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Leaving Afghanistan: Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq

Spoiler alert: This never ends well.
April 16, 2021
Leaving Afghanistan: Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq
A CIA employee (probably O.B. Harnage) helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half mile from the U.S. embassy in Saigon, on April 29, 1975. (Bettmann / Getty)

This week, President Joe Biden announced a final date for the departure of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan: September 11, 2021. The news calls to mind Talleyrand’s supposed quip about how the Bourbons “had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Or Karl Marx’s opening line in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852):

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

But if Hegel forgot to mention tragedy and farce, Marx forgot to consider what happens when world-historic facts and personages appear for a third, fourth, or fifth time. I suggest we cite all such visitations beyond two as exemplars of déjà-voodoo, defined conservatively as misbegotten but maddeningly repetitive magical thinking applied to geopolitics.

In the case of President Biden’s Afghanistan plan, it’s the déjà-voodoo of thinking that it’s a good idea to announce publicly a withdrawal date for an expeditionary U.S. military presence when the adversary is still alive, well enough, and plotting to succeed. Spoiler alert: This never ends well. It calls to mind yet another famous quotation, an old saw often misattributed to Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Vietnam and Nixon: Tragedy

President Richard Nixon wanted out of Vietnam. Under his “Vietnamization” policy, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam was supposed to be trained up well enough to assume the effective defense of its own country. These preparations were accompanied by a series of well-staged announcements of U.S. troop withdrawals—timed as de facto campaign events leading toward the November 1972 election, but they could only work politically if the North Vietnamese exercised some patience and cooperated to help Nixon out, after which he would help them out. Donald Trump never understood the art of the deal half as well as Nixon.

The North Vietnamese didn’t cooperate: Talks collapsed in October 1972, just a few weeks before the U.S. election. Hanoi figured that the Americans were leaving no matter what they did, so that if the North Vietnamese were really patient they would likely get what they were after without having to besmirch themselves by signing a deal with the hated enemy.

That made the South Vietnamese leadership very nervous about being abandoned, and—like so many other things—made Nixon furious. To punish the North and reassure the South, Nixon unleashed the Christmas bombings of North Vietnam in December 1972, which in turn led in January 1973 to the signing of a deal—the Paris Accords—which hardly differed from the October draft. As one aide to Henry Kissinger reportedly said at the time, “We bombed them into accepting our concessions.” (Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho would be awarded that year’s Nobel Peace Prize for “jointly having negotiated a ceasefire in Vietnam”—a bit of feckless political theater that alone should have warned everyone against impending disaster.)

The ultimate political point of the 1973 deal was to get what could plausibly be called “peace with honor,” as Nixon had promised during the 1968 campaign. The ultimate strategic point of U.S. coercive diplomacy was to unbind U.S. diplomacy from the Vietnamese albatross, so as to set up normalization with China for use as leverage against the Soviet Union.

This scheme was at the time and has ever since been considered by most observers a masterstroke of realpolitik. But consider: What significant decisions in America’s favor did Soviet leaders make on account of the Sino-American relationship? What did Moscow do, or decline to do, because Sino-American relations were frigid as opposed to nonexistent? Supporting and encouraging the Arab states to launch the Yom Kippur War in October 1973?

Before Trump, Nixon was probably the most politically obsessive foreign policy manager in U.S. history, even after winning re-election in 1972. So it was natural that on January 27, 1973—the same day the peace accords were signed in Paris—the Selective Service System announced the end of the draft, taking the wind out of the sails of what remained of the antiwar movement. This was brilliant political theater and partisan genius.

The result in the field? The government in Hanoi never considered respecting the January 1973 agreement if an opportunity arose to violate it successfully. No doubt Nixon and Kissinger knew this, which is why they insisted that the terms not obligate a total U.S. troop withdrawal from South Vietnam. On the basis of a tripwire troop presence in-country, and adjacent U.S. airpower, the administration felt sufficiently assured to promise the South Vietnamese leadership that they would not be abandoned if the North broke its promises.

In truth, the whole thing amounted to a hope for what the CIA’s chief strategy analyst in Vietnam Frank Snepp famously called at the time a “decent interval.” Yes, very likely South Vietnam would fall, but not so soon, the administration hoped, that its tragedy would hang around the American neck. Others could be plausibly blamed for eventual mayhem and defeat. The reputational damage in a seamless, globe-spanning Cold War could be minimized.

Meanwhile, Nixon’s flawed character supercharged his political obsessiveness, and Watergate drained his political capital, enabling Congress to cut off funds to South Vietnam—which amounted to yet another public announcement defining a time limit for U.S. military activity, and persuaded Hanoi to make ready for victory. After Nixon resigned in August 1974 and Gerald Ford became president, the North Vietnamese gassed up their tanks to roll south.

