The quick fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban and completion of the chaotic evacuation of Americans and Afghans from Kabul Airport last week has given rise to a lot of recriminations and finger pointing against the Biden Administration. We are, after all, a country which often assigns blame for what’s gone wrong through hindsight but rarely uses history as guide to get things right through foresight.

The Afghan War could be the poster child for historical blindness.

Like Paul Simon’s song, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” there were plenty of ways to get out of Afghanistan in 2021, none of them good.

If American military personnel and contractors had started withdrawing sooner, it would likely have triggered a panic and might have precipitated an even quicker collapse by their Afghan counterparts. If Afghan collaborators, such as translators, had been pulled out too early, the U.S. civil and military administration would have been hamstrung in carrying out the final evacuation. And if we failed to honor the withdrawal deadline negotiated by the Trump administration with the Taliban, they would have renewed their offensive as American forces were departing and at their most vulnerable.

The right move would have been to stay out of what history has dubbed the “Graveyard of Empires” in the first place. It’s a region which has proven indigestible for every would-be conqueror from Alexander the Great to the Imperial Britain to the Soviet Union.

Even if no policy maker in 2001 had bothered to look at the Afghanistan entry in Wikipedia (the website having first appeared that year), there were still raw, fresh memories of the Vietnam War to remind us of the futility of involvement in internecine warfare in a geographically rugged, ethnically diverse, stubbornly tribal and culturally alien land without anything resembling a stable government, a reliable local partner or a clear, achievable strategic goal.

Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Craig Whitlock has just published The Afghanistan Papers, an autopsy of the poor policy decisions which drew us into and kept us stuck in the Afghan War for over two decades. Based on hundreds of interviews with civilian officials, military leaders, front-line soldiers and aid workers, the book, on the one hand, promises to be a bombshell. On the other hand, its conclusions should come as no surprise to those who’ve studied history.

The publisher’s promo sums up the gist of what the book’s interviewees revealed: “In unvarnished language, they admit that the US government’s strategies were a mess, that the nation-building project was a colossal failure, and that drugs and corruption gained a stranglehold over their allies in the Afghan government.”

This contrasts sharply with the persistently optimistic public reports of four Presidential administrations that we and our Afghan allies were keeping the Taliban in check and building an increasingly self-sufficient Afghan military force and civil administration. It’s entirely consistent, however, with the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and government when the U.S. finally withdrew its forces from the country.

It’s also consistent with the U.S. experience in South Vietnam between 1961 and 1975.

Of the reams of books and articles that have been written about the Vietnam War probably the most enlightening is, “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and American in Vietnam,” published in 1988 by New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, also a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Sheehan’s subject, John Paul Vann, a gung-ho Army officer, served as a senior military advisor to a South Vietnamese infantry division in the Mekong Delta from 1962 to 1963, then as civilian pacification official from 1965 until his death in a helicopter crash in 1972.

While a military adviser, Vann observed and reported the unwillingness of Vietnamese soldiers to fight the Viet Cong insurgency under corrupt and ineffective leaders whose loyalty was not to country but to their familial clans and political patrons. As a pacification official, he complained to his superiors about the U.S. indiscriminate bombing and shelling of the countryside, a strategy conducted to drive peasants out of rural areas and into refugee camps and urban slums in order to deny Viet Cong guerillas and North Vietnamese soldiers their logistical base.

Vann was loathed by the American military and civilian leadership in Vietnam because his candid reports up the chain of command were at odds with the rosy picture they were trying to create, complete with color coded charts, about how the enemy’s forces were being degraded by attrition and the countryside was being “pacified.” Far worse from their point of view, he was leaking to news reporters who were skeptical about the truth of the official government line.

The parallels between the Afghan and Vietnam Wars are many.

Each war was started based on the false assumptions about U.S. security needs. In Vietnam is was that every Communist revolutionary movement or regime, such as Hanoi’s, was directed by the Soviet Union and would, if victorious, automatically constitute another serious Cold War threat to the U.S. In Afghanistan, it was that every radical Islamist movement, such as the Taliban, was a terrorist organization aiming to commit or conspire in murderous acts against American civilians.

Each was conducted on the false assumption that superior American firepower, particularly from the air, would eventually bring the enemy to its knees.

Each was perpetuated based on the false assumption that, given enough time, effort and money, we could train and equip our local allies to defend and govern themselves.

Most importantly, each was marked by wholesale disregard of the unique geographical, cultural and historical factors which would inevitably frustrate any military or political effort to defeat the enemy, rebuild the country, or create a viable government, and, in each, American leaders deceived the public and ultimately themselves as to the success of their endeavors.

Each war was, in effect, a “bright, shining lie.”

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 15 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]


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