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America can still win Vietnam showed how retreat can be turned into victory

US Marines in Vietnam (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

US Marines in Vietnam (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)


August 19, 2021   5 mins

Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, was very clear about the fall of Kabul: “This is manifestly not Saigon.

Really? It seems to me that the similarities between Vietnam in 1975 and Afghanistan in 2021 are unmistakable. Indeed, they were openly debated in the floor of the House of Commons, in yesterday’s debate. As Iain Duncan Smith put it: “the parallels [are] shocking, but also very true… this is a shame on all of us.”

In Vietnam, America found itself fighting in hostile terrain against a fanatical foe. Every strategy and tactic failed: counter-insurgency, troop surges, novel weaponry. Propping up a corrupt, unpopular government, the Americans came to realise that defeat was inevitable — and so they negotiated with the enemy and withdrew their troops. From that point, the fall of the capital was only a matter of time — though less time than anticipated. When the final collapse happened, it’s speed took the world by surprise.

Given this precedent, it is astonishing that the Americans didn’t see what might happen in Afghanistan — but they were blind to it. Back in July, Mystic Blinken made this prediction: “We are staying, the embassy is staying, our programs are staying. If there is a significant deterioration in security… I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.” He was exactly wrong — the Afghan government collapsed in one weekend.

In Kabul, we didn’t just get helicopters lifting off from the embassy roof, but also troop transports taking off from the airport with people clinging desperately to the sides. Tragically, those who held on longest tumbled to their deaths. And thus 20 years after the the Falling Man of 9/11, we had the falling men of Kabul — the horrific bookends of a disastrous foreign policy. 

Except, the story doesn’t end there. The knock-on effects will be felt for years, not least by those left behind. As for America, one can foresee a contemporary version of the “Vietnam syndrome” —  a crippling loss of national confidence. Globally, the enemies of the West will be emboldened, just as they were in the 1970s. Now, as then, the sense of doom is palpable.

But before we succumb to despair, its worth remembering the most salient fact of the post-Saigon era — which is that we survived. To paraphrase a song of the era, the West did not crumble. America did not lay down and die. The 1970s may have been a decade of defeat — but we can also see the retreat from Vietnam as a prelude to the 1980s and victory in the Cold War. 

Believe it or not, there are positive lessons that can be learned from this period.

Let’s begin with what didn’t happen after the Fall of Saigon. According to the Cold War “domino theory“, allowing the loss of one country to the communists would mean that neighbouring countries would soon follow. But that didn’t happen in South East Asia. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — the components of what had been French Indo-China — were all lost in the same year. But that was as far as it went. 

The remaining dominoes — Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines — didn’t topple. Instead, the communist powers turned on one another — the Russian-Chinese split intensified, China invaded Vietnam and Vietnam invaded Cambodia. 

Most of this was predicted by the CIA as early as 1967 — in a secret memo presented by its then director Richard Helms. As Mark Atwood Lawrence — a historian of the Vietnam War and director of the LBJ Presidential Library points out — it was clear both that Vietnam would fall to the communists and that the communist threat could be contained. 

We should have accepted the inevitable in Afghanistan too — because that’s also been obvious for years. We’ve known with absolute certainty that the former Afghan government was wholly dependent on the Americans — and wholly incapable of taking the lead against the Taliban. They should have been cut loose a decade ago. 

Of course, the argument against doing so was the same as it was in Vietnam — which is that abandoning allies, however unreliable, undermines confidence in Western resolve. But that only makes sense if one assumes that our resources are limitless. Quite clearly, they are not — and thus need to be deployed where they can make the biggest difference. 

Indeed, it is precisely because our resolve is so important that we should never test it where it can’t be sustained. Beyond the borders of the West that means fighting in support of local allies, but never in their place. We can help, but they must lead. A coalition of the willing is of no use unless it is also able. 

Yes, that’s not always obvious from the outset. Situations can deteriorate, especially when our allies lose credibility with their own people. Which is why we must be ready to withdraw and do so without hesitation. 

