Despite the visual echoes of the fall of Saigon in the photographs of Afghans clinging to departing American aircraft, the inevitable defeat of the United States in Afghanistan is not just a replay of the Vietnam debacle. The Indochina War was, after all, part of a historic struggle between private-property capitalism and the party state-run system that seemed at the time to provide an alternative model of society. Seen from today’s vantage point, when Russia and China have embraced capitalism, with whatever local characteristics, and Vietnam has become a prime recipient of the foreign investment Ho Chi Minh begged for in the late 1950s, this effort can seem to have reflected a simple error of analysis and policy. But history might well have followed a different path without the Vietnam War, the 1965–66 coup and massacre of Communists in Indonesia, and the overthrow of nationalist governments in Africa, the Middle East, South America, and elsewhere that strengthened democratic capitalism’s hand worldwide.
In its origins, the US involvement in Afghanistan was not a replay of Vietnam, but belonged to the anti-Communist effort: it began not, as today’s pundits insist, 20 years ago but six months before the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979, when the CIA kicked off its 3.5 billion dollar program to create and build up the Taliban as an anti-Communist fighting force. Known to anti-imperialist analysts at the time, this fact was publicly confirmed in 1998 by President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who bragged that arming the mujahideen “increased the probability” of a Soviet intervention and gave “the USSR its Vietnam War.” Asked about the longer-term consequences of this policy, Brzezinski replied, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”1
The American involvement took a different turn when the “stirred-up Moslems” managed to cause quite a bit of trouble for the so-called West—enough trouble to stimulate the US to spend a trillion dollars and kill many thousands of people to install a government in Afghanistan friendly to the “war on terror.” In abandoning that government as the lost cause it clearly was, however, Biden reverted to Brzezinski’s point of view: “Our true strategic competitors,” he told the nation on August 16, are China and Russia, not the Taliban.2
Even right after the attack on the World Trade Center, the political need for revenge did not suffice to motivate a chase after Osama Bin Laden into Pakistan. Instead, the Bush government used a fictional link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda in an attempt to overcome the lingering Vietnam Syndrome and reestablish America’s geopolitical dominance by waging war in the heartland of oil extraction, apparently expecting a quick victory over a militarily and socially weakened state. The disastrous results of the invasion of Iraq, more plausibly creating a new Syndrome of its own, can hardly have inspired a will to “stay the course” in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, in contrast to Iraq, lacks desirable commodities (beyond the opium poppy, already exported in sufficient quantities). The American intervention itself became its major economic resource, the billions of dollars in aid that poured in snarfed up, as in similar Potemkin states, by whichever political figures made it to the top. The war may have been, as the New York Times editorial board asserted, “a story … of the enduring American faith in the values of freedom and democracy.”3 But this faith, it turns out, is not powerful enough to inspire a fight to the finish. In the end, what the Afghanistan War had in common with that in Vietnam was its unwinnability. Both in its 20 years of death and destruction, and in its final abandonment, the all-round ugliness and stupidity of this war has been no more than a symptom of the ongoing decline of American capitalism. If there’s anything positive to be taken from this experience, it’s the thought that something so powerful can be so weak.
- “Full Transcript of Biden’s Speech on Afghanistan,” New York Times, August 17, 2021, p. A5.
- “It Didn’t Have to End This Way,” New York Times, August 17, 2021, p. A18.