When the United States withdrew its last soldier from Vietnam in March of 1973, I watched the top North Vietnamese representative in Saigon present him with a little picture of Ho Chi Minh as a souvenir as he boarded the aircraft that would take him home. I remember wondering whether the South Vietnam that I had spent so long writing about would be able to survive without the Americans who had been propping it up for so many years.
I doubt the Taliban is going to give the last American solider out of Afghanistan any souvenirs, and I wonder, too, how long Afghanistan’s government can last.
In Vietnam’s case, it took just two years and one month before I was climbing aboard a helicopter from the American Embassy in Saigon as the North Vietnamese army closed in on the doomed capital. One has to wonder whether Kabul will last that long.
Already the charges of betrayal are being heard in Washington as President Biden prepares to bring home American soldiers from Afghanistan after 20 years of futile effort, which began in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the stark fact remains, just as it was in Vietnam, that despite spending $2 trillion and sending hundreds of thousands of troops to Afghanistan, the United States has not been able to create a viable government in their client state that can withstand the assaults of a dedicated and motivated foe, the Taliban.
I listened to the American generals and planners in both countries — General William Westmoreland in Vietnam to David Petraeus in Afghanistan — tell me how their counterinsurgency campaigns and their pro-democracy efforts were going to eventually turn the tide. Almost all the American officials I met in Kabul used rhetoric that was startlingly similar to that used by the troops in Vietnam. In Afghanistan, as the years stretched into decades, pacification and “government in a box,” which the Americans were going to deliver to a society totally unprepared for democratic institutions, morphed into “Afghanistan good enough,” which was really an admission that it was never going to be good enough.
Of course there are many and important differences. In Vietnam, America lost more than 50,000 troops, while the killed-in-action count in Afghanistan is nearly 2,400. And no young Americans were drafted to serve in Afghanistan. If they had been, the war would never have lasted this long. But in the main, the American effort in both wars was remarkably the same. Kabul may last longer if we keep supplying them with arms and ammunition. We cut off our assistance to South Vietnam just as it faced its greatest peril.
But that is not the reason we lost in Vietnam. The question remains: Why did we lose the two wars generations apart?
Three reasons come to mind. Militarily, we made our clients too dependent on machinery — air power, helicopters, artillery — while the enemy kept to guerrilla tactics in which they excelled.
In addition, corruption sapped the strength we were trying to build in our clients, and drained the faith of both South Vietnamese and Afghans in each government and its institutions.
Lastly and most important, our clients could never shake the impression that they were puppets fighting for foreigners, while the Viet Cong and the Taliban were able to present themselves as the true patriots fighting to rid their country of colonialism. In Afghanistan, the call to jihad to rid the country of foreigners has been a powerful motivator ever since the disastrous British retreat from Kabul in 1842, through the Russian withdrawal across the Oxus in 1989, and will remain so until Sept. 11, 2021 when we Americans finally close our tents and depart.
H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe and author of “Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir.”