- - Tuesday, March 3, 2020

During the past two decades, commentators have often drawn analogies between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam. Almost all of those comparisons turned out to be misplaced, but Vietnam does hold cautionary lessons for us now that a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban has been signed.

If the truce holds, it will allow for negotiations between the Taliban and the central government in Kabul which the United States has been supporting for nearly two decades. On paper, the agreement appears similar to the one that ended American involvement in Vietnam.

We know now that the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi never intended to keep the agreement when it was signed in 1973, and many people — me included — believe that the Taliban are not sincere about maintaining the present agreement past the final withdrawal of U.S. troops which will be a phased, conditions-based process. Even if the Taliban leadership is sincere, there are elements in Afghanistan — ISIS and some criminal groups — with no interest in peace.

That is why the U.S. side needs to make it clear that we will intervene again decisively if the Taliban attempt large-scale offensive operations once the U.S. withdrawal is complete.

There is a popular misconception that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sold the South Vietnamese down the river with the 1973 agreement and fully expected Saigon to fall once we left. I’ve never bought that view. In 1972, the Nixon administration temporarily halted the U.S. withdrawal when the North Vietnamese launched a full-scale offensive in the South replete with tanks and heavy artillery.

The United States responded with overwhelming force using air strikes and naval gunfire to assist the Saigon government in halting the invasion. I believe to this day that Nixon and Mr. Kissinger fully expected to repeat the performance when — not if — the Vietnamese violated the agreement. At the time the agreement was signed, Nixon believed he could still ride out the Watergate scandal, but the eventual implosion of his administration changed everything.

With Nixon gone and the Democrats firmly in charge of both houses of Congress after the 1974 midterm elections, Hanoi sensed that the badly weakened Republican Ford administration was in no shape to support Saigon. When they struck in the spring of 1975, the North Vietnamese were confident that the Democrats would not support a resumption of support to Saigon; they were right.

As Saigon fell, the congressional Democrats blocked all administration efforts to provide assistance. Having gotten us into the war under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in an attempt to shed their image as soft on communism, the Democrats had once again transformed themselves into the party of peace.

An Afghan friend of mine who is a former Kabul government official recently sent me an email asking if his countrymen could trust the United States to help enforce violations of the peace agreement given what happened in Vietnam. My answer was that it is contingent on U.S. politics. 

Between now and the 2020 election, the Taliban are likely to take a “wait and see” approach. They will probably try their hand in the next Afghan general elections, which they will lose decisively. If the Democrats win the White House in 2020, the Taliban may well try a general offensive to take Kabul. They will probably guess rightly that none of the Democrats currently running for office will react militarily.

If President Trump and the Republicans win the presidency and the Congress, a Taliban resumption of major offensive operations will likely be met with overwhelming airpower in support of Kabul. Mr. Trump will not allow losing Afghanistan to cloud his legacy.

One particular area where the Vietnam experience does not hold is the military balance. By 1975, the North Vietnamese army was a modern combined-arms force supplied by two great powers — China and the former Soviet Union — while the army of South Vietnam was a light infantry counterinsurgency force that counted on the Americans for heavy firepower.

Without U.S. support, it was not an even match. The Afghan army is also primarily a light infantry force trained for counterinsurgency, but the Taliban are not the North Vietnamese army; they have no tanks or heavy artillery.

The Afghan army is more than capable of defending the cities and suburbs that are the core of the government’s support, and its soldiers will be fighting to defend their homes. With or without American support, a future Taliban offensive will likely bog down in stalemate. The Taliban won’t take Kabul, and — unlike al Qaeda and ISIS — the Taliban doesn’t have the desire to attack the U.S. homeland. That’s about as good as it gets.

• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He served as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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