Biden is unlikely to pay a political price for getting us out of Afghanistan

The images all over the news and social media on Afghanistan are heart wrenching. It was made more so when the predictable happened: a suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS-K, an Afghani ISIS affiliate of sorts, killed thirteen U.S. soldiers and more than a hundred others outside the gates of Kabul’s airport. Everyone seems to be pointing fingers at Biden, as if there was ever a way to get us out of Afghanistan in a safe and orderly manner.

Lost among all the finger pointing and nervous nellies wondering about all the political implications is what, in general terms, has been a pretty good withdrawal, under the circumstances. We evacuated more than 100,000 people out of the country in only a few weeks, massively dwarfing the 7,000 of so when we hastily pulled out of Vietnam. Yes, we’re leaving some equipment behind but most of it is obsolete or had been rendered inoperative. The cost and hassle to remove this equipment, much of it by road, was more than the cost of leaving it there. Leaving behind equipment is standard practice when getting out of conflicts like this.

Biden is unlikely to pay much of a political price because Americans want us the hell out of there. A Hill-Harris poll, for example, shows 73% support for Biden’s actions. Generally, foreign policy is simply not a factor in elections, which turn mostly on local issues. You’d have to go back to 1968 to find an election where foreign policy was a major issue (Vietnam in this case). Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” for getting us out of Vietnam was likely why he won that election.

Even Donald Trump realized that staying in Afghanistan was a political loser, which is why he negotiated with the Taliban and released thousands of Taliban fighters. His agreement with the Taliban had some upsides. For example, the Taliban pretty much agreed to stop targeting our soldiers, an agreement they lived up to. Until the recent incident at Kabul’s airport, just three U.S. soldiers had died in Afghanistan in 2021.

Our withdrawal from Vietnam also suggests it will be quickly forgotten. Until Afghanistan, it had been our longest war. At the time (I was a teenager, so I remember), Vietnam fatigue was overwhelming. Virtually no one wanted us to stay there. Like in Afghanistan, South Vietnam’s government was wholly corrupt and there was no fixing it.

If you want to hold Biden responsible for something, it’s for putting too much faith in the Afghani army. The fall of Vietnam suggested Afghanistan too would fall quickly too. I was not the least bit surprised that the Taliban rolled into Kabul with virtually no opposition. I was also not surprised that Afghanistan’s president would slip away to a foreign country, reputedly with millions of dollars in secret bank accounts. The same was true with South Vietnam’s last “president”, Nguyen Van Thieu. What would have been surprising if it Afghanistan’s president Ghani stayed and fought it out.

The good news is that our returning soldiers should get a lot better treatment than those who served in Vietnam. Most were scorned for their service, and tried to hide that they had ever served in Vietnam. Many Americans took it out on our soldiers that we lost there, so a lot of these soldiers ended up depressed, unemployed and suicidal. Mostly though America wanted to forget Vietnam. At the time we were much more consumed by the oil embargo, the gas lines it brought and high inflation.

Of course, now we have a much bigger distraction: covid-19, the story that seems to never end. We’re starting wave number four and in many places hospitals are overrun with covid-19 patients. In Louisiana, residents are likely to suffer a double-whammy due to Hurricane Ida’s landfall.

It’s becoming impossible to ignore these events close to home as we are all impacted by them. A week ago it was Hurricane Henri that affected us locally. Fortunately being more than a hundred miles inland, its affect was minimal. These more powerful storms, not to mention forest fires in western stakes, bring smoke, haze and air pollution eastward. We just have to look outside our window to see issues that matter to us.

Frankly. most of us don’t give two hoots about the wreckage of our presence over nearly twenty years caused in Afghanistan. What we can say is that soon we’ll be wholly out of there, and that huge sunk cost estimated to have cost us $2T won’t enlarge.

After Vietnam, many political refuges (“boat people”) there fled to refugee camps in Thailand and off China. We’ll have over 100,000 refugees to handle this time around, so there will be recurring news items as processing that volume of people is bound to be tiring, time consuming and messy.

