Republished - US withdraws from Afghanistan: Vietnam revisited

Bassem Aly , Monday 16 Aug 2021

In many ways the US withdrawal from Afghanistan revives memories of Vietnam

Vietnam revisited

The Biden administration is willing to conclude its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by 11 September, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But this is no longer news. Instead, the whole world is waiting to see what the country will look like after no foreign troops are present on its soil.

The Taliban, which hosted Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and formed a regime the Americans ousted after invading the country in 2001, is too impatient to wait beyond this date, giving out mixed signals.

On the one hand, it keeps moving forward with peace talks, planning to submit a written proposal to the government – to which the Americans are transferring by August, just as they did in Bagram’s Air Base. On the other hand, it is resorting to violence on an enormous scale.

This “could be very similar to Vietnam,” said Thomas Johnson, a research professor of national security Affairs at the Monterey-based Naval Postgraduate School. “In April 1975, even though there were the Paris peace negotiations - a political theatre just like that of Afghanistan - the US-backed South Vietnamese army disappeared in the woodwork in six days, the minute the last helicopter left the US embassy,” said Johnson, who authored a book called Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict.

The South Vietnamese army was “highly professional and had 500,000 men and a tremendous air force,” explained Johnson. The ex-senior political and counter-insurgency adviser to the Canadian forces in Afghanistan thinks that the Taliban is “getting ready for assaults on cities”, taking district centres and controlling areas that are only 20 miles away from Kabul. “Once this happens, I believe the vast majority of the Afghan national police, which we already know is an extractive institution, will disappear; and I can give you many examples for this. So I am extremely pessimistic.”

He pointed out that, two weeks and a half ago, a US intelligence community report estimated that the Taliban would overtake the country within six months. “I think that’s overly optimistic. It will happen in six weeks if not six days. Since 1 May, people are saying that the Taliban captured 46 areas. But my information from Washington suggests that they captured 80 new districts.”

Many US Republicans, such as the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee Congressman Michael McCaul, are concerned about the situation in Afghanistan: they are blaming Biden for the withdrawal. But Afghanistan’s neighbours too seem to be thinking about it the same way.

On Monday Turkey and Iran decided to suspend their consulates in Afghanistan’s Balkh province due to government-Taliban clashes. Pakistan, which vowed to close its border with Afghnistan if the Taliban managed to rule the country once again, saw three of its soldiers killed on Monday in North Waziristan. This is an area where Pakistani Taliban militants regularly attack the army.

Yet Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings expert and ex-member of the external advisory board at the Central Intelligence Agency, said “it’s not likely” that the Taliban would manage a complete takeover of Afghanistan. O’Hanlon believes that “it will be very hard for them in parts of the Tajik-dominated north in particular. I think they may wind up with about half the country, maybe three fifths.”

Responding to a question on whether the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will pave the way to greater Turkish, Iranian and Pakistan roles, he said, “Perhaps, but that’s not my main concern.” O’Hanlon highlighted, rather, Afghanistan’s stability and the broader global counterterrorism efforts. “By those metrics, the US decision to leave is regrettable, I think.”

But this is now how Johnson, who fears a “proxy war” in Afghanistan, sees it. He stresses that Pakistan and China are now extremely close, conducting joint business that will reach almost $80 billion in the next few years. “A lot of people believe that the Taliban are proxies for the Pakistanis, which is incorrect. The Pakistanis for sure have an influence, and they give them refuge. But while the Pakistanis want the Americans to stay, the Taliban’s greatest wish has always been to get the US out.”

Johnson referred to India, which he expects will also be involved, being close to Russia. Finally, he spoke about Iran having “had a long, decent relationship with Afghanistan that has never been quite understood. Johnson argued that “it’s more of an ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ relationship although there is a small Shia community in the country. Actually, during the anti-Soviet Jihad, the Iranians deployed helicopters and gave weapons to the Shias who were fighting.”

Most European forces including those of Germany, Italy and Poland have already left. So, except for government forces, arguably no one is left there to back the Americans. According to the CNN, the Biden administration is still thinking about whether to carry out drone offensives and commando raids after the troops leave as tools of a post-withdrawal, counterinsurgency strategy.

Last month, moreover, Biden met with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani at the Oval Office to express support for him amid the growing fight against the powerful Taliban groups. It is yet to be seen to what extent the Americans will do so after they leave and how domestic events will unfold in the war-torn country.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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