Gwynne Dyer: Afghanistan peace talks parallel the early stages of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam

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      History does not exactly repeat itself: the final outcome of the American intervention in Afghanistan will not be the same as the end result in Vietnam. But the negotiations between the United States and its Taliban enemy that are lurching into motion in Qatar as the U.S. prepares to pull out of Afghanstan next year are eerily similar to the “Paris peace talks” that paved the way for the American military withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1973.

      In his briefing notes for a secret 1971 meeting in Beijing with Chinese government officials, Henry Kissinger, national security adviser to then–U.S. president Richard Nixon, wrote in the margin: “We are ready to withdraw all of our forces [from South Vietnam] by a fixed date and let objective realities shape the political future....We want a decent interval. You have our assurance.” 

      The phrase got out, and it stuck: the whole point of the exercise by 1971, from the U.S. point of view, was to get out of the Vietnamese war without admitting defeat. North Vietnam could collect its victory in the end, but it must allow a “decent interval” to pass so that Washington could distance itself from blame for the ultimate collapse of its local Vietnamese allies.

      Direct American-Taliban peace talks are now on the menu for much the same reason. The Obama administration realizes that the intervention in Afghanistan has been a ghastly failure, but it needs some semblance of success, however transitory, to console the families of the 4,000 American dead in the war, and to save America’s face internationally.

      Just as in the Vietnam case, the fighting will continue while the diplomats are talking. Just as in Vietnam, American generals and diplomats must go on claiming in the meantime that victory is in sight.

      When Gen. John Allen, the last U.S. commander in Afghanistan, handed over to his successor in February, he said what he had to say: “This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well trained Afghan forces that are emerging today....This is victory. This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.” But privately, he must know better: American generals are rarely stupid.

      And just as in Vietnam, the puppet regime in Afghanistan is now panicking as its master prepares to abandon it. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, rightly sensing that he was about to be sold down the river, revealed the details of the secret American-North Vietnamese agreement in 1972, hoping to mobilise U.S. congressional and public opinion against it. Fat chance. Both members of Congress and the public wanted out at any price.

      So, too, with Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is refusing to send representatives to the American-organized talks in Qatar until he has a promise that the Taliban will not be given a share of power. He is also refusing to agree to a continuing U.S. military presence in the country after 2014 until he gets his way. But he will not get his way, and the U.S. will do whatever it wants.

      Maybe the Taliban will be patient enough to give the U.S. the “decent interval” it wants, believing that they can collect their victory a few years after the American troops have gone home. Or perhaps they will reject anything short of immediate and total victory, knowing that the American troops will leave anyway. However, the war in Afghanistan is actually a civil war, and they can never win a decisive victory.

      The Afghan civil war began in 1992, when the puppet government that the Russians left behind when they pulled their troops out the country in 1989 collapsed. The various mujaheddin groups who had fought the Russians went to war with one another for control of the country, and that civil war has continued ever since.

      Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country, and the conflict soon resolved into a struggle between the Taliban, the dominant organization in the Pashtun-populated parts of the country, and the militias of the Northern Alliance, the various smaller ethnic groups in the north of Afghanistan.

      Since the Pashtuns are almost half the country’s population and had Pakistani support, the Taliban won control of multi-ethnic Kabul and become the country’s “government” in 1996. However, they never conquered the “Northern Alliance” that dominated the Tajik-, Hazara-, and Uzbek-dominated provinces in the north.

      Then, after 9/11, the U.S. invaded and made a de facto alliance with the warlords of the Northern Alliance. This tipped the balance in the war in the other direction, and it’s the northern warlords who have effectively run (or rather, looted) the country for the past decade.

      Once the U.S. leaves, the balance of power between these two sides will be restored—and the civil war between them will continue on a more equal basis. This is not Vietnam, a homogeneous country with a strong national identity. It is a tribal country whose borders are entirely artificial. Decisive victory in Afghanistan is unattainable for any ethnic group.




