Butterfly Effect: Why Kabul Is Not Saigon
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The odds were stacked in America's favor far more than in Vietnam. That makes the Afghan debacle worse.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
It’s the parallel no one in the Biden administration wants to acknowledge, yet it’s one that repeatedly makes its way to headlines, commentary and criticism of the U.S. government’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As dramatic images of a helicopter taking off from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Kabul flashed on television screens across the world on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken went on TV shows, insisting that “this is manifestly not Saigon.”
In July, barely a month before the Taliban grabbed control of Kabul, Biden had been even more explicit in dismissing comparisons between his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and America’s rushed final exit from Vietnam in 1975. “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy … of the United States from Afghanistan,” he said in response to a question at a press briefing. “It is not at all comparable.”
Biden now has egg on his face, and his comment will provide fodder for attack ads from opponents for years. But look beyond the political theatrics, and Biden and Blinken are right. There’s much less in common between Afghanistan and Vietnam than you might imagine. The problem for Team Biden? The Afghanistan debacle is in many ways more embarrassing for the U.S. than its loss to North Vietnam and the Vietcong 46 years ago.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies were up against a formal state — North Vietnam — and militant rebels of the Vietcong, which included both career soldiers and guerrilla warriors. The Vietcong wouldn’t target you based on your ethnicity, and women were central to its military strategy. Compare that to the predominantly Pashtun Taliban, which hasn’t had a recognized state throughout the war with the U.S., which is murderous toward minority ethnicities, and which treats women as lesser humans — effectively limiting its support base, unlike the Vietcong.
As Biden himself said in that July briefing, the Taliban and the North Vietnamese army are “not remotely comparable in terms of capability.”
America’s South Vietnamese friends were democratic only in name, and the government in Saigon was notoriously corrupt — just like Western-backed Afghan governments over the past two decades. But the South Vietnamese regime was also brutal in ways that Afghan governments since 2001 can’t be accused of, with torture rampant in Saigon’s jails. By the early 1970s, there were few redeeming qualities to the South Vietnamese government for people to support it over the Vietcong.
Then there’s the global context. North Vietnam and the Vietcong were supported by the Soviet Union and China, though at different points in the war, and the Sino-Soviet split complicated that equation. By contrast, the only nation that has steadfastly supported and armed the Taliban is Pakistan, until recently a close American ally.
And critically, the Vietnam War was massively unpopular internationally, with public sentiment across much of the world in favor of the Vietnamese resistance. Globally, the war became a symbol of American imperial intentions. Within America, protests against the war weren’t only about body bags; they were equally about the U.S. decision to fight against a people that hadn’t attacked American soil. After all, the Vietcong hadn’t killed 3,000 Americans in U.S. cities.
The war in Afghanistan — unlike in Vietnam — had the United Nations’ stamp of approval.
It was fought in the aftermath of 9/11 and had broad global buy-in. Like every war, it had its critics, but no one was protesting on U.S. college campuses in defense of the Taliban.
Still, just five days after U.S. officials were insisting the Taliban would need a minimum of 90 days to win Afghanistan, the hard-line Islamist group’s fighters rode into Kabul unopposed after all other major cities fell to them like dominoes. America was reduced to seeking guarantees from the Taliban that they wouldn’t attack the U.S. embassy.
To be sure, some of the lessons from Vietnam will be applicable here too. Like the North Vietnamese resistance, forged through decades of war against multiple colonial and invading powers, the Taliban’s fighters have been steeled in battle over more than three decades. Defeating such an entrenched force is never easy.
But it’s time to shred the lazy parallels with Vietnam and see Afghanistan for what it is: a one-of-its-kind debacle for which America and the world deserve answers. What was the U.S. doing spending trillions of dollars over two decades, sacrificing thousands of its citizens, if what it built collapsed like a pack of cards within days?
Sadly, in these politically divisive times, it’s far more tempting to engage in finger-pointing to score political points than to carry out a thorough review spanning four administrations to truly understand where America went wrong. Did former President Donald Trump hand the Taliban the advantage by signing a fairly unconditional peace deal with them in February 2020? Yes. Has the Biden administration mishandled the crisis so far? Undoubtedly. But the seeds of this disaster were likely sowed well before Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015. Unless America learns the right lessons from the fall of Kabul, it risks making the same mistakes again. The U.S. can’t afford another war that bleeds it for 20 years. And the world can’t afford to lose two decades to a conflict, only to press restart yet again.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi