[Leaving a Misguided War and Choosing Not to Look Back]
[https://portside.org/] 

 REFLECTIONS ON “PEACE” IN AFGHANISTAN  
[https://portside.org/2019-09-10/reflections-peace-afghanistan] 

 

 Andrew Bacevich 
 September 10, 2019
Tom Dispatch [http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176602/] 

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 _ Leaving a Misguided War and Choosing Not to Look Back _ 

 American soldiers in Afghanistan, 

 

When the conflict that the Vietnamese refer to as the American War
ended in April 1975, I was a U.S. Army captain attending a course at
Fort Knox, Kentucky. In those days, the student body at any of our
Army’s myriad schools typically included officers from the Army of
the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

Since ARVN’s founding two decades earlier, the United States had
assigned itself the task of professionalizing that fledgling military
establishment. Based on a conviction that the standards, methods, and
ethos of our armed forces were universally applicable and readily
exportable, the attendance of ARVN personnel at such Army schools was
believed to contribute to the professionalizing of the South
Vietnamese military.

Evidence that the U.S. military’s own professional standards had
recently taken a hit -- memories of the My Lai massacre
[https://www.npr.org/2018/03/16/594364462/my-lai-massacre-of-1968-continues-to-resonate-in-america] were
then still fresh -- elicited no second thoughts on our part.
Association with American officers like me was sure to rub off on our
South Vietnamese counterparts in ways that would make them better
soldiers. So we professed to believe, even while subjecting that claim
to no more scrutiny than we did the question of why most of us had
spent a year or more of our lives participating in an obviously
misbegotten and misguided war in Indochina.

For serving officers at that time one question in particular remained
off-limits (though it had been posed incessantly for years by antiwar
protestors [http://www.ushistory.org/us/55d.asp] in the streets of
America): Why Vietnam? Prizing compliance as a precondition for upward
mobility, military service rarely encourages critical thinking.

On the day that Saigon, the capital of the Republic of Vietnam, fell
and that country ceased to exist, I approached one of my ARVN
classmates, also a captain, wanting at least to acknowledge the
magnitude of the disaster that had occurred. “I’m sorry about what
happened to your country,” I told him.

I did not know that officer well and no longer recall his name.
Let’s call him Captain Nguyen. In my dim recollection, he didn’t
even bother to reply. He simply looked at me with an expression both
distressed and mournful. Our encounter lasted no more than a handful
of seconds. I then went on with my life and Captain Nguyen presumably
with his. Although I have no inkling of his fate, I like to think that
he is now retired in Southern California after a successful career in
real estate. But who knows?

All I do know is that today I recall our exchange with a profound
sense of embarrassment and even shame. My pathetic effort to console
Captain Nguyen had been both presumptuous and inadequate. Far worse
was my failure -- inability? refusal? -- to acknowledge the context
within which that catastrophe was occurring: the United States and its
armed forces had, over years, inflicted horrendous harm on the people
of South Vietnam.

In reality, their defeat was our defeat. Yet while we had decided that
we were done paying, they were going to pay and pay for a long time to
come.

Rather than offering a fatuous expression of regret for the collapse
of his country, I ought to have apologized for having played even a
miniscule role in what was, by any measure, a catastrophe of epic
proportions. It’s a wonder Captain Nguyen didn’t spit in my eye.

I genuinely empathized with Captain Nguyen. Yet the truth is that,
along with most other Americans, soldiers and civilians alike, I was
only too happy to be done with South Vietnam and all its troubles.
Dating back to the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the United
States and its armed forces had made a gargantuan effort to impart
legitimacy to the Republic of Vietnam and to coerce the Democratic
Republic of Vietnam to its north into giving up its determination to
exercise sovereignty over the entirety of the country. In that, we had
failed spectacularly and at a staggering cost.

“Our” war in Indochina -- the conflict we chose to call the
Vietnam War -- officially ended in January 1973 with the signing in
Paris of an “Agreement Ending the War and Restoring Peace in
Vietnam.” Under the terms of that fraudulent pact, American
prisoners of war were freed from captivity in North Vietnam and the
last U.S. combat troops in the south left for home, completing a
withdrawal begun several years earlier. Primary responsibility for
securing the Republic of Vietnam thereby fell to ARVN, long deemed by
U.S. commanders incapable of accomplishing that mission.

Meanwhile, despite a nominal cessation of hostilities, approximately
150,000 North Vietnamese regulars still occupied a large swathe of
South Vietnamese territory -- more or less the equivalent to agreeing
to end World War II when there were still several German panzer tank
divisions lurking in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest. In effect, our
message to our enemy _and_ our ally was this: _We’re outta here; you
guys sort this out_. In a bit more than two years, that sorting-out
process would extinguish the Republic of Vietnam.