While we naturally associate retreat with defeat, many of the most successful leaders in history were those who mastered reverse gear. From the Russian evacuation of Moscow in 1812 to miracle of Dunkirk in 1940, going backwards is sometimes the only way forward. Or to quote General Oliver P Smith — who commanded the US 1st Marine Division during the Korean War — “we’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction”.

The principle applies at a territorial scale too.

When great powers withdraw from unwinnable situations that doesn’t always mean the beginning of the end. Often it’s the opposite. Just think about our own history. Time and again the English (or British) have withdrawn from territories — for instance the Danelaw in the dark ages, Aquitaine in the Middle Ages and America in the 18th century, only to rise again stronger than before. 

Another example is the Roman Empire in the third century, which by 270 AD was on the brink of collapse. But then along came the Emperor Aurelian. Realising that the situation on the Danube frontier was hopeless he ordered the entire province of Dacia to be abandoned. A tough call, but in withdrawing the legions to defensible borders he saved the Empire and earned himself the title of “Restorer of the World”. 

I doubt that anyone will be calling Joe Biden Restitutor Orbis anytime soon, but if he wants to restore his reputation — and save the West — then he too must redeploy the resources at his command.

In today’s world, the boundaries of the West aren’t just defined by geographical territory, but by financial, technological and other networks that span the globe. And it is here that our defences need repairing. 

While we’ve spent twenty years and two trillion dollars fighting unwinnable wars far from home, we’ve opened our own gates to the influence of hostile foreign powers. We’ve sold out our workers to profit from cheap labour overseas. We’ve flogged off our land to foreign investors while our young people struggle to own homes. We’re building sensitive infrastructure, including nuclear power stations, with Chinese technology. And we’re building pipelines to increase our dependency on Russian fossil fuels. 

Writing for UnHerd this week, Paul Kingsnorth claimed that the West is suffering a civilisational crisis. Despite the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan, he argues that we are not “short on ideas, arguments… or world-saving machines”, but that we are “very short on saints.” 

I agree about the saints, but not with the first part of his argument. If we can’t even build 5G networks without Chinese involvement then our civilisation is falling apart at the machine level too.

Doubtless this all stems from a deep spiritual malaise, but even the dead-souled technocrats who run our lives should be able to fix our broadband. This week the era of nation-building abroad came to an end. We would do well to replace it with an era of nation-building at home.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago

While I agree in general, the outcome is far from obvious as so much depends upon whether the US choses to revert to a meritocracy or continue along the path of a “Woketocracy”. Much of what has happened in the last few days largely stems from the fact that our US civilian and military readers are more concerned about pronouns, so-called white rage which only exists in their imagination, etc…. than on the real-world around them. Judging from the statements coming out of the Pentagon and State department one really has to wonder what world these people are living in: do they seriously think that the Taliban is trembling in their boots as a result of asinine statements and demands from the podium of the State Department or “very serious letters” sent to Taliban via the United Nations. To that extent I think we are in uncharted waters. For sure, no current ally would be wise to trust the US for military backing and staying power should the need arise. This includes Taiwan, South Korea, Israel, Ukraine, the various small states just East of Russia including Lithuania, Estonia, etc…..
The second issue relates to how the US fights with local allies in regions such as Afghanistan and how one can ensure that such allies can actually stand up on their own. The Afghan Special forces, for example, were first rate, but they had the US pull the plug from under them by removing their eyes and ears (i.e. pulling out any air support). For sure, the way that the US fights using a small number fo special forces on the ground supplemented by air support (including planes, helicopters and drones) to facilitate targeting particular locations with pinpoint accuracy only works when one can avail oneself of that air support to provide backing, strike capability and intelligence. Remove it, and the Afghan forces were then effectively flying blind so naturally they lay down their arms, fled or just melded back into the civilian population.
The truth is that current crop of US civilian and military leaders is not just incompetent but living in a fairy tale world that only exists within their imagination. That’s what will make it difficult for the US to come back from this debacle, especially since there’s another 3 years until the next presidential election. If the US makes it intact until then, and if the “deep state” that exists within the Pentagon (e.g. General Milley directly lying to the previous president, keeping information from him, and simply put disobeying orders which in effect amounts to sedition), the State Department, the Justice Department, etc… can be completely eliminated, then the US may stand a chance.