But mostly these will be a back page stories. Over time, Vietnamese refugees made new lives for themselves in the United States, and enriched our country with their talents, hard work and productivity. It is likely the same will be true with these Afghan refugees.

Should Biden run for reelection, I’m sure Republicans will raise the withdrawal as an issue. It’s just that almost nobody will care.

Trump’s nuclear no-no

Oy! It was another week of bellicose theatrics from our president. Trump, ever eager for more attention, went places that no recent president would have ever dreamed of going. As usual Trump picked the worst location to threaten nuclear war: the United Nations, an organization we helped create to promote peace and understanding and reduce the likelihood of war through the promotion of civil dialog.

Trump’s target this time was North Korea, which keeps lobbing missiles over Japan and recently concluded a likely hydrogen bomb test. Trump’s implicit threat to utterly destroy North Korea is today only possible using our nuclear arsenal. This means, if it’s true, that Trump is considering proactively using our nuclear weapons. He’s also assuming it can be done in a way that won’t send a nuclear warhead at us or our allies, a dubious assumption at best.

Trump isn’t the first president to threaten North Korea with nukes. President Eisenhower did too, mostly out of frustration because the interminable peace talks at the time were going nowhere. We were basically the only nuclear power at the time, with the USSR just getting into the game, so it was a viable threat. The threat didn’t bring peace in 1953, but it did lead to a cessation of hostilities, making the 38th parallel a neutral zone and an exchange of prisoners.

All these years later we are still grappling with a way to bring true peace to the Korean peninsula. Trump’s strategy seems to be to try Eisenhower’s strategy again, as if you can still scare the North Korean government into submission. All it has done so far is ratchet up the tensions and lead to ever more bizarre and bellicose statements from the “leaders” of both sides. With each exchange of insults, these “leaders” look more puerile. If only the United Nations could take them out of the sandbox and give them long timeouts instead.

As for utterly destroying North Korea, that’s exactly what our air force did during the Korean War with conventional weapons. It wasn’t enough. We had total dominion over the Korean skies. Toward the end of the war North Korea looked pretty much like Dresden after World War Two. The Chinese helped of course by supplying soldiers and material. As the Vietcong also learned, there are ways to move militaries without being seen. North Korean and Chinese soldiers were very fast with their feet and traveled mostly at night. So total destruction did not mean winning the war. Nuking North Korea would not end this war either. It would also not necessarily destroy North Korea’s nuclear program or its arms caches, which are likely well underground. It would likely kill tens of millions, including millions of South Koreans, and at best provide the illusion of peace. It would leave a generational memory that would resurface again and again.

Not content with chastising just North Korea, Trump excoriated Iran during his U.N. speech too. He called our nuclear deal with Iran the worst deal ever. Yet even his administration agrees that Iran has fully complied with the terms of the agreement. If the United States were to cancel the deal, the effect would likely be disastrous. Iran would be free to continue to develop its nuclear stockpile and work on nuclear weapons. It’s understandable that Republicans would be upset by what the deal doesn’t do. It doesn’t keep Iran from developing long-range missiles, but it wasn’t designed to be comprehensive. It was designed to keep a new nuclear power from forming in the worst possible part of the world. So far it’s succeeding in those goals. The Trump administration could open talks on these other issues, probably multilateral talks like the Obama Administration used. Or we can start a war with Iran instead. Which is likelier achieve our aims?

Like it or not, the United States can no longer use military power to achieve its aims, at least not with countries beyond a certain size. Most use of military power like this is counterproductive both in the short and the long term. The conflicts we are dealing with are much more complex than they used to be. Today they are less nationalistic than ideologically driven, and that includes here in the United States where a great conflict of ideology is underway. With Republicans in charge, the bias is toward using the military to achieve its goals, which means there is a bias not just toward war, but also toward creating wars.

