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.