Last edited 2 years ago by Johann Strauss
Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

What is the General Milley issue/s that you reference?

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago

General Milley basically slow walked and never executed various orders from the previous president relating to troop pulldowns. He also blocked the use of troops to bring order to US cities during the riots of last summer.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

How can people like this be dealt with? People sneer at 3rd world countries where the armed forces have too much power, yet these deep state powers act with impunity.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

walking hip deep in the swamp mud slows one down….

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

“no current ally would be wise to trust the US for military backing and staying power should the need arise. This includes Taiwan, South Korea, Israel, Ukraine,”

Wrong – 20 years of sticking there, loss of life and vast resources – shows sticking power never seen before!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That we mishandled the reconstruction politically – hopefully the real Allies think they could handle their own reconstruction after the invading military was stopped.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Er, the Taliban didn’t have any air support either and about a quarter of the troops the Afghan Army had. The Taliban were simply far more motivated and even disciplined, always a good start for fighting a war. Why? Among other things they were fighting foreign interlopers and their lackeys, as they saw it, a puppet government. The Russians also had a lot of air power in Afghanistan, and lost.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

This week the era of nation-building abroad came to an end. We would do well to replace it with an era of nation-building at home.
I agree 1000%. Now, Mr. Franklin, please write the book that tells us how to heal our “civilizational crisis”, to borrow Paul Kingsnorth’s phrase, and rebuild our nations.
So much ink has been spilled describing the problems that ail the West, but so few of these writers seem able to provide concrete, workable proposals for restoration of our civilization. If the spiritual heart of the West is gone, as Paul Kingsnorth suggests, perhaps we’re already past the point of no return.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

The fall of Saigon was very significantly hastened by the refusal of the Democrats, largely out of spite, to sanction the promised air support the South Vietnamese forces.
All the US has to do to succeed in Afghanistan is to flood the country with cheap smartphones and wait for TikTok, Facebook, Twitter and online porn to completely corrupt the Afghan youth

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Nixon told Congress to give him the means to win the war and he would – but none would allow that for various reasons – so he said if he cannot win he will quit, and did.

Jim Cox
JC
Jim Cox
2 years ago

The Democrat senator who singlehanded stopped any provision for an orderly with-
drawal from Vietnam in 1975 was–you guessed it–Joe Biden.

Matt Hindman
MH
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

As a twenty year money laundering operation pretending to be a war, I would have to say Afghanistan was quite a success. If anyone is interested I would recommend looking up a Washington Post story from 2019 called The Afghanistan Papers.

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Interview with Ambassador Douglas Lute, NATO Permanent Rep, former Director Iraq/ Afghanistan, NSC 2007- 2014. Former Lt General
lute_doug_ll_01_d5_02202015.pdf
I bumped into an even more fundamenta l lack of knowledge; we were devoid of a fund amental und erstanding of Afgha nistan – we didn’t know what we were doing. What are the demographics of the country? The economic drivers? AID: really? We’re going to do someth ing in Afghanistan with $ 10 billion? Haiti is a small country in our own backyard with no extremist insurgency and we can’t develop it. And we expect to develop Afghanistan with $10 billion? Where we have the Pashtuns- a natio n with no nation state with 60 percent living in Pakistan. What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we we re undertaking. We never would have tolerated rosy[1]goal statements if we understood, and this didn’t really start happening until Obama. For example, the economy: we stated that our goal is to establish a “flourishing market economy.” I thought we s hould have specified a flourishing drug trade – this is the only part of the market that’s working. It’s really much worse than you think. There is a fundamenta l gap of understanding on the front end, overstated objectives, an overreliance on the military, a nd a lack of understanding of the resources necessary.
Somewhat alarming.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

all good till I hit ‘Obama’ as Obama was the time to exit, not dig in deeper.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

