Capstones: The Haunting Rhymes of History
President Ford called it “the saddest day of my public life.” For his South Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Van Thieu, it was a bitter betrayal, one final indignity in a long series of humiliations. Thieu’s war-weary countrymen saw it as the end of their nation, while their communist adversaries saw it as cause for celebration. Bui Tin, a colonel in the North Vietnamese army, called it “a moment of joy.” It was the fall of Saigon, and it came swiftly and ferociously the last week of April 1975. With North Vietnam’s army enveloping the city, a handful of Americans became a lifeline of hope for a hopeless people—and the image of countless South Vietnamese trying to escape their crumbling country via a U.S. helicopter became a metaphor for America’s Sisyphean mission.
I’ve been thinking about that image and that chapter in our history quite a bit since President Trump announced peace negotiations with the Taliban in the summer of 2019 and President Biden unveiled his pullout plan in the spring of 2021—especially since the first week of July, when footage and reports began to emerge of Afghan government officials clambering onto a plane in hopes of escaping the Taliban takeover of Badakhshan province. The images and parallels became all the more haunting in the intervening weeks.
History may not repeat itself, as Mark Twain is credited with saying, but it does indeed rhyme sometimes. Sadly, the American people and their leaders are not interested in the rhymes or lessons of history.
Given that 73 percent of voters supported withdrawing from Afghanistan, President Biden is—and President Trump was—undeniably in step with the American people. Yet leadership—especially on matters of national security—often requires more than reflecting the national mood. There are times when a president needs to explain to the American people why they should follow a path they’d rather not take: Consider Jefferson waging a war on piracy half-a-world away; Lincoln transforming the Civil War from a struggle to preserve the Union into a struggle to abolish slavery; FDR dragging an isolationist America back onto the world stage; Truman arguing for open-ended engagement and global containment of Moscow; Reagan reviving the nation’s commitment to what Truman began; Bush 41 building support for liberating Kuwait; Clinton wading into the Balkans; Bush 43 ordering the surge in Iraq.
There were costs to confronting those national security challenges, but the presidents who confronted those challenges reckoned that the costs of pulling back or turning away would be far greater than the costs of engagement—and then set about the task of making that case to the American people.
Without question, engagement carries heavy costs. The Cold War cost Americans 104,000 military personnel and $6 trillion. The war on terrorism has claimed some 7,000 U.S. personnel and devoured more than $2 trillion in treasure. Since 9/11, there have been 2,312 U.S. troops killed supporting operations in Afghanistan. President Biden, President Trump and other well-meaning observers look upon these numbers and conclude that the costs are just too high—the costs of Afghanistan’s relative stability, the costs of America’s security, the costs of international order, the costs of engagement.
“I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan,” President Biden soberly declared in April. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth…We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives,” he concluded. “It’s time to end the forever war.” (President Trump’s favored phrase was “endless wars.”)
This sentiment may make for good politics, but it arguably reflects a misunderstanding of the commander-in-chief’s role in a time of war—and America’s role in the world. After all, 20 years in, the Cold War, like the war on terror, seemed like an “endless, forever war.” Indeed, it pays to recall that America’s military has been engaged in “endless” missions in Germany since 1944, Japan since 1945, Korea since 1950, Kuwait since 1991, Kosovo since 1999. And it pays to recall that the costs of maintaining a stabilization force in Afghanistan—especially the human costs—have dramatically fallen in recent years: Between February 2020 and the fall of Kabul in August 2021, there was not a single American military fatality in Afghanistan.
Still, there’s something to be said for trying to make peace. Scripture teaches, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Yet it also concedes that there’s “a time for war” and a place and purpose for the warrior in this broken world. High among those purposes, surely, are protecting the defenseless, maintaining order and standing in the way of evil—whether that evil is embodied by godless men forbidding people to worship or by mass-murderers masquerading as holy men demanding that people worship.
America’s military presence in Afghanistan was always related to those noble purposes of the warrior—protecting the American people from another attack conceived on Afghan territory, maintaining some semblance of order there on the far fringes of civilization, and standing as a barrier between humanity and the evils of jihadism. As the late Christopher Hitchens wryly observed upon the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001, “The United States has just succeeded in bombing a country back out of the Stone Age…This deserves to be recognized as an achievement.” It’s an achievement of much greater worth than a peace deal that does nothing to achieve peace.
