The long war in Afghanistan is almost over. Western governments are evacuating their staff and diplomats from Kabul as the Taliban re-establish control of the country from which they were ousted not quite twenty years ago.
Time passes; only a minority of Australians have any memory of April 1975, when the North Vietnamese army took Saigon and extinguished the rather shadowy independence of South Vietnam. But the parallels with Afghanistan are clear and obvious. Ronald Reagan, then running for president, struck a nerve a few years later when he suggested that the symbol of American power was “an ambassador with a flag under his arm climbing into the escape helicopter.”
There are differences, too. The South Vietnamese government survived for two years after the American troops left; just as Mohammad Najibullah held on for three years in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew (four years after that he was murdered by the Taliban). But the corrupt and ramshackle Afghan government that was the best the Americans had been able to build in two decades could measure its survival only in weeks.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that almost no-one in the west is applauding the Taliban. The Communists established a dictatorship that rules Vietnam to this day, but they nonetheless had the support and encouragement of many on the left who let their anti-Americanism run away with them. This time they are at least being more restrained, although it’s not clear that they have really learnt the lesson.
Many will conclude that the western intervention in Afghanistan – either in the 1980s against the Soviets or from 2001 onwards against the Taliban – was a mistake from the start. That’s not my position. But it’s clear that the American presence reached a point of negative returns long ago. I summarised the problem back in 2010:
When running for election it made sense for Barack Obama … to highlight his predecessor’s mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan and to argue for priority to be given to the latter. It made less sense to actually escalate the Afghan war once in government. It makes no sense now.
In the interim, the Afghan government has shown itself to be corrupt, incompetent, lacking in popular support and almost as captive to primitive misogyny as the Taliban that it replaced. But most important of all, the foreign occupation is not helping with any of these things: it is manifestly making things worse.
If the Americans had focused on Afghanistan for two or three years instead of being diverted to Iraq, and had spent serious money on civilian infrastructure instead of bombs, I think it’s reasonably likely that the troops could then have left without everything falling to pieces. And even if things had ultimately reached the same end point, many fewer lives would have been lost in getting there.
But I’m aware that, as liberals are constantly having to tell the advocates of ever-greater state power, you can’t just build government with whatever imaginary characteristics you want. Power has its own logic, and if you give a task to particular institutions – in this case, the Bush administration and the US military – you will get a result that suits their purposes, not yours.
Perhaps the balance sheet is not quite as bad as that makes it sound. Intervention in the 1980s brought the fundamentalists to power, but it also helped dissolve the Soviet empire and bring freedom to millions in eastern Europe. Intervention from 2001 was a gigantic waste of blood and treasure, but it also gave Afghans for two decades a government that, for all its faults, was a major improvement on what had preceded it.
All the same, none of the policymakers of the last forty years can look on the result with much pride.
For more on the Afghan endgame, Juan Cole at Informed Comment and Stan Grant at the ABC are both particularly good. And for more of my own view (including the Vietnam analogy) you can read my 2010 obituary for Charlie Wilson.