By David Kaiser
February 6, 2019

In 1954, when France gave up Indochina, the United States decided to sponsor a friendly client state in South Vietnam, led by Ngo Dinh Diem. American troops would not leave South Vietnam until 19 years later — two years after which point the country fell to the North. Now a similar denouement may be nearing for the American involvement in Afghanistan, which began nearly 18 years ago.

Ngo Dinh Diem seemed to establish fairly firm control over Vietnam during his first few years, but a renewed Communist guerilla offensive beginning in 1959 put him under great pressure and exposed his lack of support even among non-Communists. A coup overthrew him in 1963 and by 1965 South Vietnam was about to fall to the Communists. Rather than negotiate a settlement, President Johnson sent combat troops in, and by 1969, they numbered more than half a million men.

Richard Nixon — and, with him, Henry Kissinger — came into office in that year committed to the objective of maintaining a non-Communist South Vietnam. But they also found, after another year of heavy fighting, that the public demanded a reduction in the scale of U.S. involvement. As American troop levels declined in the next few years, the South Vietnamese government — now under Nguyen van Thieu — seemed to be doing much better. But in early 1972, when nearly all the U.S. combat troops were gone, the North Vietnamese launched a huge offensive and occupied significant portions of the country before U.S. air power managed to halt the offensive.

During that year, Nixon and Kissinger decided to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam for broader domestic and international reasons. To do so, Kissinger substantially scaled back U.S. objectives in the war.

Since 1969, he had been holding private talks in Paris with North Vietnamese representatives, without any South Vietnamese participation. In the fall of 1972, as the North Vietnamese offensive halted, both sides made significant concessions. The North no longer insisted on the immediate replacement of President Thieu. In return, Kissinger dropped any attempt to force the North Vietnamese to withdraw their approximately 150,000 troops from the South. In addition, he agreed to language that simply described both the Saigon government and the National Liberation Front — the political arm of the Communist Viet Cong within South Vietnam — as “the two South Vietnamese Parties,” and committed them both to negotiate for a new government after a cease-fire. Only then, after the concessions had been made, did the Saigon government find out what he had done.

Thieu initially refused to accept any such agreement, forcing Kissinger to re-open his talks. When the North Vietnamese escalated their demands in return, Kissinger broke off the talks and the U.S. sent B-52s over Hanoi during Christmas week, losing 15 of them to Soviet SAM missiles. Then both sides signed almost exactly the same agreement that they had reached in October, and the last U.S. forces left Vietnam.

The real problems in Vietnam remained. The South Vietnamese had never formed a government that could compete effectively with the Viet Cong in the countryside, and neither they nor the U.S. could keep North Vietnamese troops out of the South. Two years later, in 1975, the North Vietnamese began another offensive, and the South Vietnamese government and army collapsed completely, 21 years after the U.S. had taken responsibility for South Vietnam’s future.

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The Vietnam experience cured a generation of American military officers, led by Colin Powell, of the desire to try that kind of nation-building in distant lands again for nearly 30 years — but that changed when Al Queda operatives trained in Afghanistan carried out the 9/11 attack.

In the wake of 9/11, the Bush Administration decided not only to go after Osama bin Laden and al-Queda, but also to overthrow the Taliban government that had shielded them and to replace it with a friendly state. In the early 2000s, that effort seemed to be succeeding, but by late in the decade the Taliban was resurgent in much of the Afghan countryside. The new Afghan government, like the South Vietnamese government that the U.S. had supported decades earlier, was riddled with corruption, and seemed more focused on dividing up American aid than defeating its enemy. Nonetheless, three successive administrations — those of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — continued to deploy American forces to try to win a victory, or at least avoid a defeat.

Realistically, the chance of securing control of Afghanistan was never very great. Its population was nearly four times greater than South Vietnam, yet American and other NATO troops peaked at about 140,000 during the Obama years, compared to about 550,000 in Vietnam. In addition, as the U.S. finally had to realize, the Taliban drew both sanctuary and support from Pakistan. And as had been the case with Vietnam, the American people eventually lost the desire to see the war continue. By the end of the Obama years, the U.S. and NATO were withdrawing forces again. Donald Trump, Bob Woodward has revealed, viewed the whole war very skeptically when he took office two years ago, though his original national security team convinced him to continue it and even raise troop levels slightly again.

By now, however, his original team of traditionalists is gone. Meanwhile, the Taliban has continued to gain ground in much of the country. Last week, the New York Times reported that U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad — the new Henry Kissinger — was close to reaching an agreement with the Taliban, an arrangement praised by Trump in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. In return for a U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban would undertake never to allow anti-American terrorists to operate within territory they controlled. As was the case in 1972, the Americans and their enemies had reached a deal without going through the American-supported government. As Thieu did in 1972, the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, immediately protested. Like Diem and Thieu, he had built up Afghan forces with U.S. help. Though he reports that more than 45,000 of them have been killed since 2014, he has still been losing ground to the Taliban, and like Thieu, he doesn’t seem to have much confidence that he can maintain power without an American presence.

Nixon and Kissinger’s withdrawal in 1973, and President Gerald Ford’s decision to allow South Vietnam to fall in 1975, did not in the long run damage the national security of the United States. In fact, 44 years later, a reunited, Communist-led Vietnam shows remarkable friendship and good will towards the U.S. In the same way, the United States would surely survive the Taliban’s return to power, which might allow that regime to deal with their new rival within the country, ISIS.

American involvement in Afghanistan has now lasted nearly 18 years, compared to 19 in Vietnam as of 1973. Neither involvement, in retrospect, was ever likely to have succeeded, because the political forces the U.S. chose to support were too weak to deal with an armed opposition supported from a neighboring territory.

It clearly remains in the nature of the American empire — like so many of its predecessors — to overextend itself. Already, what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan has once again soured the American military on “nation building” and “counterinsurgency,” making it unlikely that the U.S. will undertake anything similar on a large scale for some time to come. But least as long as the U.S. remains the strongest military power in the world, the temptation to transform the politics of faraway nations will surely continue too.

Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present

David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of nine books, including, most recently, his autobiography, A Life in History. He lives in Watertown, Mass.

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