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From Vietnam to Afghanistan: Another long goodbye?

Closing the book on Afghanistan in 2021 in a manner similar to the Vietnam experience in 1973 threatens to create a collective domestic amnesia over what these 20 years have been about.

Handover ceremony at Camp Anthonic, from the U.S. Army, to Afghan Defense Forces in Helmand province on May 2, 2021.
Handover ceremony at Camp Anthonic, from the U.S. Army, to Afghan Defense Forces in Helmand province on May 2, 2021.
Ministry of Defense Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it ….

                 – President John F. Kennedy, September 1963

By the time direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ended in the spring of 1973 more than 2.7 million American military personnel had served in the conflict and 58,000 had died since the first American military casualty in Vietnam was reported in 1959. As the conflict dragged on, the post-World War II foreign policy consensus that guided United States foreign policy — the notion that foreign policy differences among parties and leaders stopped at the water’s edge — would largely disappear until 9/11. Declare the United States the winner and begin de-escalation, Republican Sen. George Aiken reportedly told President Lyndon Johnson in October 1966 concerning the political implications of a drawdown of American forces in Vietnam.

Whether that statement was good advice or bad 55 years ago, it finds new meaning as President Joe Biden plans the final chapter of direct U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It was time to come home, again. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result,” said the president in his April 14 withdrawal announcement.

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Twenty years have passed since American forces first entered Afghanistan, with special forces riding horseback through the rugged Afghan countryside alongside local tribal allies. Vietnam may have been the helicopter war, an emphasis on rapid insertion and evacuation. Afghanistan was different; it marked the arrival of the soldier-diplomat sharing tea with tribal leaders in some remote mountain valley.

Over the course of America’s longest war, nearly 2,500 military personnel died during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. At least 775,000 Americans have deployed there at least once. The American (and NATO) extraction from 20 years in Afghanistan certainly evokes a broad spectrum of collective national emotions: from the righteous indignation following 9/11 to a resolute determination during the buildup of forces in 2010 to an ambivalent resignation in 2021 that is fortified by a global health pandemic and the untidy election of 2020.

Like Vietnam, the military withdrawal from Afghanistan presents American foreign policy leadership with a laundry list of concerns. The value of American commitment to allies, the potential for a wider regional conflict, the persecution of religious minorities in Afghanistan, and the prospect of dangerous unknowns— increased Iranian influence, a resurgent ISIS or Al Qaeda, a destabilized Pakistan.

Mark Mahon
Mark Mahon
“You know, we’ll be much more formidable to our adversaries and competitors over the long term if we fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20,” said the president on April 14. To Biden, those future battles included preventing a destabilizing global health pandemic like COVID-19 as much as they meant eliminating small groups of opportunist jihadists like al-Qaeda circa 2001. That sentiment echoes the words of President Gerald Ford in an April 1975 speech at Tulane University where he publicly acknowledged for the first time the end of any and all U.S. participation in the Vietnam conflict. Though Saigon would fall just a week after his speech, Ford was clear that the fate of a nation 8,000 miles away should no longer be a primary concern to an America that needed to get its house in order: “We, of course, are saddened indeed by the these events in Indochina, but these events, tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world, nor of America’s leadership in the world.”

The progress that America, NATO allies and Afghan counterparts have made on strengthening civil society institutions is admirable. Young women may study at university and women now tentatively participate in national governance. Progress worthy of attention and vigorous support from American taxpayers as well as international NGOs and Afghanistan’s wealthier neighbors, Gulf states in particular. If the Taliban rapidly return to power (a real possibility) they’ll find little to no support externally in a world that is drastically different from that of 2001.

Twenty years after the fall of Saigon the United States and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations. The long, painful goodbye became a cathartic return. For Americans, closing the book on Afghanistan in 2021 in a manner similar to the Vietnam experience in 1973 threatens to create a collective domestic amnesia over what these 20 years have been about. A long goodbye that does a disservice to those who served and to America’s Afghan allies.

Mark Mahon is a writer and public affairs professional from Minneapolis. He served in the US Peace Corps as a community development volunteer in Morocco from 2013 until 2015. Additionally, he later became a contributor and foreign policy commentator for several Morocco-based news services.

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