Lionel Barber is former editor of the Financial Times. He is author of "The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times."
The unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Afghanistan, where a lightning offensive has overwhelmed government forces, with the Taliban entering Kabul on Sunday and President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country, carries echoes of the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Then as now, a U.S. military intervention ended in a humiliating defeat born of conflicting war aims, a misplaced confidence in nation-building and a naive belief in promises made at the negotiating table by a military adversary in the ascendancy. Then as now, the abandonment of one-time allies threatens to seriously damage America's global standing, weakening alliances and emboldening China and Russia.
But loose talk about President Biden's "Saigon moment" -- a reference to the iconic image of evacuees being loaded onto a CIA helicopter from a rooftop during the U.S. withdrawal from Saigon on April 29, 1975 -- is premature. Despite all too familiar mistakes in U.S. foreign policy, often grounded in a failure to appreciate culture and history, there are important differences between the U.S. occupation of Vietnam and the American misadventure in Afghanistan.
First, the domestic context. At the peak of the war, the U.S. deployed 500,000 troops in Vietnam, five times the peak presence in Afghanistan. Some 58,000 U.S. soldiers died, compared to around 2,300 in Afghanistan and more than 20,000 wounded. University campuses -- full of middle-class students fearing the draft -- were ablaze. Today, the U.S. operates an enlisted army and there is no significant anti-Afghan war movement.
Most important, however divided the U.S. may appear today, it bears no comparison to the early 1970s. America then was suffering a pervasive crisis of authority epitomized by the Watergate scandal which forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Today, Americans are suffering more from battle fatigue from the "forever wars." the twin engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan launched in retaliation for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
While the cost of the Afghan intervention was high -- $2 trillion over 20 years -- the burden was shared by NATO allies, led by the U.K. (a notable absentee in the Vietnam conflict). The duration of the war made it America's longest, but reconstruction helped to educate a generation of Afghan women and build a nascent middle class in a remote, ethnically diverse and historically xenophobic country. All these gains risk being crushed by the Taliban, merciless and medieval in their methods.
"What makes this so frustrating is that the U.S. and its allies had reached something of an equilibrium at a low sustainable cost," says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, "It was not peace or military victory, but it was infinitely preferable to the strategic and humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding."
President Biden was dealt a weak hand by outgoing President Donald Trump who pledged in talks with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces in 2021. The U.S. military offered to keep a minimal presence, providing air and other support to Afghan troops. Biden ignored that advice and gambled on a swift retreat, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
U.S. commanders completed the withdrawal ahead of schedule -- surely a first. The indecent speed suggests some were less than impressed with their commander-in-chief. Biden's admonition to the Afghan government to stand up and fight for their country also struck a false note, given how reliant the Afghan army is on high-tech U.S. equipment and backroom operators.
How the next chapter unfolds depends on whether the Afghan government collapses, repeating the catastrophe in 1992 after the Russian/Soviet government abruptly removed support; or whether an orderly transfer of power can be managed, avoiding a bloody battle for control of Kabul.
Back in 1975, in Vietnam, the communist forces of the North swept south and reunited a homogenous country. By contrast, Afghanistan is an ethnic patchwork inimical to nation-building. The Pashtuns form around 40% of the population, with Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmens and other tribes outside the tent. No central government has ever exercised control over the whole country.
Afghanistan will forever be vulnerable to meddling by outside powers: neighboring Pakistan, India, Russia and in another era, imperial Britain. Latterly, China has increasingly taken an interest, warmly welcoming the Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani in Beijing. Hard-nosed realists in Washington may welcome someone else managing the Afghan problem, but there will likely be geopolitical costs, with China a possible winner.
"A compliant Taliban regime in Kabul creates the opportunity for a north/south trade corridor from the Russian sphere of Central Asia and the Central Asian Republics, across Afghanistan and the southern curve of Pakistan to Gwadar, the Chinese-built port on the Indian Ocean," says former NATO commander John Allen, writing in Defence One.
Still, all predictions should be accompanied with a degree of humility. After the communist takeover of Vietnam, the much-vaunted "domino theory" never happened. Apart from Cambodia and Laos, Southeast Asia was not subsumed in a red tide. In fact, Vietnam fought a border war with China in 1979 and later restored diplomatic relations with the U.S.
No such benign outcome is likely with the Taliban. They harbored Al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the deadliest attack on U.S. territory. Mark Twain had it right when he said: "History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme."