A new generation’s Saigon moment
By William Hite • Guest Columnist
“You have all the watches, but we have all the time.” — Taliban adage
It’s official; Afghanistan is lost, overrun by the Taliban in eight days. As I sat watching and listening, I grew angrier and angrier. This is my generation’s Saigon moment. I’m not ex-military or a foreign service officer, but as a concerned citizen I follow our foreign policy closely and have followed the war in Afghanistan since its inception in 2001. What I’ve seen in the last several days is nothing short of a tragedy.
President Biden will undoubtedly be blamed for the Taliban victory. In the short run, I think that’s appropriate. He went on TV a month ago and told America and the world that the Taliban wouldn’t be victorious overnight, that the Afghan government’s 300,000 troops should blunt any Taliban offensive, that we wouldn’t be evacuating Americans from rooftops as we did in Vietnam. He was dead wrong. As a long-standing U.S. senator who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his experience should have informed a better perspective. As President, surrounded by the smartest people our universities can produce, he should have listened to those good people’s counsel.
Yet when the long story of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is written, it will lay the blame at the feet of far more people than President Biden. President Trump was the first to proclaim a complete U.S. withdrawal and instructed then-Secretary of State Pompeo to force the Afghan government to begin a peace process with the Taliban in Qatar. That effort was always doomed to failure; the Taliban have never been and are not now honest brokers. They’re opportunists whose underlying radical Islamist theology does not permit shared governance, a negotiated peace, rule of law, girls’ and women’s rights, or even TV.
We should also remember two other U.S. Presidents. While President Obama’s handling of Afghanistan involved a surge of troops to weaken the Taliban’s position, his administration largely kicked the can down the road. Perhaps as the first African American president, a Democrat, and a liberal with a professorial air, he did not want to have to deal with the blowback of regional instability produced by a U.S. withdrawal. Still, after the assassination of Al-Qaeda founder and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, one had to wonder if the U.S. mission in Afghanistan had changed. Why were we still there?
Of all the administrations bearing responsibility for our failure in Afghanistan, perhaps George W. Bush deserves the most blame. The critical juncture at which Afghanistan no longer mattered to U.S. policymakers was our initiation of war with Iraq in March 2003. Our attention immediately flipped from the “war on terror” to Saddam Hussein and his non-existent weapons of mass destruction. I remember the vote in the U.S. Senate authorizing military force in Iraq. One by one the senators approved the use of force, giving the Bush administration carte blanche to invade. I remember thinking of all the history lessons about the hubris of two-front wars. The same happened to us; not even a year and a half into our occupation of Afghanistan, we redirected resources away from that country, from its nascent institutions, from its much-needed infrastructure, and our national disinterest did not go unnoticed by the Taliban.
These successive U.S. administration failures do not stand alone though. Geopolitics played a role. Afghanistan is in a rough neighborhood, landlocked and surrounded by Iran, Pakistan, China, and plenty of “-Stans” (Russia’s sphere of influence). Russia provided intelligence support and materiel to the Taliban, and China’s and Iran’s influence in Afghanistan’s internal politics probably requires a top-secret security clearance. The worst offender in this new Great Game was Pakistan, which served as a seasonal home base for the Afghan Taliban. Skirmishes and battles were to the Afghan summer what baseball and beach trips are to Americans—just what you do when summer arrives. When winter came, the Taliban fighters simply migrated over Pakistan’s numerous mountain passes into familiar and friendly territory where U.S. forces could not go.
Certainly, much of Afghanistan’s woes are the fault of Afghans. Its democratically elected government has been corrupt since the beginning. It’s a country with no history of participatory democracy, one steeped in tribal identity. Votes were bought with promises or free flowing American cash, and the newly established government proceeded to dole out patronage to erstwhile warlords. The recent revelation that 300,000 Afghan troops may have actually counted as few as 60,000 is evidence of Afghan military leaders bilking international backers for monies.
Perhaps the take home message is that there are not simple answers to complex problems. Pre-packaged cable news sound bites and whose “fault it is” arguments belie the more fundamental challenges of democracy building and mission creep. As citizens of an advanced, secure democracy, we would do better by others if we learned more about the world. So watch and read about it, and be angry, very angry; but also channel that anger to learn about it, study it, and to become an informed citizen. And then demand of our elected officials accountability. Only then might we avoid another Saigon — or a Kabul.
(William Hite lives in Waynesville.)
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Anybody having voter regret yet?
What a well written, informative opinion. There is much fault to go around and it can indeed be spread over many years and administrations.
Sorry Biden voters, there are no refunds.