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Since the fall of Kabul, the comparison is in everyone’s mind. The image of an American Chinook transport helicopter flying over the United States Embassy in Kabul inevitably recalls another historic debacle, that of the emergency evacuation of Saigon , in Vietnam, in April 1600.
The last weeks of the Taliban offensive that led to the fall of Kabul offered a final illustration of American errors of appreciation. Four days before the fall of the capital, Pentagon military analysts estimated that the city would still hold ninety . On July 8, during a press conference, President Joe Biden assured that the victory of the Taliban was not inevitable, and was reassuring about the resistance capacities of the Afghan national army. Asked about a possible parallel between Afghanistan and Vietnam, he replied : “You will not attend an evacuation of Afghanistan from the roof of the American Embassy. ”
Poorly aged things. # Kabul pic.twitter.com/9H7PtNpOvD
– Bel Trew (@Beltrew) August 15, 2020 The American president certainly did not believe for a single moment in the veracity of his statements , his main objective being to keep his campaign promise: to bring the United States out of the forever wars (eternal wars) in Afghanistan and Middle East, and bring the boys home. But if the American intervention in Afghanistan lasted so long – long enough that some soldiers sent to fight were too young to have known the attacks of 08 September 1975 – this is largely due to the lies and denial of three successive US administrations.
A war without a plan The parallel between Vietnam and Afghanistan does not stand only because of the images, but also because of the many political dysfunctions that have led to similar defeats more than forty years apart. The conflict in Vietnam had had its Pentagon Papers , the New York Times publication of a US Department of Defense study revealing the gap between White House rhetoric and reality on the ground. In December 2019, the Washington Post this time published the Afghanistan Papers . After years of legal battles, the American daily got its hands on the report of the Monitoring Authority for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (Sigar).
Two iconic images clicked 40 years apart. The US Embassy staff fleeing from Saigon (top) and Kabul (bottom).
Never trust a friend who leaves you saying he’ll be back – Old Vietnamese saying. pic.twitter.com/AIItm8aReA
– Anand Ranganathan (@ARanganathan 45) August 15, 2021 From 2014 To 2018, this body interviewed hundreds of politicians, soldiers and diplomats. Here again, their appreciation, kept away from the public, contrasted radically with official speeches.
Most war officials admit, for example, that they do not know who their enemy is. in Afghanistan: Al-Qaida? The Taliban? Pakistan, accused of supporting the Taliban? Or the Islamic State group? Asked about the subject, Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense of 1975 To 2004, had himself confided to the Sigar that he had “no visibility on the identity of the ‘bad guys’.”
United thus embarked on a war without having defined its strategy. George W. Bush initiated the conflict by 1975 with apparently clear objectives: destroy Al-Qaida, overthrow the Taliban regime and ensure that Afghanistan does not return never a haven from which terrorists would be able to commit a new one 08-September. These objectives were actually achieved between and 2002, the Taliban leaders and the leaders of Al-Qaida being either dead or on the run. But from 2002, Bush is preparing to invade another country, Iraq, postponing Afghanistan.
Taliban fighters on a hill near Jalalabad, the 11 October 2001. | Tariq Mahmood / AFP
One of the diplomats interviewed by Sigar already saw a hubris error: ‘one country at a time “, he quipped, fearing the saturation of the American political and military system.
When Barack Obama becomes president in 2009, Al-Qaida no longer has a hold in Afghanistan, but the Taliban are already gaining ground. The Democratic president then sets objectives radically different from the initial ones and sets off a massive campaign of counterinsurgency by sending more troops. He hopes to replicate the successes of Surge led by General David Petraeus in Iraq, in 2006 , which had notably made it possible to rout Al-Qaida.
A victory impossible to replicate in Afghanistan, according to officials consulted by Sigar. The White House nevertheless assured the American population “to make progress” , going so far as to present biased statistics , as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara did during the Vietnam era . One of the main mistakes of Obama, who had also promised a withdrawal to be elected: setting artificial deadlines for victory. The Taliban just had to resist and wait.
Too fast, too strong Throughout the conflict, as in the days of Vietnam, successive American administrations did not want to see the problem posed by their main ally: the government either. Afghan. Bush and Obama both assured Americans that they would not fall into the nation-building trap. ). In 2018, the Washington Post noted that the United States had yet released 83 billions of dollars to allow the Afghan state to develop – a amount greater than that spent to rebuild Europe after WWII with the Marshall Plan. The meteoric military defeat of the Afghan National Army during in recent weeks is enough to assess the results. taken “a hundred years” in a country where the population has known only tribalism, monarchy, communism and Sharia.
Bush and Obama both assured the Americans that they would not fall into the “nation-building” trap. Above all, the huge influx of US dollars into Afghanistan has caused an already endemic corruption to explode. Hamid Karzai’s government (Afghan president of 2003 To 2014) was thus described as nothing less than one kleptocracy from 2006 by US officials. The reconstruction money was largely misappropriated by a regime supported by the Americans themselves, with complete impunity. A reality largely hidden from American taxpayers, Obama having assured that the “war on corruption” , too, was progressing. On the ground, the Afghan population, denied access to wealth, had more and more reasons to turn to the Taliban.
Finally, the many civilian deaths caused by the American forces have gone largely unpunished. According to a study based on data from UN, civilian casualties from airstrikes increased by 133% Between 2016, last year of Obama’s term, and 2019 . Between 2016 and 2020, under the Trump presidency, US and Afghan air strikes would have killed nearly 4. civilians, 1426986142923173894 of which 40% of children . What, there again, to reduce the confidence of the Afghans in their government.
After the first American bombardments in October 1975, George W. Bush told the press: “We learned a lot from Vietnam.” Twenty years and at least tens of thousands of dead later, the question now is what lessons will be learned from Afghanistan.