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

The course Captain Nguyen and I were attending in the spring of 1975
paid little attention to fighting wars like the one that, for years,
had occupied the attention of my army and his. Our Army, in fact, was
already moving on. Having had their fill of triple-canopy jungles in
Indochina, America’s officer corps now turned to defending the Fulda
Gap, the region in West Germany deemed most hospitable to a future
Soviet invasion. As if by fiat, gearing up to fight those Soviet
forces and their Warsaw Pact allies, should they (however improbably)
decide to take on NATO and lunge toward the English Channel, suddenly
emerged as priority number one. At Fort Knox and throughout the
Army’s ranks, we were suddenly focused on “high-intensity combined
arms operations” -- essentially, a replay of World War II-style
combat with fancier weaponry. In short, the armed forces of the United
States had reverted to “real soldiering.”

And so it is again today. At the end of the 17th year of what
Americans commonly call the Afghanistan War -- one wonders what name
Afghans will eventually assign it -- U.S. military forces are moving
on. Pentagon planners are shifting their attention back
[http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176570/tomgram%3A_michael_klare%2C_fighting_the_next_war%2C_not_the_last]
to Russia and China. Great power competition has become the name of
the game. However we might define Washington’s evolving purposes in
its Afghanistan War -- “nation building,” “democratization,”
“pacification” -- the likelihood of mission accomplishment is nil.
As in the early 1970s, so in 2019, rather than admitting failure, the
Pentagon has chosen to change the subject and is once again turning
its attention to “real soldiering.”

Remember the infatuation with counterinsurgency (commonly known by its
acronym COIN) that gripped the national security establishment around
2007 when the Iraq “surge” overseen by General David Petraeus
briefly ranked alongside Gettysburg as a historic victory? Well, these
days promoting COIN as the new American way of war has become, to put
it mildly, a tough sell. Given that few in Washington will openly
acknowledge the magnitude of the military failure in Afghanistan, the
incentive for identifying new enemies in settings deemed more
congenial becomes all but irresistible.

Only one thing is required to validate this reshuffling of military
priorities. Washington needs to create the appearance, as in 1973,
that it’s exiting Afghanistan on its own terms. What’s needed, in
short, is an updated equivalent of that “Agreement Ending the War
and Restoring Peace in Vietnam.”

Until last weekend, the signing of such an agreement seemed imminent.
Donald Trump and his envoy, former ambassador
[https://www.npr.org/2018/09/05/641094135/zalmay-khalilzad-appointed-as-u-s-special-adviser-to-afghanistan]
to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, appeared poised to repeat the trick
that President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry
Kissinger pulled off in 1973 in Paris: pause the war and call it
peace. Should fighting subsequently resume after a “decent
interval,” it would no longer be America’s problem.  Now,
however, to judge by the president's twitter account
[https://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-tweets-taliban-peace-talks-canceled-2019-09-07/]
-- currently the authoritative record of U.S. diplomacy -- the
proposed deal has been postponed, or perhaps shelved, or even
abandoned altogether.  If National Security Advisor John Bolton has
his way
[https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/collapse-of-afghanistan-peace-talks-spotlights-internal-trump-administration-divisions/2019/09/08/c7d57412-d24b-11e9-86ac-0f250cc91758_story.html],
U.S. forces might just withdraw in any case, without an agreement of
any sort being signed. 

Based on what we can divine from press reports, the terms
[https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/taliban-talks-peace-afghanistan-190510062940394.html]
of that prospective Afghan deal would mirror those of the 1973 Paris
Accords in one important respect. It would, in effect, serve as a
ticket home for the remaining U.S. and NATO troops still in that
country (though for the present only the first 5,000
[https://www.stripes.com/news/middle-east/trump-more-than-8-000-us-troops-will-remain-in-afghanistan-after-peace-deal-with-taliban-1.596412]
of them would immediately depart). Beyond that, the Taliban was to
promise not to provide sanctuary to anti-American terrorist groups,
even though the Afghan branch of ISIS is already firmly lodged
[https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/isis-recruitment-is-growing-in-afghanistan-as-us-and-taliban-work-for-peace-1.895798]
there. Still, this proviso would allow the Trump administration to
claim that it had averted any possible recurrence of the 9/11 terror
attacks that were, of course, planned by Osama bin Laden while
residing in Afghanistan in 2001 as a guest of the Taliban-controlled
government. Mission accomplished
[https://www.google.com/search?q=mission+accomplished&client=firefox-b-1-d&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=VFrTEjPgaXbc3M%3A%2CX-3T-BXA-E5gmM%2C%2Fm%2F07g7sz&vet=1&usg=AI4_-kTGwNT7LMP897eFck8Ck4M327zUkA&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiUvrj-wqjkAhVJzlkKHWxrBLcQ_B0wHXoECAkQAw#imgrc=VFrTEjPgaXbc3M:],
as it were.

Back in 1973, North Vietnamese forces occupying parts of South Vietnam
neither disarmed nor withdrew. Should this new agreement be finalized,
Taliban forces currently controlling or influencing significant swaths
[https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/01/world/asia/us-afghanistan-territory-taliban.html]
of Afghan territory will neither disarm nor withdraw. Indeed, their
declared intention
[https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-taliban-talks/u-s-taliban-deal-will-not-stop-attacks-on-afghan-forces-taliban-say-idUSKCN1VG0NB]
is to continue fighting.