America’s military did more than topple the Taliban, crush its al-Qaeda partners and liberate 22 million Afghans from a nightmare regime. Given that the Taliban and al-Qaeda shared the same worldview and same enemy, the Bush administration concluded that sweeping the Taliban and al-Qaeda from power was not enough to protect America. And so, America’s military began to lay the foundations of a new Afghan government committed to fighting terrorists rather than harboring terrorists. This is why and how the small-footprint war of late 2001 morphed into a large-scale nation-building operation spanning two decades.
Importantly, the vast majority of the Afghan people didn’t view the U.S.-led mission as an imperialist crusade. “Afghans have never seen you as occupiers,” former defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak explains. “Unlike the Russians, who imposed a government with an alien ideology, you enabled us to write a democratic constitution and choose our own government. Unlike the Russians, who destroyed our country, you came to rebuild.”
One of the things America and its allies (some 50 countries deployed troops to Afghanistan) built for the Afghan people was a bridge back to civilization. Twenty years later, Afghanistan still has yet to make it across that bridge. And as long as the Taliban is in power, the forever-broken country never will. That’s because the Taliban is today what it always has been: a vile enemy of civilization. The Taliban banished girls from school, ordered Hindus to wear identity labels, executed those belonging to opposing sects of Islam, turned soccer stadiums into mass-execution chambers, splashed acid onto teachers, used children to plant IEDs, and made common cause with bin Laden’s death cult. Even as they talked peace, Taliban fighters targeted and nearly killed the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Through it all, their objective was conquest. Circling like vultures, Taliban leaders vowed to “fight against the Afghan government and seize power by force.” They did exactly that on August 15, 2021.
Those words bring us back to those images from Saigon. The consequences of April 1975 were not confined to Saigon and Southeast Asia. Quite unlike our jihadist enemies, the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong never turned their sights on the American homeland. Even so, America’s withdrawal from South Vietnam ushered in a period of defeatism, decline and self-doubt among the American people—and created an opportunity for our enemies. In Henry Kissinger’s view, “It is doubtful that Castro would have intervened in Angola, or the Soviet Union in Ethiopia, had America not been perceived to have collapsed in Indochina.” Moscow also began outpacing and outproducing the U.S. in nuclear weapons, warships and warplanes during the post-Vietnam malaise.
In the same way, there will be geopolitical fallout for America and opportunities for our enemies because of what’s happened in Afghanistan—or perhaps more accurately, because of how it happened. What message does this send to Taiwan and China, Ukraine and Russia, our Baltic allies and Russia, our Arab allies and Iran, to the allies we have urged to stand up to Beijing and Moscow? According to a high-ranking German lawmaker, the Afghan withdrawal “does fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West.”
Of course, the immediate consequences will be borne by the people left behind. We’ve already glimpsed some of those consequences. One of the saddest is yet another image that’s hauntingly similar to an earlier moment in history: On the day this war began, desperate Americans could be seen falling to their deaths as they tried to escape the hell of the World Trade Center towers. Twenty years later, desperate Afghans could be seen falling to their deaths as they tried to escape the hell of Kabul. The Taliban is culpable in both cases.
It will get worse. Without the backstop support of America’s military, our erstwhile allies have been left to the tender mercies of our sworn enemies. Our allies in Afghanistan—democratically elected leaders and civil servants, U.S.-trained police and military personnel, teachers and schoolkids, aid workers and moderate imams—will be subjected to all the Taliban’s dark arts: summary executions, mutilations, maimings, torture, the rollback of learning and light. And our enemies will be given, yet again, safe haven to plan and plot. The UN reports that “the Taliban continue to be the primary partner” for virtually every terrorist group operating in Afghanistan. According to the Pentagon, the “Taliban maintains close ties to al-Qaeda,” which has a presence in 21 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. ISIS, too, has set up shop in Afghanistan.
This is what worries men who have been fighting the Taliban, al-Qaeda and jihadism for 20 years—men like Gen. David Petraeus. Without the “means to pressure extremist networks,” Petraeus warns of “the re-establishment of a terrorist sanctuary” in Afghanistan. “Ending U.S. involvement in ‘endless wars’ doesn’t necessarily end the wars,” he adds matter-of-factly. “It just ends our participation.”
CENTCOM commander Gen. Frank McKenzie counters that there are plans “to go after al-Qaeda and ISIS from…other locations in the theater.” But Petraeus is not so sanguine about those plans. “The cost of retaining a few thousand troops in Afghanistan pales in comparison with the price the nation will pay strategically and economically if al-Qaeda or ISIS rebuilds a terrorist platform there,” Petraeus argues.
Petraeus knows that history can indeed repeat itself—and he remembers what the Manhattan skyline looked like before the Taliban opened Afghan territory to al-Qaeda.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay appeared in the July 12, 2021, edition of Providence.