Some of Ford’s aides pleaded with him in the Oval Office in March 1975 to act to repel the North Vietnamese invasion. Ford’s response (I have this from someone who was present, not from any archive, where, as it happens, the remark does not appear) was: “If I do that those guys over there will impeach me.” So Ford did nothing, Saigon fell, and the scene of U.S. helicopters snatching desperate South Vietnamese from rooftops to bring them to safety was indelibly incised in the annals of late-twentieth-century great power diplomacy as a symbol of ignominy.

Nixon at least left a tripwire force in South Vietnam. Biden proposes to leave only enough Marines to guard the embassy. Yet what the North Vietnamese knew—and what the Taliban has known for years—is that without political will, military capability is meaningless. Telling your adversary when you are going to weaken yourself to the point where you cannot protect your local client is an invitation to a knife-sharpening party.

Iraq and Obama: Farce

In October 2011, in a speech that may fairly be said to have kicked off President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, he announced publicly the date for the withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel from Iraq. That it was a political speech was given away by its first sentence: “As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end.” A moment or two later, in case anyone missed the message, came this heart-tugger: “Here at home, the coming months will be another season of homecomings. Across America, our servicemen and women will be reunited with their families. Today, I can say that our troops in Iraq will definitely be home for the holidays.”

The speech also promised a rapid drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and, for its ultimate post hoc groaner, included this gem:

Meanwhile, yesterday marked the definitive end of the Qaddafi regime in Libya. And there, too, our military played a critical role in shaping a situation on the ground in which the Libyan people can build their own future. Today, NATO is working to bring this successful mission to a close.

If Libya was a successful mission, one can only imagine what Obama though a failure might look like. Before long he found out . . . by looking again at Libya.

At the time, Obama was roundly criticized for self-sabotaging his negotiating strategy for getting out of Iraq on safe and prudent terms. By now the verdict is fairly unanimous that Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq, partly catalyzed by the failure to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with the Maliki government, was premature. With the American hand no longer smothering what it could of internecine fighting lifted, the country’s violent fragmentation intensified and brought new opportunities for Iranian penetration of the weak Shia government in Baghdad. The further enflaming of sectarian rivalry, coincident with the burgeoning of civil war in Syria, ultimately gave rise to ISIS.

In June 2014, and on a few occasions thereafter, the Obama administration was obliged to send U.S. troops back to Iraq to stave off disaster, and however the mission was described, it wasn’t really just a beefed-up cadre of trainers that headed off to the war zone. The administration also decided to attack ISIS in Syria from the air, and later to augment U.S. power in Syria with a modest but effective ground deployment.

None of that would have been necessary had the United States stuck it out in Iraq a bit longer, but the thick tactical haze of the moment and the political incentives all pointed the other way. This stuff is not easy; in this case it wasn’t the motive but the method that was at fault. Telegraphing your exit date while still in a shoving match with both your enemy and your putative local ally is not the preferable method for maintaining stability without a large military footprint.

Afghanistan and Biden: A Hasty Announcement

Joe Biden became a senator the same month the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1973. He has to remember that October 2011 speech by Obama, and what happened thereafter. He has to know a fair bit about Afghanistan, since he had far more than a typical vice president’s responsibility for that portfolio. He knows the vicissitudes of the recent trilateral negotiations among the United States, the Taliban, and the Afghan government. He has access to intelligence about Taliban thinking and negotiating strategy. And unlike his predecessor he knows how to read at a level above the back of a cereal box.

So what could explain what appears to be yet another extrusion of foolishness in announcing a military withdrawal date? President Biden couldn’t possibly think that the Taliban leadership will respond to his gesture with magnanimity, a deep desire for compromise, or a luncheon invitation, could he? But if this is not a case of serial amnesia or simple déjà-voodoo, then what does he think?

The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban on February 29, 2020 in Doha to withdraw U.S. troops by May 2021. The Taliban has already reacted to the Biden announcement, which in effect repudiates the deal and unilateralizes the U.S. withdrawal, by refusing to continue negotiations until the last coalition soldier leaves. Since March 2020, the Taliban has limited its attacks to Afghan targets; no U.S. combat deaths occurred in that period. That is unlikely to remain the case between now and September 11.

