I’ve been trying to make sense of it because I’ve been here before. On the left, Saigon, April 29, 1975. On the right Kabul, August 16, 2021. In 1975 I was at my first post school job in the CBS newsroom in Chicago. The helicopters were evacuating Americans and Vietnamese who had worked with Americans as they fought the communists. In 2021, I’m at the other end of my career. The helicopters are taking out Americans and Afghans who worked with Americans as they fought the Taliban. Forty-six years between these similar scenes. It is eerie.
Yes of course there are many differences between the two events. But from my perspective, there are far too many similarities. We do not seem to learn from history. We just repeat it.
There is a feeling that to criticize America’s military misadventures is un-patriotic and an affront to the brave men and women who gave their lives during the campaign. It is considered to be sacrilegious to suggest that they gave their lives in vain. Sorry. I came of age during the Vietnam war. Had I been a few years older I might have been drafted to serve. I might have died along with the 58,281 Americans killed in action or captivity. It would have been in vain.
The Vietnam Follies
It took the release of the “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force”, popularly known as the “Pentagon Papers,” to explain that the American people were led into the war by political leaders who “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress.” At the height of the Cold War Americans were told the war was necessary to stop communist aggression. We were told if Vietnam fell to communist rule, other nations would follow. It was called the domino effect. We were told of an attack on American warships by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin as a reason for Congress to authorize an expansion of the American military mission in Vietnam.
We were not told that reports of the attack were exaggerated if not outright fabricated. We were not told Vietnam, a French colony in the years before World War II and invaded by Japan during that war had asked the Untied States, after the allied victory, to help them regain their status as an independent nation. We were not told the American government of Harry Truman had refused to help Vietnam and instead supported its return to French rule. Only in fighting to repel the French did the Vietnamese turn to the communists for support.
The Vietnamese wanted to be left alone to govern themselves. It was never clear to me what we wanted.
Afghanistan – The More Things Change….
In some ways Afghanistan was different. We got in with a singular goal, to get Osama bin Laden. This was the leader of al Qaeda, the terrorist organization we blamed for the 9/11/2001 attack that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. Following the attack, President George W. Bush accused Afghanistan of sheltering bin Laden and demanded the Taliban, the religious and political movement which controlled the country, surrender him to American justice. They refused, and with the support of a majority of the world’s nations, America invaded.
But then what? According to a Senate Report, by early December 2001 bin Laden had been driven “into a complex of caves and tunnels carved into a mountainous section of eastern Afghanistan known as Tora Bora.” There, the report concludes, it is “clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp.” The supposedly most powerful, certainly the most expensive, military force in the world could not capture the terrorist even as it toppled the government and occupied the country.
The original mission, get bin Laden, was lost in the morass of trying to administer a landlocked “nation” constructed by European powers in the 19th century where tribal and ethnic loyalties ruled and there was little sense of “nationhood.” Both Britain and the USSR had tried to tame Afghanistan. Both failed. On top of that, the terrorist killing turned nation building mission soon gave way to an invasion of Iraq, a quixotic task the Bush Administration insisted was justified to rid dictator Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction.
Another Senate report found “Most of the major key judgments in the Intelligence Community’s October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction, either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting. A series of failures, particularly in analytic tradecraft, led to the mischaracterization of the intelligence.” Those weapons appear to have existed only in the minds of Bush and his security team, most prominently Vice President Dick Chaney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. It is a case of the Pentagon Papers all over again.
At the end of the day Afghanistan is back in the hands of the Taliban, just as all of Vietnam is united under the government in Hanoi. Iraq remains in a state of insurgency with Turkey and Russia continuing to have influence which the American presence had ended, in some cases with Russian soldiers occupying facilities abandoned by American forces. It is hard to see what has been won for this twenty year adventure, save the killing of bin Laden himself.
The Republicans and their media supporters have been trying to pin the “loss” of Afghanistan on President Biden and are having mixed results. The biggest problem for Donald Trump loyalists like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has been, as it often is, Donald Trump. Trump has been bragging that he set a trap for Biden as he left office, not only agreeing with the Taliban to abandon Afghanistan but setting a time table such that Biden would have endangered the security of the few remaining American soldiers had he decided to delay the total withdrawal Trump had agreed to.
At the end of the day Biden, who had promised the American voters he would end our never-ending wars, was good to his word. America’s adventure in Afghanistan and Iraq is over. American voters will have a chance to decide if they like Biden’s decision in 2024. The great American military-industrial complex is already at work, trying to convince Congress the end of war in Afghanistan is a good time to spend still more money on more weapons. When will we ever learn?