      Jul 1, 2013 at 11:58am

      Ever wonder why the US got involved in the first place? The answer: It had to. Yes, I know you say it was stupid George Bush. But any president would have had to do the same thing. Why? Because the Taliban were harbouring Osama B, the spiritual leader of the group that had just attacked the US. Since they wouldn't hand him over to the US, Bush had no choice but to invade. He may even have known it was futile. But had he not, his presidency would have crumbled with both friend and foe demanding he do something, anything. So he invaded. Of course, invading was futile. Bush could have shown political smarts by coming up with some coalition of rehabilitated Taliban, etc. after a few years and pulled out, but he fell into the nation-building trap. Remember Bush, Tony Blair and their wives appearing on TV to talk about bringing democracy and equal rights to Afghanistan? So now Obama takes the US out and Afghanistan goes back to a homegrown and brutal civil war with no respite for a totally war-weary population.

      No Evidence

      Jul 1, 2013 at 1:49pm

      The Taliban refused to give up Osama bin Laden because the US refused to produce any evidence that bin Laden was actually guilty of perpetrating 9/11. 9/11 was merely an excuse for the US to invade Afghanistan, an act for which they had already been preparing months before 9/11 even occurred.

      I. Chandler

      Jul 1, 2013 at 8:26pm

      "President Thieu, revealed the details of the secret American-North Vietnamese agreement in 1972"

      Nixon’s 1967 campaign colluded with President Thieu to sabotage American peace talks by letting Hanoi know that when he [Nixon] took office , he could accept anything and blame it on LBJ.
      President Johnson had evidence of Nixon & Kissinger's treason:

      The Secret history of the Vietnam War (Pentagon Papers) written in 1967 would need another long chapter...

      "This is not Vietnam, a homogeneous country"

      Vietnam may have been a homogeneous country before Operation Passage to Freedom moved a million northerners to South in 1954:
      President Diem of South Vietnam continued the French practice of defining Catholicism as a "religion" and Buddhism as an "association". South Vietnam Special Forces killed and jailed thousands of Buddhists. The indigenous population complained about the intrusion of Catholic Vietnamese onto their land:


      Jul 2, 2013 at 3:41pm


      Not every President would have done the same thing. There were options. One would have been to treat the matter as a crime rather than an act of war.

      I mean, look how the thing was ultimately done - it was not warfare per se but a black op.

      I think the main reason Afghanistan was invaded for the reason that Afghanistan is always invaded: location, location, location.

      (And the invasion failed for the reason that invading Afghanistan always fails: they hold the ground, the ground is full of tunnels, and the civilian population will not cooperate.)

      9/11 was a convenient pretext. I will not go so far as to claim it was an inside job, which seems somewhat preposterous to me, but the invasion itself never seemed to offer very good chances of capturing UBL and in fact Bush apparently refused to swap UBL for a ceasefire on bombing the Taliban.

      As for the Taliban, I despise those people and everything they stand for, but the cure of foreign invasion can be worse than the disease of Talibanism. All it seems to do is confirm that America is a hostile force, thereby actually delaying the (I believe inevitable) migration of westernish democratic memes into that region.


      Jul 2, 2013 at 11:59pm


      If you read Gwynne Dyers articles from that time, he basically came up with the exact same idea. Following 9/11, it would have been politically impossible for any President to not blow anything up. And Afghanistan in 2001 was not even a completely unjust war. Remember, the world supported the US back then, and the UN gave the US the go-ahead to invade Afghanistan.

      They bungled it up, big time. The reason Afghanistan is so messed today is because the Yanks put it on the back burner in order to have a little adventure in Iraq (which made Muslims feel even less threatened by America.....). Afghanistan was the only country the US could have legitimately responded to 9/11 against, and by expanding the war to Iraq, they fucked it up.

      If they had focused on Afghanistan, not been so lazy as to put the sketchiest warlords at the head of the new Government, and actually tried to get Afghan expats truly involved, then maybe we would not have the situation we do now. Invading Iraq also provided the Taliban with the whole "See, Americans just straight up hate Muslims everywhere" argument, which was a pretty good recruiting tool.

      Sorry for the rant.


      Jul 3, 2013 at 7:13am

      Well said, Macsrw


      Jul 3, 2013 at 2:53pm

      <sardonic>Yeah, putting ex-pats in govt really worked in Iraq</sardonic>

      aftab abbasi

      Jul 4, 2013 at 9:43am

      how can someone on gods earth make me believe that us spends 10 billion dollars a year just for killing obl and gets his 4000 soldiers killed in the prcess