On Tuesday, in the White House’s pre-announcement of its withdrawal schedule, a “senior administration official” claimed that the decision was made after a “rigorous policy review.” But as Shay Khatiri notes,

The administration has been in office for less than three months. It has rightly devoted most of its attention to the pandemic. It is, thanks to the chaotic transition, understaffed. There are no under secretaries or assistant secretaries at the State Department. The deputy secretary assumed office on the day of the announcement. There are no under secretaries or assistant secretaries at the Department of Defense (with the exceptions of a few holdovers from the previous administration). There has been no Afghanistan strategy review. . . . The Afghanistan War is a NATO-led mission, not a U.S.-led mission, and indications from the “senior official” and other reports indicate that NATO partners and other allied members of the coalition in Afghanistan were informed of the decision, but not consulted.

Note too that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s trip to NATO is occurring after the decision and the announcement, not before. That is an unusual way to sequence a consultation.

Nothing has been said about any consultations with India, past or prospective, which has important equities in Afghanistan and is supposed to be a budding U.S. partner in the Quad. Nothing has been said about any communications, friendly or otherwise, with the Pakistani government, or the Uzbekistani or Tajikistani governments. It could have been a stroke of genius, under the budding circumstances of an effort to renew the nuclear deal, to consult the Iranian government, which shares a long border with Afghanistan and bears no love for the Taliban. No mention or hint of any such initiative. In short, diplomatic preparations for this major announcement seem, well, a little scant, particularly for an administration that has made much rhetorically about leading with diplomacy.

Finally, the unnamed senior official noted that the administration plans to leave “sufficient” forces in the region to conduct counterterrorism missions and check the Taliban, but noted that those decisions have not been finalized. The official said the Pentagon would announce those moves, but not within the next few days. In other words, a rigorous review has supposedly been conducted—but the decision to withdraw all forces by a date certain was not accompanied by a Plan B, which presumably would have both military and diplomatic components, to be implemented when, not if, the Taliban pushes to end the war with a military victory. So what did the exhaustive review consist of?

Politics and Context

The announcement seems to have been politically popular. Almost everyone is fed up with so-called “forever wars,” a misleading phrase regrettably ensconced with presidential imprimatur in the March 3 Interim National Security Strategy Guidance. Aside from a little grousing and some warnings from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Jim Inhofe, everyone seems to be fairly equanimous about the decision, even Ted Cruz—not as clear a sign of impending disaster as a Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps, but close.

In his long political career, Biden has always leaned toward what seemed political popular in the moment, whether it made sound strategic sense or not. But he has a stronger case than Nixon or Obama for doubling down on the political dimension of foreign policy decision-making.

In every way imaginable, Biden sees domestic political equities as being at the very core of U.S. foreign and national security policy. And he is right to do so, because if the Republican party in its current state of manic xenophobia and anti-democratic, conspiracy-addled siege mentality should reclaim control of the Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024, the very basis of U.S. foreign policy—its liberal positive-sum principles, its alliances and the array of multilateral institutions based thereon, and indeed the substrate of domestic political support for an active, constructive U.S. global role—would not survive another four years of middle-finger frontal assault.

Biden also knows that four years is not a long time, and there is so much to do. He seems intuitively to grasp the advice of the British diplomat Robert S. Vansittart, that “it is usually sound to do at once what you have to do ultimately.” If indeed this is Biden’s thinking, then it’s not déjà-voodoo, but illusion-free bullet biting without the foolish hope of a “decent interval.”

It is too much to ask the Biden administration, given the straits it is in and its need to succeed politically, to figure out how to overcome all the mistakes that have been made over the past near twenty years, on a timetable and at a cost that could be remotely helpful to its political success. Perhaps the optics of the decisions could have been better handled, but the decision itself is both sober and brave.

Yet let’s not pretend that we don’t know what will come next in Afghanistan. It will be ugly, bloody, and sad.

Beware Déjà-Voodoo

There is an overarching lesson to be learned from the three cases. In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the U.S. military found itself in a position where it could avoid losing a stake, but without a credible plan for winning it. In such a situation, context decides whether settling for what amounts to a protracted holding action is strategically wise for a great power. The tight-knit context of the Cold War differs from the much more diffuse threat environment of the post-Cold war era. Geography also influences context: What critical assets and allies are within the blast zone of a potential defeat?

Finally but most important, U.S. expeditionary forces operating in any non-Western cultural zone are very unlikely to win a war at reasonable cost and timetable, employing levels of violence acceptable to the American people, unless the U.S. effort includes a serious effort to understand the country, and unless it has a local ally that is competent and legitimate in the eyes of the population it would rule. In none of these cases did those conditions apply—so be wary of any future attempts to commit the U.S. military to a “nation-building” mission (even if policymakers demur to that phrase), as a case of déjà-voodoo.

Adam Garfinkle

Adam Garfinkle is the founding editor of The American Interest and a member of the editorial board of American Purpose.