The dramatic images of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban cannot help but evoke the strikingly similar scenes from the defeat of South Vietnam 46 years ago. Thousands of people physically clinging to airplanes, triumphant Taliban fighters posing in the Afghan presidential palace and helicopters snatching up the last embassy officials off rooftops are eerily similar to what happened in Saigon in April 1975.
Two years earlier, President Richard Nixon tried to assure Americans that the Paris Peace Accords with Communist North Vietnam had obtained “peace with honor.” That claim rang hollow when Americans watched with horror on April 30, 1975, as North Vietnamese troops invaded the Presidential Palace in Saigon. President Gerald Ford—himself unwilling and unable to fulfill American promises to support South Vietnam—flew to Palm Springs, California, to play golf.
If there was one thing Southeast Asia did not get after the fall of Saigon in 1975, it was peace. Millions went on to die in the forced unification of South Vietnam, in Vietnamese Communist prison camps after the war, or the killing fields of Cambodia (a direct result of the U.S. withdrawal). Millions more became refugees. Honor was even more elusive, as America is still dealing with the shame and social trauma of losing a war that cost 58,000 American lives.
President Biden may not be Gerald Ford, but he plays him well on TV. Just as Kabul fell to the Taliban, Biden decided to take a vacation at Camp David. On August 16, he delivered a prepared statement, doubling down on his decision to abandon Afghanistan, and then went back to Camp David without taking a single question from the press. Even his press secretary Jen Psaki decided to go on vacation. How history repeats itself.
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Nearly as violent as the Taliban are the recriminations in the United States and across the West. Like in the aftermath of Vietnam, an emotionally charged and bitterly divided country is heaping equal amounts of blame on the war itself, the way it was fought, the politicians who led it and the country that fought it. The spectacle of a virtually leaderless United States watching itself lose in Afghanistan is pouring fuel on an already hot internal debate about the rightfulness of liberal democracy itself. And whatever one’s position on the war, the humiliation of the world’s most powerful country at the hands of barbarians with rifles is going to have serious negative repercussions for America around the world.
Just as most Americans supported the war in Vietnam for good and noble reasons (to fight communism), so did they in Afghanistan. From its Afghan sanctuary, Al Qaeda murdered 3,000 Americans, wounded 25,000 others, and caused $100 billion in damage on September 11, 2001. Most Western countries would have surrendered or done nothing after such an attack. It was good that we fought back and destroyed the Taliban regime and killed Osama bin Laden.
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From the mid-level officers down to the enlisted, the vast majority of American soldiers performed their jobs brilliantly. Once again, the United States showed the world that it has the best-trained, best-equipped and most powerful military the world has ever known. No other country could travel halfway around the world, conquer a landlocked country the size of Texas, and kill its enemies as quickly and efficiently as the United States did in October 2001. The 2,420 Americans who died in Afghanistan did not die in vain. Their sacrifice paid for the security from Islamic terrorism that we still enjoy today. Lest we forget, the U.S. has not suffered a major terrorist attack since 9/11.
Most of the blame for the U.S. failure can be laid at the feet of those who sought to build Afghanistan into a Western-style liberal democracy. Afghans are one of the most primitive and uncivilized peoples in the world. The country is divided into several different ethnic groups divided into tribes and family-based clans. An Afghan’s loyalty is to his family and tribal leader. As many American soldiers learned, Afghans are also notoriously untrustworthy and unreliable. Meritocracy is practically unknown in Afghanistan, and support flows from family connections, the barrel of a gun, or good old-fashioned corruption.
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If the Middle East is any indication, the Islamic religion makes it nearly impossible to have a Western-style government. U.S. policies in Afghanistan that went against Islam only served to strengthen the position of the Taliban. Although officially illegal, the U.S. military’s policy was to turn a blind eye to the perverted practice of “bacha bazi” (in which adult men sexually abuse young boys) and homosexuality in general. The military even punished some American soldiers for beating Afghans who tried to seduce them. “Bacha bazi” is rejected by many Muslims as un-Islamic. The Taliban’s opposition to it was a factor in their coming to power in the 1990s. These issues only gave more legitimacy to the Taliban’s claim as the defenders of Islam. Trying to impose Western-style feminism and consumerism only made it worse.
Those leaders who ignored these obstacles and changed the objectives of the war to building an Afghan “democracy”—namely, the Bush and Obama administrations—are the real culprits of the defeat. The Wilsonian impulse to make the world “safe for democracy” is embedded deep in the American psyche. The U.S. government’s project to fight terrorism by turning Afghanistan into a model republic was no less doomed to failure than Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to avoid a repeat of World War I by dismembering and democratizing Europe. Even more ironic because the U.S. government usually refused to admit that the enemy was a radicalized Islam, preferring the term “War on Terror.”
