As I write this, the United States is currently on the fourth day of emergency evacuations for all U.S. citizens, Afghan employees, and anyone else fearing Taliban rule since the terror group completed its conquest of Afghanistan on August 16th. The images and videos have invoked a variety of emotions and memories among the veteran community, government, and citizens. But looking beyond the punditry, the rhetoric, and talking bobble heads of the D.C. bubble—growing evidence illustrates that although most Americans are unified in wanting an end to America’s longest war, how we exited will prove to be far more detrimental to its interests than the fall of Saigon was in 1975.
Excluding the past 20-something years America has invested in propping up the Afghan government and its security forces, the last four months were of little surprise to anyone with any real Afghan deployment experience in the last five years. The indicators were all there; governmental corruption, growing ineffectual security, an stagnating economy, and a national identity that never grew past tribal instincts. All while the Taliban slowly nibbled away, consuming the outer provincial territories and cities. And in their gains we started seeing the true underpinning of what will become the greatest tragedy of American foreign policy.
America spent trillions of tax payer dollars over the past two decades to equip, train, and support the Afghan government and its army—including its elite Afghan Special Operation units and technical Air Corps. And as the Taliban made sequential gains, they always made an offer to the Afghan forces ahead of them; surrender, give up your weapons, and return to your homes unharmed. In some cases the Taliban even paid these Afghan forces to do so, and the Afghan forces simply melted away. As a result, MSM reporters (often at the invitation of Taliban commanders or posted in Taliban propaganda) documented shipping containers and buildings, in former U.S. and Afghan bases, filled with tax-payer funded weaponry, munitions, night-vision equipment, drones, MRAPs, and aircraft that had been abandoned by Afghan forces.
Even when America quit Vietnam due to the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, and despite ongoing pressure from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) the entire time, the U.S. still was able to complete a somewhat reasonable accountability of its weaponry amid withdrawal so as it not to fall into the enemy’s hands. The end of America’s involvement in Vietnam culminated in Operation Frequent Wind from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy as Saigon fell to the Communists. That specter remains one of the darkest moments in U.S. foreign policy, the scar of which continues to haunt the American psyche even to this day. The impact of the U.S. evacuation out of Vietnam was made only worse as the NVA purged Saigon of anyone it suspected of colluding with Americans or it felt could ferment opposition to the new Communist authority. Many were innocent civilians.
Fast-forward to a press meeting on July 8th, 2021 when President Biden was asked about the rapid gains of the Taliban in Afghanistan he said
“The Taliban is not the south — the North Vietnamese army. They’re not — they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/08/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-drawdown-of-u-s-forces-in-afghanistan/
But in the last four days, the parallels between 1975 and today are as stark as they are haunting. CH-47s air lifting embassy staff and U.S. citizens off the roof in Kabul, as Taliban forces entered the city, struck deeply into the heart of the American psyche. Desperate Afghans, many promised protection by the American government in exchange for their assistance in targeting the Taliban, clung to a C-17 in a bid to escape only to fall to their deaths. Afghan parents tearfully surrendered their children over the walls of the U.S. security perimeter around the Kabul airfield, all glaringly illustrate the indisputable parallels of Vietnam. The maxim remains that, yet again, although America never lost a battle in Afghanistan, it failed to win the war. The impact of this militarily and politically is as profound and wide as it was in 1975. Even now, American allies see the United States as ineffectual (made worse from America’s disastrous involvement in Iraq whereby it spent over a decade to train the Iraqi Army only to have the entire northern half of the army flee ISIS in 2014), with many voicing their distain and departure from the U.S. openly on the world stage. American veterans from the Afghan conflict, many whom lost their own limbs or friends, are repeating the same downward psychological spiral that the veterans of the Vietnam-era struggle with to this day.
But it’s the departure that will come next that will separate the American exit from Afghanistan as the peer disaster for U.S. foreign policy and its people.
Many of the Taliban are now openly exchanging antiquated AK-47s for captured American weapons, to include American M4 Carbines, M249 Squad Automatic Rifles, and M24 Sniper Rifles. This is turning what was a hodge-podge of roughly unified, tribally-based, Taliban groups into a modern-day fighting force. In at least one video, the Taliban flaunted a captured Mi-17 transport helicopter, flying it along a Taliban convoy. And yet there are still more weapons and equipment that remain to be delved out as spoils of war. All of this will be certainly used by the Taliban to not only enforce its rule over Afghanistan and its diverse people, but fund its coffers as items like U.S. drones and weapons are sold to the global black market. This says nothing of the more technical equipment, like abandoned night vision or MaxxPro MRAPs in Jalalabad or Bagram, that will be sold to foreign powers like China or Russia to reverse engineer. These spoils in the hands of the Taliban will most likely further destabilize a nervous Pakistan who has long had a love-hate relationship with the Taliban in its own Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It will also be used in Taliban propaganda to further its narrative on legitimacy and recruitment, or garner the allegiance of groups abroad, and thus expand the Taliban’s influence beyond its Afghan borders.
In essence, America has let a terror group, one it has fought for over 20 years, transform itself into a fully-functional nation-state, armed with more modern weaponry (short of tanks and nukes) than any neighboring country.
One could argue, with the Taliban now claiming itself as the leaders to all Afghanistan and governing according to Sharia Law (a claim that parallels the ghosts of ISIS at the inception of its power), we are seeing the emergence of another Iran after the Shah was deposed in 1979. An ideological-based state dedicated to the destruction of Western influence and the United States. But unlike Iran; Afghanistan is completely landlocked, remote and austere, and with no U.S. assets anywhere nearby to assist in further operations. Any terrorist safehavens that are established will be beyond America’s ability to monitor or target. In effect, America will be as blind to threats originating out of Taliban-held Afghanistan as it was prior to 9/11.
The failure of Afghanistan transcends political parties, presidencies, and policies. Everyone agrees that America could not stay indefinitely, and the time for departure was near. But how it exited Afghanistan, so hastily and disorganized when it didn’t have to be, set into motion a series of events that will haunt America for years—potentially decades. Far longer than Vietnam ever did.