May 10, 1940. Friday morning. German troops invade France, launching a surprise attack through the rugged Ardennes region. Residents of Paris are unconcerned, rightfully believing that the French Army is one of the largest and well-equipped on earth. Friday is also the start of a three-day weekend. Rather than panic, citizens go on with daily life, enjoying the fine weather.
Yet Nazi Germany proves unstoppable. Within weeks, infantry and panzer divisions race from one side of France to another, routing French forces and their British allies. When the Wehrmacht pivots toward the nation’s capital, Parisians rush to flee the city, the staggering mass exodus numbering in the millions.
In London, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is faced with a hard dilemma: continue sending soldiers and aircraft to fight alongside his ally for more than two decades or entirely withdraw his troops, knowing that France is lost. But as French forces surrender en masse, it becomes clear that their army is incapable and, in many cases, unwilling to fight for their own nation. Mr. Churchill pulls out.
The comparisons between the fall of Paris in 1940 and the recent taking of Kabul are striking. It is instructive to compare the Taliban with the Nazis. Both groups are infamously fond of public executions, utter fealty from the civilian populace, and determination to impose their hateful ideology by whatever means possible.
In both cities, a populace initially reluctant to leave their country flees in panic when the end is near. French refugees clamored to be taken in by any nation willing to take them – America, Great Britain, and even Morocco. So it is in Afghanistan.
The fall of France and Afghanistan each resulted in national capitals being overrun by a ruthless enemy intent on taking control and inflicting a severe new lifestyle on its residents. And as with the Taliban’s insistence that the people of Afghanistan give them a chance to show their firm yet benevolent nature, Adolf Hitler decreed Paris an asylum from the war. His goal was that every German soldier spend at least one period of leave in the City of Lights – which many did, enjoying the food and sights, taking photos like normal tourists before boarding trains for a return to the front.
France and Afghanistan are almost the same size. They have a rich history of foreign occupation: France takes its name from the Franks, Germanic barbarians who ruled after the Roman Empire; in Afghanistan, the city named Kandahar is a vestige of Alexander the Great’s occupation in 330 B.C. – Kandahar meaning “Alexander” in an Afghani dialect.
And while Great Britain’s retreat from Dunkirk shortly before the fall of Paris is one of modern warfare’s great logistical feats, their departure from Afghanistan in 1842 gave Mr. Churchill a historical example of what happens when a nation surrenders prematurely: envoy Sir William McNaughten was seized by Afghan rebels and beheaded while attempting to negotiate the withdrawal of thousands of British soldiers from Kabul. The forefathers of today’s Taliban leaders allowed them to leave peaceably, then murdered all but one on the snowy march from Kabul to Jalalabad. The lone survivor was an army surgeon escaping on horseback to deliver the tragic news.
Similarities between the fall of Paris in 1940 and Kabul in 2021 continue, but it is the obvious difference that defines what will happen next in our modern world.
When Paris fell, there was every prospect of believing that Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich would control Europe for a thousand years. But Winston Churchill’s American and Soviet allies – read: coalition – chipped away at Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Paris was delivered after four hard years of fighting. The victory resulted from a strong alliance committed to defeating Nazi Germany and a French people determined to retake control of their country. The American coalition failed in Afghanistan because they could not convince the Afghan people to do the same.
America and its foreign partners are weary after twenty long years of war. We did not insert troops for nation-building but to wipe out the terrorist organizations responsible for 9/11. Many in the American intelligence community now believe conventional ground forces are unnecessary, modern technology making it possible for drones, satellites, and Special Forces to counter terror groups.
That is left to be seen. As is sudden interest by the Chinese government in the estimated $3 trillion annual hauls of precious “rare earth” minerals necessary for electronics and spacecraft to be found in Afghanistan. This staggering sum means the Taliban will swim in riches far beyond that of their lucrative poppy trade.
It was right and necessary to withdraw American troops. We could not remain forever. But there will be no dislodging the Taliban, not for a very long time. Someone will try, maybe the Chinese, but as with every invader throughout history, the Taliban will simply wait them out. In more personal terms: no one is coming to rescue those terrified Afghan citizens clinging to fuselages of departing aircraft — symbols of hope flying away forever.
Adolf Hitler’s empire did not last. The world never saw what an extended period of brutal repression and backward thinking by an extremely well-financed nation looks like in modern times.
• Martin Dugard is the author of “Taking Paris: The Epic Battle for the City of Lights,” from Dutton/Caliber.