In 1973, policymakers in Washington were counting on ARVN to hold off
Communist forces. In 2019, almost no one expects Afghan security
forces to hold off a threat consisting of both the Taliban and ISIS.
In a final insult, just as the Saigon government was excluded from
U.S. negotiations with the North Vietnamese, so, too, has the
Western-installed government in Kabul been excluded from U.S.
negotiations with its sworn enemy, the Taliban.

A host of uncertainties remain.  As with the olive branches that
President Trump has ostentatiously offered to Russia, China, and North
Koea, this particular peace initiative may come to naught -- or, given
the approach of the 2020 elections, he may decide that Afghanistan
offers his last best hope of claiming at least one foreign policy
success. One way or another, in all likelihood, the deathwatch for the
U.S.-backed Afghan government has now begun. One thing only is for
sure. Having had their fill of Afghanistan, when the Americans finally
leave, they won’t look back. In that sense, it will be Vietnam all
over again.

WHAT PRICE PEACE?

However great my distaste for President Trump, I support his
administration’s efforts to extricate the United States from
Afghanistan. I do so for the same reason I supported the Paris Peace
Accords of 1973. Prolonging this folly any longer does not serve U.S.
interests. Rule number one of statecraft ought to be: when you’re
doing something really stupid, stop. To my mind, this rule seems
especially applicable when the lives of American soldiers are at
stake.

In Vietnam, Washington wasted 58,000 of those lives for nothing. In
Afghanistan, we have lost more than 2,300 troops
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_casualties_in_the_War_in_Afghanistan],
with another 20,000 wounded, again for next to nothing. Last month,
two American Special Forces soldiers were killed
[https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/22/magazine/afghan-war-casualty-report.html]
in a firefight in Faryab Province. For what?

That said, I’m painfully aware of the fact that, on the long-ago day
when I offered Captain Nguyen my feeble condolences, I lacked the
imagination to conceive of the trials about to befall his countrymen.
In the aftermath of the American War, something on the order of
800,000 [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_boat_people]
Vietnamese took to open and unseaworthy boats to flee their country.
According to
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_boat_people#cite_note-21]
estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,
between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea. Most of those who
survived were destined to spend years in squalid refugee camps
scattered throughout Southeast Asia. Back in Vietnam itself, some
300,000 former ARVN officers and South Vietnamese officials were
imprisoned in so-called reeducation camps for up to 18 years.
Reconciliation did not rank high on the postwar agenda of the unified
country’s new leaders.

Meanwhile, for the Vietnamese, north and south, the American War has
in certain ways only continued. Mines and unexploded ordnance left
from that war have inflicted more than 100,000 casualties
[http://www.the-monitor.org/en-gb/reports/2018/vietnam/casualties.aspx]
since the last American troops departed. Even today, the toll caused
by Agent Orange and other herbicides that the U.S. Air Force sprayed
with abandon over vast stretches of territory continues to mount. The
Red Cross calculates that more than one million
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Orange] Vietnamese have suffered
health problems, including serious birth defects and cancers as a
direct consequence of the promiscuous use of those poisons as weapons
of war.

For anyone caring to calculate the moral responsibility of the United
States for its actions in Vietnam, all of those would have to find a
place on the final balance sheet. The 1.3 million Vietnamese
[https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/vietnamese-immigrants-united-states-5]
admitted to the United States as immigrants since the American War
formally concluded can hardly be said to make up for the immense
damage suffered by the people of Vietnam as a direct or indirect
result of U.S. policy.

As to what will follow if Washington does succeed in cutting a deal
with the Taliban, well, don’t count on President Trump (or his
successor for that matter) welcoming anything like 1.3 million Afghan
refugees to the United States once a “decent interval” has passed.
Yet again, our position will be: we’re outta here; you guys sort
this out.

Near the end of his famed novel, _The Great Gatsby,_ F. Scott
Fitzgerald described two of his privileged characters, Tom and Daisy,
as “careless people” who “smashed up things and creatures” and
then “retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness”
to “let other people clean up the mess they had made.” That
description applies to the United States as a whole, especially when
Americans tire of a misguided war. We are a careless people. In
Vietnam, we smashed up things and human beings with abandon, only to
retreat into our money, leaving others to clean up the mess in a
distinctly bloody fashion.

Count on us, probably sooner rather than later, doing precisely the
same thing in Afghanistan.

_Andrew Bacevich, a _TomDispatch_ regular_
[https://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176588/tomgram%3A_andrew_bacevich%2C_future_history]_,
now serves as president of the __Quincy Institute for Responsible
Statecraft_ [https://quincyinst.org/]_. His new book _The Age of
Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory
[https://www.amazon.com/dp/1250175089/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20]
_will be published in January._

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