In the middle of America’s decidedly messy bailout from Afghanistan last week, one U.S. military official complained to a news reporter: “People are comparing this to the fall of Saigon. This is nothing like the fall of Saigon.”
Maybe he meant that frantic would-be refugees weren’t dangling from departing helicopters like that iconic and horrifying scene back in 1975. Instead, at the Kabul airport, they were clinging to departing airplanes. Other than that, the recent events seemed to check most of the boxes needed to qualify as deja vu.
Why does this keep happening to us? Perhaps it might be pertinent to consider two quotes.
The first, you’ve probably heard: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”
The second comes from an old 1970s Doors song: “They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers.”
Those pearls of wisdom should be framed and hung up in the office of every American bureaucrat and military planner, lest insanity set in again somewhere down the road.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. once again managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We accomplished our original mission quite nicely, flushing out the al-Qaeda terrorists who had been enjoying the Taliban‘s hospitality and bombing the Taliban itself into an afterthought. But then we hung around for 20 more years, apparently hoping to change Afghanistan into New Jersey.
The United States still has arguably the best military money can buy. We are envied worldwide for our standard of living. Our troops fought courageously in an alien and inhospitable land. We poured almost 85 billion dollars into building up the Afghan army to the point of being able to defend its own country
Nevertheless, the reborn Taliban reduced that multi-billion-dollar Afghan force to a series of minor speed bumps as it conquered every important Afghan town in less than a week. Even our victory in the second Iraq War, a monumental mismatch, took longer than that.
Back home in Washington, our politicians were reacting to this turn of events in much the same way as they react to almost everything these days — by turning it into a partisan mud fight.
This debacle must be Joe Biden’s fault, since it is playing out on his watch. But then again, didn’t Donald Trump set all this in motion when he was president?
Does it really matter? After all, leaving Afghanistan was one of the few things Trump and Biden ever agreed on.
All I know about Afghanistan is what I read or see on TV. I’ve never been there, and this doesn’t seem like a good time to change that.
Yet it seems obvious that both Vietnam and Afghanistan have taught us the same two lessons, had we only paid attention. First, trying to solve problems in such places with military muscle is not only expensive but an exercise in futility. Second, some countries are just not ready for democracy, no matter how much we try to will it into existence.
The record of our international military adventures is clear. We are very good at helping Country A reject an invasion from Country B, as we proved in two worldwide conflicts and the first Gulf War. We are very bad at solving other nations’ internal conflicts.
Why? Because our opponents in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are smart enough not to confront an obviously superior American force directly. They bide their time, score a few incremental victories without risking much, blend in with the citizenry. and wait for the intruders to get tired of it all and leave.
Because they are on their home turf, the Taliban could afford to wait forever, if need be, to stage their comeback. They knew where to stage an effective ambush and where to hide. They could intimidate other Afghans because they lurked among them.
By contrast, the Americans struggled to deal with an alien language, culture, and religion as their troops cycled in and out.
Afghanistan is very much a fractured society, tentatively overseen by a weak central government. Whatever the general feelings might be about democracy, the logistics of creating it are sorely lacking at this point.
Not that we paid much attention to that. Writing about a recent government report on the American progress (or lack of it) in reinventing Afghanistan. Pro Publica reporter Megan Rose noted: “The U.S. effort was clumsy and ignorant, the report says, calling out the hubris of a superpower thinking it could reshape a country it didn’t understand by tossing gobs of money around.”
That’s the bad news, especially for the people now being tormented and menaced by the more thuggish elements of the Taliban. The good news is, that may not last long.
Some Afghan regions seem determined to use their well-armed local militias to take back what their army has lost. Five of the Taliban’s key Websites recently went dark, at least for a while. Countries that normally provide money to Afghanistan now say that aid will be contingent on the Taliban changing its oafish behavior. The financial situation is already dire.
They may be effective fighters, but there is no indication that the Taliban knows how to govern. Many of their countrymen who could have helped in that regard have already been chased out or escaped.
The Taliban seems to be operating on the misguided premise that the rest of the world will simply leave them alone now that they’re in charge. In this smaller, Internet-inflamed world, that’s not going to happen.
We’ve got the guns, they’ve got the numbers. But bringing down the military hammer wasn’t working, anyway.
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."