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No solution stripped of legitimacy has any chance of success in rough Afghanistan. U.S. administrations should have helped restore the constitutional monarchy that ruled Afghanistan from 1926-1973 and strengthen the patriarchal clan leaderships. Loyal American backing for these indigenous leaderships would have helped them become pro-American and pro-Western.
Despite the mistakes made since 2001, the collapse of the government was not inevitable. As Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, the American people were presented with a false dilemma between total withdrawal and “forever wars.” No one wanted the United States to stay in Afghanistan forever. But just the presence of a small number of troops in a non-combat role would have been enough to deter the Taliban.1 When President Obama removed U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, the ensuing power vacuum contributed to the rise of the Islamic State. Last month, President Biden announced that the 2,500 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq will end their “combat mission” by the end of 2021, but remain in the country in an advisory role. He could have done the same for Afghanistan at a minimal cost. It would have been a succesful repeat of U.S. strategy in Germany after WWII and in South Korea.
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Furthermore, the term “forever war” is grossly inaccurate. The United States had ceased to play any combat role for nearly two years. The last combat death was in February 2020, eighteen months ago. More soldiers stateside died of accidents last year than of combat in Afghanistan.
The way the Biden administration withdrew was shameful. To all appearances, the Biden administration not only turned its back on the Afghan government but undermined it. The U.S. government withdrew from bases without even telling the Afghan military, provided little or no air support, and made pessimistic and hostile public statements that killed Afghan morale. Even when it was clear that Afghanistan was about to experience a Vietnam-like collapse, Biden cynically doubled down and cut the country loose. If any single man owns the failure in Afghanistan, it is the President.
Many Americans are hopeful that, although ugly, at least the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban will bring peace. Such a position is naïve. America’s reputation will suffer long-lasting, perhaps permanent consequences around the world. The withdrawal says that the United States government cannot be trusted to fulfill its promises. Will the U.S. really come to the aid of Estonia, South Korea, or Taiwan if attacked?
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Our enemies such as China, Iran, and Russia are jubilant at seeing the United States failure. Those countries are more likely than ever to act on their threats to their neighbors. They are also likely to establish an economic and political foothold in the new Afghanistan. The Taliban will once again become a haven for terrorist groups. In short, the fall of Afghanistan will bring more war, terrorism, and American deaths.
It also is a blow to Americans’ self-image. Americans have always seen themselves as an optimistic, can-do people who get things done the right way. The United States spent 20 years and $2 trillion in Afghanistan, which amounts to more than $250 million per day. Afghanistan might be the most expensive failure in world history. The U.S. spent over $83 billion on armaments and equipment for the Afghan government alone. Much of that weaponry, including advanced drones and vehicles, was captured by the Taliban. In addition, the vaunted Afghan military—which on paper outnumbered the Taliban—simply melted away from low morale and lack of support. It is a humiliating failure from which it will take many years to recover.
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Far worse than the material losses are the human ones. Coalition casualties were 3,562 dead and 22,773 wounded. In addition, nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians were killed in the war. Although small in comparison with other conflicts, it is still a substantial number. Many of the 800,000 American troops who served in Afghanistan are experiencing anguish, anger, and resentment towards a political and military leadership that, like in Vietnam, failed to conclude the war with honor. Friends and family members of those who lost their lives are wondering if their sacrifices were in vain.
The global left is jubilant at seeing the United States humiliated once again. They have always sympathized with Islamic terrorism and see the United States as the greatest evil in the world. The right in America, which has always been favorable to a strong national defense and for just wars against America’s enemies, is demoralized, uncertain, or even indifferent to the unfolding debacle. Many would prefer not to think about Afghanistan at all, hoping the withdrawal will make it all just go away. Some on the isolationist right are even happy with the outcome, seeing American failure in Afghanistan as a vindication of a nationalist “America First” policy.
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Ultimately, the most profound consequence of the failure in Afghanistan is the debate over the American democratic model itself. The collapse of trust in America’s institutions, the rise in political violence and fraud, the increasing totalitarianism of a supposedly “democratic” government, and hyperpolarization have eroded America’s once unassailable confidence in its model. The stunning collapse of representative democracy in Afghanistan is, many say, just a confirmation that democracy doesn’t work. New models, on both the left and right, are being proposed. The left admires Communist China, as do some on the right, erroneously. Many more on the right mistakingly look to Victor Orban or Vladimir Putin as examples the West should imitate. Most of these new models do away with traditional constitutional freedoms and wrong-headedly place hope in a political leader who will single-handedly solve the crisis of Western civilization.
The solution to this crisis, of which the fall of Afghanistan is merely a symptom, is a return to organic Christian society as described in the book Return to Order by John Horvat. This return requires a serious examination of conscience and a recognition that, like the Prodigal Son, we have sinned and must return to the Father’s house. Liberal democracy has led us down the path of destruction. Only by returning to the Catholic Church in the religious field and organic Christian society in the socio-political field can we hope to avoid the abyss that is clearly approaching.
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