Alan Zendell, August 6, 2021
“Do not let my party pretend to be outraged by this. Both the GOP and Dems failed here. Time for Americans to put their country over their party.” That was Representative Adam Kinzinger (R, IL) on the diplomatic and military disaster of Afghanistan. Kinzinger, an Air force veteran who served in Afghanistan, criticized former President Trump for announcing that all American forces would be withdrawn by May, 2021 and current President Biden for following through with that promise. Kinzinger claimed neither president had a withdrawal plan and predicted it would end in disaster.
If you’re watching TV, it looks like Kinzinger was right, but let’s take a step back. The truth is, our time in Afghanistan couldn’t have ended any other way. The current debacle was inevitable and predictable. The Afghan government only survived for the last twenty years because it was propped up financially and militarily by the United States; it never had a chance. Whether the Taliban defeated it in sixty days, as intelligence reports predicted, or in three, as it turned out, it was going to happen. The fact that the government collapsed so suddenly, ceding the country to the Taliban, simply reflects how wrong-headed our mission there was.
Amid this high emotion, let’s examine some facts. We spent more than a trillion dollars in Afghanistan, trained an army of 300,000, and helped them build an air force. Our sacrifices included more than 2,000 dead and 20,000 injured, not to mention the wasted resources that could have funded our badly needed infrastructure program. What we got in return was the pyrrhic victory of the assassination of Osama bin Laden and a stain on our diplomatic and Intelligence record that we will regret for decades.
Afghanistan is a complete failure of Intelligence, diplomacy, and strategy, and more than a little corruption. The ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoldering when we invaded. Americans were reeling from the nine-eleven attack, angry and scared. Our leaders, the media, and a majority of us demanded revenge, and the Bush administration succumbed to that bloodlust and invaded the wrong countries.
The decision to begin our twenty-year war in Afghanistan and Iraq was a continuation of the policy begun during the Reagan administration to support Sunni Arabs over Shias, who overthrew the Shah and control Iran. Many of our leaders, including the Bushes, have had close ties with Sunni Saudi Arabia, which has long vied with Iran for control of the Arab world. Despite the facts that most of the nine-eleven terrorists were Saudis and bin Laden, himself a Saudi, was funded by Saudi money, our government convinced itself that fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan would avenge nine-eleven.
If you’re feeling déjà vu, you’re remembering our humiliating defeat in Vietnam. The chaos at the airport in Kabul, thousands of Americans and Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban, is frighteningly similar to our ignominious withdrawal from Saigon. In 1974, Americans and their South Vietnamese allies had to be evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the American embassy as the corrupt South Vietnamese government fled the country and the Viet Cong swarmed into the capital.
Despite our shame, we managed to reprise that disaster in Kabul, forty-seven years later. Not only were we fighting the wrong country, we had seen the Soviet Union bankrupt and destroy itself trying to occupy it in the 1980s. Afghanistan was Russia’s Vietnam; nine years of guerilla warfare and insurgency by Islamic clerics brought Russian forces to their knees. Russia, with shorter supply lines and a need to create a buffer between itself and Iran, demonstrated that occupying and reshaping Afghanistan was virtually impossible. Yet, we repeated their error.
The worst thing about the similarity between America’s failure in Vietnam and Afghanistan is that we chose the wrong side both times, propping up corrupt governments against determined insurgency. We fought in Vietnam because of the Domino Theory put forth by President Eisenhower in reaction to our paranoia over the spread of Communism. That fear blinded us to the reality that Ho Chi Minh was not a puppet of the either the Russian or Chinese Communists, but a populist leader who was trying to rid his country of European colonialism. The success of Vietnam today makes it clear that we were on the wrong side.
The same argument can be made in Afghanistan. Experts express shock that the Afghan army refused to fight the Taliban, but it was never committed to the Western style government we installed in Kabul. They signed up because we paid and armed them, not from any sense of loyalty. If they were truly opposed to the Taliban, they would have defended their country, but it’s likely that the Taliban represents the will of the majority of Afghans.
As President Biden correctly said, yesterday, we do not have the right to continue to try to influence how Afghans are governed, and there is no rational reason to continue to waste lives and resources there. It’s a horrible mess that seventy years of misdirected diplomacy made unavoidable.