Opinion: Kabul 2021: Saigon Deja Vu for the U.S.?

A Vietnamese-American Georgian offers his perspective on human tragedy, nation-building and unconventional warfare.

Over 46 years ago, my family boarded a C-130 transport plane leaving Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport in the middle of darkness as part of the American evacuation in the waning days of the Vietnam War. Eight days later, Saigon fell on April 30 and the Republic of Vietnam was no more.

This past week, like many fellow Americans, I wept for the people of Afghanistan as their nation’s short-lived attempt at democracy crumbled before our very eyes.

If there are any lessons to be gleaned from the last 20 years in Afghanistan, then perhaps 2 major points come to mind:

  1. a condensed time frame for nation-building after centuries of tribalism and warlords won’t work, and
  2. Western countries still rely on traditional measures of conventional warfare when non-state actors have a completely different set of rules.

As a democracy, it is heartening to know that even after the trauma of the past 5 years of political chaos, Americans still possess the heartbeat to care about the victims of terror and authoritarianism, no matter how distant the land. However, our body politic does possess an inherent weakness. In the parlance of financial markets, our democracy is a publicly traded company whose shareholders are short term-focused at the expense of long-term results.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Given the former President’s stated desire to end this so-called “forever war,” the agreement with the Taliban last year was unsurprising and haphazard at best. His willingness to hold direct talks with the Taliban while excluding the Afghan government was reminiscent of Kissinger’s secret talks with the North Vietnamese in 1972. Recognizing his penchant for negotiations, what were his true objectives?

In concert with our need to further pivot to Asia and grapple with an assertive China, it is then not difficult to understand why President Biden proceeded with the withdrawal.

And while many may disagree with President Biden’s assertion that this outcome was inevitable, it is important to recognize that the deck was heavily stacked against Afghan democracy enduring and flourishing without continued support from Western powers. It did not have to end this way, to be sure.

However, before our leaders bog themselves down on who is more at fault, it is important to reflect on some systemic reasons for how we have arrived at this critical juncture. It is not just about policy but also about human nature.

There certainly are parallels between America’s experiences in South Vietnam and Afghanistan. In both instances, over time American involvement also included the high-minded purpose of “nation-building,” at least until domestic support waned and resource demands elsewhere made continued involvement much less palatable.

Another important similarity is the vital role unconventional warfare plays, where the rule of the game is that there are no rules. In the initial years of the Afghanistan campaign, our military leaders’ grasp of the dimensions of unconventional warfare, such as psychology, time, place and method of engagement helped keep the enemy off-balance. Furthermore, our military brass, from Gen. Petraeus to Gen. McChrystal, went to great lengths to emphasize that military power alone would not guarantee “victory.” They knew we also needed to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. In contrast, the U.S.-Army of the Republic of Vietnam alliance’s lackluster understanding of this aspect had cost South Vietnam dearly 5 decades earlier.

In addition, the role of psychological warfare cannot be understated. In the Vietnam War, one such example was the Tet Offensive. While a resounding military victory for the anti-communist alliance, the Viet Cong guerrilla offensive deep in South Vietnamese territory resulted in an important psychological victory for the communist effort.

And when it comes to the psychological campaign of intimidation, the Taliban are known for harshly applying the tools of violence just like the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong of half a century ago. When your family is threatened by rulers using kidnappings and executions as instruments of governance, survival will likely trump any resolve to fight for newfound ideals.

This begs the question, even if we had executed our military mission to perfection in Afghanistan, how would we truly “win” against an enemy that would stop short of nothing to achieve their “victory,” including just simply waiting until we left before they resumed their campaign of destruction? To paraphrase the deceased former Taliban leader Mullah Omar, “... you may have the watches but we have the time...”.

Lastly, Afghanistan’s geography was always a major challenge, both from a topographical and a geopolitical standpoint. Aside from the sheer harshness of the land, it was surrounded by our competitors and few of our natural allies. It was no secret that Pakistan, considered our “ally,” often had an altogether different set of interests than us in Afghanistan. Half a world away, home field advantage proved undeniably critical and nation-building a 4th-World economy was never going to be easy.

Thus, as our nation once again faces the consequences of not thoroughly understanding the difficulties of nation-building and the dimensions of unconventional war, it is critical that our leaders be able to cast aside the partisan differences and help the American people grasp our common strategic objectives going forward. Otherwise, we will remain prisoners of our own history and likely condemned to repeat it.

Baoky Vu has lived in Atlanta for more than 40 years. Vu served as a commissioner on President George W. Bush’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. In 2016, he resigned as a Presidential Elector from the state of Georgia in opposition to the Republican Presidential nominee.