For someone who watched the fall of Saigon nearly a half century ago, and had to leave in a hurry in a helicopter from the American embassy, the sudden fall of Kabul was all too familiar, showing how little the United States had learned from that previous debacle.
The collapse of an army we had trained and equipped was the same then as now. South Vietnamese forces simply melted away before that final offensive in 1975, same as the US-backed Afghan army did this month. It didn’t matter that they were far better equipped with far more fire power than their adversaries. South Vietnamese soldiers took off their uniforms and ran away in their underwear.
How could it happen?
First and foremost our clients could never capture the high ground of patriotic nationalism. Our Afghan allies, like the Vietnamese, always appeared to be the tools of foreign occupiers. You can train and equip somebody else’s army, but you cannot motivate it. Both the Vietnamese Communists and the Taliban were able to exploit the long memories of anti-colonial struggle.
Corruption was another factor in both catastrophes. Corruption sapped the will of the Afghan army as well as the Afghan people, just as it did in Vietnam. The United States flooded the country with money the economy couldn’t absorb. Both the Viet Cong and the Taliban appeared to be far more honest and less corrupt than the government forces.
The Americans taught the Vietnamese and the Afghans to fight as Americans fight, heavily dependent on machinery and firepower. I was shocked to read that in 20 years the US contractors who maintained military hardware in Afghanistan were not required to teach the Afghans to service the helicopters we had given them. We created an unhealthy dependency that made it difficult for our clients to stand on their own.
Americans in both Afghanistan and Vietnam paid too little time getting to know the history and culture of the people they were defending. Americans paid too little attention to the tribal and ethnic make up of Afghanistan. We decided to create a highly centralized state where none had existed before. We thought American know-how would carry the day, and we made the mistake of thinking that purple dye on a finger to show that someone had voted was the answer to 1,000 years of ethnic and tribal rivalry. I remember asking an American officer in Vietnam if he had studied the French War in Vietnam. He said, “No, why should I? They lost didn’t they?” I asked an American officer in Kabul if he thought the British attempt to replace one ruler with another they liked better had brought about their disaster in the 1842 retreat from Kabul. He didn’t know what I was talking about.
There was always an atmosphere of self-deception in the American missions in both Saigon and Kabul. We were always about to turn the corner. There was light at the end of the tunnel. Despite how things looked, we believed we were always winning the war. The can-do American spirit was always about to prevail. The briefings I received in Kabul were depressing, similar to what I had heard at briefings in Saigon at the infamous “five o’clock follies.”
The tragedy is that America really had no interest in either Vietnam or Afghanistan for themselves. We went into Vietnam to fight communism and into Afghanistan to fight terrorists. Over the years, mission creep took over, and we thought we could bring forth democracy in our image out of the barrel of a gun.
H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe and author of “Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir” and “Loaded with Dynamite: Unintended Consequences of Woodrow Wilson’s Idealism.”