Because Republicans respect force, they think it is the solution to all these problems. While certainly Democratic administrations have had similar proclivities (Kennedy and Johnson in particular, although they inherited the Vietnam War), it’s been mainly Republicans that have proctored our involvement in new wars. Eisenhower proctored proxy wars in Iran and Guatemala that were covertly run by the CIA. Our meddling in Iran eventually saw the eviction of the Shah and the creation of a deeply anti-American Islamic Republic there. In essence our involvement caused the animus Iran now has toward us. Reagan’s meddling in El Salvador led to civil war and right wing death squads that continue to this day. It certainly did not lead to stability in Central American. Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia and Laos exposed a larger war but also proved ineffectual. George W. Bush’s war in Iraq has proven to be disastrous and also based on lies. It led to among other things the creation of the Islamic State and the collapse of Syria.

Trump seems almost eager to continue this Republican losing streak, perhaps reigniting the Korean War as well as setting off a potential war with Iraq. It’s really about showing American potency and relevance. It’s effectively being the muscular guy on the beach and taunting guys coming by so you can kick sand in their faces.

Solving these problems is going to be very hard and requires new thinking. It will require a bias toward multilateral solutions and diplomacy rather than force, in short using bodies like the United Nations more rather than less. It will mean dialog and engagement, particularly with those we find most difficult to engage with. It will take time and trust and verification. It will mean we will have to make concessions to affect a greater deal.

It’s painfully clear none of this will happen until not just Trump is gone, but Republicans no longer control the White House.

The Return of “Vietnamization”

Those of us of a certain age remember the Vietnam War. While I was a youth at the time I do remember well President Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. What it amounted to was a gradual withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam. Our forces were to be replaced by well-trained and motivated South Vietnamese Army soldiers. Our withdrawal policy was political in nature. It had nothing to do with the actual facts on the ground, but had everything to do with an American public sick of our involvement in Vietnam War that showed no sign of ending. The policy of course failed spectacularly. The images of our embassy personnel being airlifted from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon are almost burned into our national consciousness.

President Bush is making noises like he’ll do something similar to Vietnamization shortly after the elections in Iraq scheduled for January 30th. Indeed columnist Robert Novak suggested that Bush is planning to get out of Iraq altogether during 2005. Perhaps Karl Rove believes a face saving withdrawal is in the long run better for Republican prospects than another ugly Vietnam-like ending. If so it is based on the realization by sober Republicans that the Iraq war is, as I suggested long ago, unwinnable.

But I suspect Novak is probably wrong on this one. I don’t think our troops will beat a hasty exit from Iraq in 2005. But I do think that the political pressure will continue to build to “bring the troops home”. A convenient excuse may be needed to withdraw. Iran may provide one. Bush might decide the United States have bigger fish to fry and that while we would like Iraq to be free of civil strife, we accomplished our main goal. And what was our goal? Originally it was to find and confiscate weapons of mass destruction that we just knew were in Iraq. Of course when the facts on the ground gave lie to Bush’s claims Bush morphed it into freeing the people of Iraq from a brutal dictator.

I do find it interesting that General Abizaid suggested in the Washington Post recently that the role of U.S. forces in Iraq may change soon to one of primarily helping the Iraqi National Guard become self sufficient. This was the same strategy we used in Vietnam that failed so miserably. On paper the South Vietnamese Army looked very impressive. It had hundreds of thousands of troops. The U.S. government subsidized it to the tune of billions of dollars. We also provided extensive training and logistical support. And yet the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong won. Why? The North Vietnamese had the will that the South Vietnamese did not. In some years during that war more than a hundred thousand soldiers per year were disserting from the South Vietnamese Army. While this is not of the same magnitude as with the Iraqi National Guard and the Iraqi police the trend is the same. With each successful attack by suicide bombers against Iraqi forces more Iraqi forces just stop showing up for work. They rightly figure it is not worth their lives. Just today the police chief of Samarra resigned after guerillas attacked his home.

Since the South Vietnamese experience suggested this approach did not work, it is reasonable to assume the same tactics won’t work in Iraq either. We’ve been trying and failing to bolster the Iraqi army and police since we won the war last year. And the members of their army and police keep disserting. It seems unlikely that we will now succeed where we have so far failed. And it is naive to expect that by having elections things will calm down. The battle for control of Iraq is in reality just beginning. It will continue for many years, if not decades, after we leave. Saying Iraq will become stable does not make it so. The reality on the ground will belie our inflated expectations.