By Peter Oborne
PoliticsJune 23rd, 2011
The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, formalised by Barack Obama early yesterday, cannot be precisely compared to America’s humiliation in Vietnam nearly 40 years ago. There have been no photographs – not yet, anyway – of US embassy staff being airlifted out of the Kabul embassy.
The approximately 6,000 American deaths from the two failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan do not compare to the nearly 60,000 who lost their lives in Vietnam, in part because of the miracles wrought by modern trauma surgeons. The exit, so President Obama and David Cameron insist, will be carefully managed.
But President Nixon made the same claim when he announced his policy of “Vietnamisation” after his victory in 1968. Nixon and his advisers envisaged a smooth transition as the US departed and a South Vietnamese administration took its place. But neither the Saigon government nor its US-trained army could cope as America scuttled for the exit in the spring of 1975.
Let’s throw the clock forward to 2014, the year Obama and Cameron say combat operations must end. This much is certain: the Taliban will return to power, conceivably with Mullah Omar (still topping the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list) coming down from the mountains to resume his old position, so rudely interrupted, as Head of the Supreme Council and effective head of state.
It is unlikely that Taliban commanders will take kindly to the flourishing nightlife and lively restaurants that have sprung up under President Karzai’s rule. All this will close at once, while Kabul’s notorious Swimming Pool Hill – where blindfolded criminals and homosexuals were pushed off a high diving board to their deaths – may open again for its ghoulish business. The Taliban attitude towards female education has, to be fair, improved over the past decade. At best, Kabul will come to resemble a provincial Saudi Arabian city.
It is unlikely that the Taliban will exert the same mesmeric centralised control over all Afghanistan that it did before the 2001 invasion. The forces ranged against it are, for the time being, too strong, while after 10 years of war the Taliban itself has fractured into opposing groups. This is why American strategists are hoping for a negotiated solution: an arrangement embracing both the Taliban and elements of the old Northern Alliance. It is more than likely that this will not work, and Afghanistan will face a civil war, just as it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. If so, humanitarian agencies will find it impossible to operate, and reports of hideous carnage and atrocities will seep out of the country, with Western powers unable to do more than wring their hands. Stalemate is the likely outcome: eventually, large parts of the country will be dominated by warlords, each appropriating a chunk of the Afghan National Army.
In any case, it is unlikely that Obama’s sketchy three-year plan will work. There is no serious incentive – apart from cash – for any Afghan to stay loyal to the departing Americans and British. They must look to secure their future. President Karzai – currently at the heart of a massive banking fraud – will probably quit soon and flee, taking with him the billions of pounds his family have stolen.
Meanwhile, governments such as Britain’s, with armies still operating inside Afghanistan, will be forced to answer a very troubling question: why are we sending our bravest and best young men to be maimed and killed when we are going to leave, anyway? The pointless horror of Britain’s final months in Basra Palace remains a potent memory, and must not be repeated. Whatever our discredited generals may claim, nothing important is going to change over the next three years, and what does will not be for the better.
Those countries with a genuine long-term interest in the region will get more and more involved, and be entitled to do so – China, Iran, India, Russia and, above all, Pakistan. No force on earth will prevent the Pakistani government from backing the Afghan Taliban, and it is past time that Britain and the US woke up to this elemental fact.
So where does this latest humiliation leave the United States? There were many who predicted that defeat in Vietnam marked the end of the American century, yet they were soon proved wrong and the US went on to enjoy a period of astonishing global success. But remember this – Nixon and Kissinger played one dazzling card as Vietnam weakened. They made peace with China, recruited her as an ally against Soviet Russia, and opened this formerly closed state to international capitalism. The consequences can be assessed in the history books – the greatest advance in living standards the world has ever seen, and US hegemony reaffirmed for an extra generation. But that happy epoch is over. China feels no gratitude, and has turned almost overnight from protégé into malevolent rival, with an ever harsher appreciation of the realities of global power.
Certainly, America remains the greatest military force on earth, with three million men and women in uniform and seven formidable battle fleets, with a combined tonnage greater than the next 13 largest navies combined. Yet the sorry lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that this prodigious military muscle is practically useless for 21st-century warfare. Incoming defence secretary Leon Panetta’s solution, expounded at his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month – to place US military personnel under CIA direction, so their operations can be made secret and unaccountable – is sinister and unconstitutional.
Back in 1974, as the US prepared to abandon Vietnam, its national deficit stood at $6.1 billion, equivalent to about $27 billion today. This year’s deficit is $1,660 billion – 60 times higher. Back then, US debt stood at $475 billion (around $1.8 trillion, inflation adjusted). In the intervening period, that debt has risen sevenfold to around $14 trillion, having doubled over the last seven years alone. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is, in part, the unexpected consequence of this financial crisis.
There is a sense that yesterday’s Afghan defeat was ordained when Barack Obama, with his mandate to bring George W Bush and Tony Blair’s senseless “War on Terror” to an end, won the 2008 presidential election. Now Obama has fulfilled his promise, and the task that lies before him now is to manage that defeat. More serious than America’s military defeat in Afghanistan has been its moral defeat. Again and again, it has behaved as hideously, and with the same barbaric contempt for human rights, as the worst of its enemies. Obama needs to reunite the United States with civilised values and redefine his country’s role in the world.
The rest of the familiar post-war architecture has gone. America is no longer capable of being the policeman of the world, and may retreat to its historic isolation. Across the Channel, the debt crisis is wrecking the European dream. History is moving faster than ever, and taking us into a new and formless world.