What is lacking is the understanding . Robert Baer ex CIA sad in 2001 the Company had only one Pashtu speaker.
The amount of aid is pointless; what counts is that do those who fight fight for the Taleban feel more or less inclined to do so? It would appear that no Afghan president has been able to earn the loyalty of more than a small minority of Pashtun.
The USA pursued eradication of poppy production but due to Afghan corruption the farmers saw little compensation. Aid money benefited American companies and western employees the most, the farmers the least, hence luke warm support for the Government by Pashtuns.
If only the Government had listened to Henry Worsley | The Spectator
The USA and UK lacked people with the expertise to asses that the Afghan Government actions were not gaining enough support from Pashtuns to fight the Taleban. The Taleban is largely Pashtun. It is very easy for Pashtun to support the Government in the meeting and then the Taleban afterwards. The USA and UK did not have enough Pashtuns telling them the truth or they ignored them.
During the Malayan Emergency it was known that some Chinese businessmen were paying the Communists as a form of insurance. Supporting both sides is common in many conflicts until there is a clear winner.

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Hi Matt, your recommendation is a total eye opener. I’ve been reading the various chapters and will buy the book. A friend of mine who served on Helmand as a civil affairs advisor (very dangerous) and started a charity for off grid power hadn’t heard of it. I suppose he was too busy trying to change village life for the better to notice. But if he had, and if I’d been him, I might just have wished them luck and left them to it.

I wouldn’t actually agree with your description of “money laundering” but showering the country with money it couldn’t legitimately absorb didn’t build an economy…it created an economy based on graft and corruption, creating what the papers call a “kleptocracy” and turbocharging opium production. I read that an estimated (by a US auditor) 40% of money went to a combination of the Taliban, corrupt officials, warlords and general bribery. Afghans considered that an underestimate.

Thanks again for bringing these papers to my attention.

Stephen Rose
SR
Stephen Rose
2 years ago

Well, apparently the Afghanistan federal reserve all 9.5 billion is nestled in the US, so they will play nice, for a while. Clearly someone clever in the US, set that up.

Saul Lanyado
SL
Saul Lanyado
2 years ago

We have been able to manage asymmetrical warfare surprisingly well so I’m sure we will manage the latest catastrophe too. The worst thing to happen, which Joe Biden soon to be a single term ex President has made infinitely worse, is to lose confidence. We’re much much better than that.

Earl King
EK
Earl King
2 years ago

As an American I can safely say we have witnessed the “peak” American Empire. We are exhausted and consumed with our internal struggle. America is either a great nation or its a crap nation and should die. There is no middle ground, neighbors are separating strictly in political registration. Op Ed’s compare the GOP to the Taliban over women’s rights. It all become crap here. Pax America is going the way of Pax Britannica.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Earl King

“As an American I can safely say we have witnessed the “peak” American”

Well it is your sort of American who caused this, judging by the post above. Good men doing nothing…

America may re-bound, but the flaw is the people – we are culturally and demographically no longer what made America Great. The education, MSM, Entertainment, Tech/Social Media, Democrats, Loath America and what made it great, and they have to be resisted. There is still a lot of greatness left – but fading fast.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago
Reply to  Earl King

Sadly, the latter, although it could have been the former. That it is not so blame Messrs Greenspan and Bernanke, and the corrupt 2000 Presidential process which allowed the Supreme Court to back the Bush family over the matter of the “hanging chads”, thereby bringing into office the weak George W and his evil sidekick Vice-President Cheney. Decline always comes. The surprise, in America’s case, is that decline came so early in the cycle.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago

Brother, America in 1975 is harshly different from America in 2021. Then: a broadly communal American society; a sense of a shared burden and a shared future; not much corruption in Washington. 2021: a harshly unequal society; no shared dream, except on PBS News and in the New York Times: massive corruption in the Pentagon and everywhere in Washington. One, in 1975, is an essentially healthy society; the other, in 2021, is a terminally sick society. Any country which is capable of electing someone like Donald Trump for a second term in 2024 obviously has profound problems.

