Local allied forces melting away before an enemy relentlessly advancing faster than even the most pessimistic predictions. The desperate scramble to evacuate U.S. citizens and their foreign allies. The psychic shock of seeing the world’s most expensive military once again unable to permanently suppress vastly less well-resourced opponents with deep local roots. The sense of fear and betrayal experienced by local allies who trusted American power to protect them.
The parallels between the rapid collapse of the Afghan government before Taliban forces this August and the fall of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in 1975 practically write themselves, right down to the fact that one of the same State Department CH-46E helicopters that evacuated the embassy in Vietnam was involved in extracting diplomats from Kabul in 2021.
But it’s a mistake to overstate that commonality, to treat every shocking defeat as the same defeat. Let’s consider some important differences between these admittedly wrenching setbacks for U.S. foreign policy.
No “decent interval” for Kabul
Recordings of meetings between Kissinger and Nixon starting in 1971 reveal they didn’t expect South Vietnam to survive long without direct military support from Washington, but that they wanted to arrange for a ‘decent interval’ between the U.S. withdrawal and Saigon’s fall to insulate the U.S. (and its president) from the hit to its reputation.
So U.S. military units remained in South Vietnam until early 1973 fighting a war Nixon already believed was hopeless as they blunted North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive in 1972.
The Trump and Biden administration likely believed they had arranged a decent interval for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, trusting assessments that the Afghan military was large enough to at least defend major cities for many months or even years. When it became clear that was a fantasy, the U.S. Air Force and Navy did launch limited strikes on Taliban columns in August in an attempt to slow the Taliban advance. But ultimately Washington refused to halt the withdrawal and beat back the Taliban forces.
Right now, it’s maybe tempting to sympathize with the idea it would have been less embarrassing if the capture of Kabul had taken longer. Against all evidence, one might hope a less abrupt exit might have bought the Afghan government more time to save itself.
But putting off a painful but inevitable act is the epitome of buck-passing and short-termism. Furthermore, it’s objectionable to continue telling U.S. citizens their sons and daughters were being sent to die in a war that could still be won, having privately concluded the opposite.
For that matter, while Nixon and Kissinger maintain the interval was meant to protect America’s reputation in credibility, there’s just as much reason to believe they had domestic political interests high on their mind, as you can see in this slightly abridged excerpt from a transcript of one of their discussions:
(President Nixon): ….we also have to realize, Henry, that winning an election is terribly important. It’s terribly important this year, but can we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam? That’s the real question.
(Henry Kissinger): If a year or two years from now North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it’s the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say that in a three- to four-month period, we have pushed President Thieu [of South Vietnam] over the brink, we ourselves, I think…it will worry everybody. And domestically in the long run it won’t help us all that much because our opponents will say we should’ve done it three years ago. So we’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which… after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January ’74 no one will give a damn.
Invasion by a state-level military.
There’s little doubt that like the Afghan government, the Republic of South Vietnam was beset by a crippling rural insurgency and lacked political support outside of the cities save for amongst certain allied ethnic minorities.
But Saigon didn’t fall to a rural insurgency. It was overthrown by the North Vietnamese army which invaded with regiments and divisions mustering hundreds of tanks and artillery systems, though to be sure benefitting from Viet Cong assistance.
Nor did South Vietnamese forces give up without a fight. They fought and were defeated in large battles involving tens of thousands of troops at Ban-Me Thuot, Xuân Lộc, Hue, and Da Nang. To be sure, after these shattering engagements, retreating South Vietnamese units routed and were unable to execute a defense in depth that might have bought more time for Saigon. But even then, South Vietnam managed to deploy forces to defend Saigon itself.
By contrast, the Taliban takeover in 2021 involved few major battles. The group’s preferred tactic in Afghanistan was to bribe local forces in advance to surrender without a fight. The more elite Afghan forces that remained loyal were simply left without the supply lines and guarded flanks needed to hold out against the Taliban. Eventually, the government in Kabul seemingly stopped organizing the counter-attacks, airstrikes and resupply runs necessary to at least slow the Taliban advance and support its remaining loyal troops.
No evacuation under fire
As disturbing as the chaos and panic at Kabul’s airport are, as sinister as the Taliban’s early actions have been, the residents of Kabul were at least spared the misery and collateral damage of a siege and house-to-house urban warfare due to the early surrender of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. And at least as of the time of this writing, the evacuation effort hasn’t come under attack by the Taliban.
By contrast, the fall of Saigon was an actual battle, with shells and rockets raining down on the city and South Vietnamese paratroopers, tanks, and jet fighters repelling North Vietnamese tank attacks. Early in the morning of April 29, an evacuation transport was destroyed by artillery on the runway of Tan Son Nhut airbase. Two warplanes deployed to cover the evacuation from the air were shot down. Shelling and bombing eventually rendered the airport unusable, limiting evacuation flights to helicopters.
Cold War and the Dubious Domino Effect
Some commentators have obsessed over the notion that withdrawal from Afghanistan will make the U.S. appear weak before China and Russia. But if this is even a real problem, it’s a far cry from the context of the Vietnam War, where China and Russia directly supported Hanoi’s war with the U.S. and South Vietnam due to ideological sympathies, and the overall costs it was imposing on the U.S.
By comparison, Moscow and Beijing simply haven’t provided real assistance to the Taliban, as they are generally anti-Islamist in orientation, fearing Islamist insurgencies and terrorism on their own soil.
The Taliban’s actual state-level benefactors were Pakistan—which literally created and armed the Taliban in a gambit to control Afghanistan—and its diplomatic chaperone Qatar. Obviously, while Washington may have a bone to pick with its ostensible allies, Pakistan is hardly a global adversary and Qatar continues to offer critical U.S. military basing.
During the Cold War Washington often justified its costly efforts opposing Communist forces in developing countries by invoking “domino theory,” the idea that a Communist victory in one country would lead to the destabilization and overthrow of adjacent states. Communist Vietnam today, the thinking went, could lead to Thailand, the Philippines, perhaps even Japan tomorrow.
This wasn’t entirely baseless. Vietnam’s neighbors Laos and Cambodia also fell to communist insurgencies, though more as a consequence of Hanoi’s war effort than because of its victory over Saigon.
But the U.S. perception of Vietnam amounting to another global victory for Team Communism was simplistic and ill-informed. The Vietnamese had their own history and foreign policy agenda. They remained friends with the Soviets, but warred with China and (relatedly) overthrew the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Today, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will raise regional concerns for neighbors, including Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, sympathetic to ethnic minorities in Afghanistan opposed to Taliban, and in some cases who may fear the energizing of Islamist insurgencies on their own soil.
But this potential threat may also make it difficult for the Taliban to secure its influence in the region, particularly as these countries may decide to aid anti-Taliban forces. Furthermore, the Taliban has cultivated an identity as a local insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than a global brand like ISIS or Al Qaeda. It remains to be seen to what extent it willingly will serve again as hosts to globally-oriented extremists that could incite future military interventions.
There’s no denying the real despairs and pain the Taliban’s victory evokes for so many people ranging from U.S and allied NATO soldiers to Afghan civilians and humanitarian workers who have lost so much in the conflict or stand to lose much living under Taliban rule.
However, we make better use of history by understanding its unique context and circumstances rather than blindly slapping labels on events that don’t do justice to the present circumstances.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.