kabul 2021 would bear no resemblance to Saigon 1975. The chaos of the final episode in America’s Indochinese misadventure would not be revisited.
Like so many other predictions about Afghanistan, it turned out to be fatally flawed. Over the weekend, the visual image of helicopters frenziedly ferrying people out of the United States embassy compound in the capital city’s green zone inevitably evoked a sense of Saigon redux. Ultimately, though, the scenes at Kabul airport might indeed have persuaded some observers to acknowledge this was different. Because it was worse.
More broadly, though, there are plenty of parallels, from propping up hopelessly corrupt and incompetent puppet governments to pretending that the associated military forces – funded, trained and equipped with the latest weaponry by the US – would somehow suffice to fend off “the enemy”.
Thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers switched from military uniforms to civilian garb once it became obvious the end was nigh. A similar phenomenon has been witnessed in Afghanistan. And in both cases, a certain proportion of military personnel moonlighted as foot soldiers for their purported foes.
Furthermore, in both cases, plenty of people within the Washington bureaucracy and the US military-industry complex were perfectly aware that their nation was engaged in a hopeless pursuit. The Pentagon Papers revealed 50 years ago the extent to which the establishment concealed the truth. An all-too-similar tale unfolds in The Afghanistan Papers due to be published as a book.
Then there is the rhetorical gloss intended to disguise defeat as little more than a minor setback, at worst. “We, of course, are saddened indeed by the events … But these events, tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership in the world”. It is not hard to imagine Joe Biden uttering these words this week, but they are from a 1975 presidential speech by Gerald Ford.
When Biden addressed the debacle he is presiding over from the White House pulpit on Monday, he claimed that the clear goal of the 2001 invasion and occupation was to make sure Afghan soil could not be used as an anti-US terrorist base, and, “We did that. We severely degraded Al Qaeda and Afghanistan.” The degradation of Afghanistan: that’s either a startling acknowledgement or a Freudian slip. It rings true though.
Beyond that, Biden had little choice but to stick to his mantra: that America had to pull out at some point, and prolonging its presence would have made little or no difference. It is hard to disagree with him in that particular respect, although it is obvious that better planning might have enabled a less chaotic coda.
Admittedly, the speed of their reconquest took even the Taliban by surprise. Yet one can only marvel at the inaccuracies of American forecasts. The pilgrims’ progress was supposed to take several months. Then, just days before the Taliban were posing for photographers in the presidential palace, it was recalculated that they were first 90 and then perhaps 30 days away from retaking Kabul.
Whether what lies ahead will be any different to the Taliban misrule after the Pakistan-sponsored militia cut a swath through Afghanistan in the mid-1990s remains to be seen. International legitimacy eluded the rebranded Islamic emirate back then, as did parts of northern Afghanistan. This time they made sure to establish their ascendancy in the north before surrounding Kabul, and their overtures to Moscow and Beijing have been reciprocated.
Reminiscent of past
It does not necessarily follow from their largely bloodless sweep, with the conquest of provincial capitals entailing negotiations rather than combat, that the regime in Kabul – whether exclusively Taliban, or cosmetically more inclusive – will be any less brutal than previously. But it is worth remembering that Afghanistan has known nothing but war for more than 40 years now, and the brutality of the Soviet and Western interventions can hardly be overlooked.
The foreign military invasions both failed in their somewhat similar intention of establishing functional secular states in a nation where the relatively enlightened preoccupations of the urban elites differ markedly from the concerns of the impoverished rural masses.
That historical divide has become harder to manage since the modus vivendi that allowed their existence was challenged in the 1980s. The concerns of, and about, relatively liberated Afghan women and girls – generally ignored by the West when it was backing the mujahideen – are legitimate. The currently conciliatory tone of the Taliban does not offer convincing evidence that their dastardly misogyny has been ameliorated.
Nowhere in Biden’s rambling justifications, meanwhile, is there any hint of a recognition that the invasion of 2001 was sheer imperialist folly, and that the guided missiles of Western hubris merely perpetrated unnecessary deaths and unleashed unrealistic hopes.
This article first appeared in Dawn.