Last edited 2 years ago by Giles Chance
hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

I agree with most of what you say.
I used to think that my vote was worth something, something still precious. Something to be reckoned with. I first voted in 1979, a time when the Left in the UK had brought the nation closer to its knees than even Hitler had achieved. The British Public voted and changed the Government, and we changed the drift of events, or at least slowed it down dramatically, for a few decades anyway…
2021…Sadly, I now realise that voting means little if the lefty/woke folks do indeed have control of our schools, education departments, universities, showbiz and much of the media etc. As the ugly intolerance spreads, gracious social norms are crushed for things that seem so vile; stupid short sightedness and narrow mindedness pervade like the evil knotweed into the fabric of our most influential institutions
But I will not cower, rather I will carry on my life as I think it should be conducted.
So, back to basics for me, I will do little things everyday to fight back. I will say hello and smile at strangers, I will open doors for women, I will respect those in the armed forces and honour those who served in it and ended up paying high personal prices. I will respect the police, and other front-liners and I will not replace my EURO 6 efficient diesel car until it goes phut!
If my granddaughters want pink clothes, I will treat them to such, if they want to play rugby, I will take them to their first training session.
Someone said, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Whether it was King or not doesn’t matter, I think it does resonate as a Way.

Joe Wein
Joe Wein
2 years ago

Antony Blinken: “This is manifestly not Saigon.
Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
In the words of philosopher Megan Trainor, “If your lips are moving, then you’re lyin’, lyin’, lyin’, baby”

LCarey Rowland
LR
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

As an American, I absolutely concur. I have a family member who is performing an integral role in our withdrawal.
Your mention of the Dunkirk strategy is appropriate.
Another point: after 9/11, we tracked down the culprits; we busted into their Afghan hideouts and executed the ringleader. We majorly disrupted their jihad against us.
We set up the TSA to make sure no more more weapons of mass destruction–box cutters, etc–could be used in the hands of jihadis terrorizing the free world from 30,000 ft.
And since we established the TSA, we have had no more 911s.
What does that tell ya? We’re doing at least a few things rightly, including dismantling a 20-year project that seems to have failed.
But it has not. I have a daughter who is married to one of our service men who is performing a role in the withdrawal. About a decade or so ago, my daughter visited Vietnam, and she said:
Those Vietnamese seem to love us Americans.
Likewise, our allies in Afghan will not despise the extensive, costly measures we took to help them.
Furthermore, we now have resources to use in other places where we will be effective and . . . appreciated.
Thanks, Peter, for your Unherd-of perspective.

Paul Ansell
PA
Paul Ansell
2 years ago

The author has an overly optimistic view in my opinion, of the future of Afghanistan.
It is true that Vietnam has developed into a nation that relatively modern and accepting of Westerners, the old days of Ho Chi Minh burying opponents alive having long been abandoned…..
Afghanistan when compared to Vietnam however, has always been very tribal. Its terrain particularly in the north is very mountainous and this seems to have created a less developed society than colonial Vietnam and an insularity, directed at Westerners and also each other. How then do you govern such a region ?
I believe it is the Chinese who will gradually enforce a Pax Sinae, Afghanistan has an abundance of Rare Earth metals needed in the communications industry…….. the Chinese also have a good deal of money and patience…..

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

— ‘Stan, it’s not so much the nice mess you’ve gotten me into, nor gotten me out of, as the getting me out of
— Well, … it’s all over!
— Hardly!
— But we’re out of it!
— Now we’re in it!
— What are we going to do? I’m scared.
— I have not … the faintest idea
— I’m scared!
— Ladies and gentlemen, pardon uS!
— We’ll be right back. So don’t go away!

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

“all over”, “Hardly” – Oliver Hardy
‘Stan — the … stan countries … here, Stan of Laurel fame.
“pardon uS” here is their first classic feature film Pardon Us. “uS” is, well, the US. So pardon the US, they’re not a bad bunch, all things considered… and they’ll be back. Can still win.
So watch this space!
The banter in between is classic old L&H.
I thought a little guffaw would be in order.