Afghanistan-2011 = Saigon -1975?

It is without a doubt that the most prominent event of last week was the announcement made on Wednesday, June 23, by US President Barack Obama, on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, before the end of next summer, of the US contingents (33,000 soldiers) that had been recently deployed there by the current administration as a ‘surge’ for the offensive fluidisation of the counter-insurgency operations.

The announcement was important for a number of reasons: First of all, because the international community has been in the country since 2002, meaning immediately after the victorious American operation against the Taliban regime, umbilically tied to Al Qaeda, of October 2001. The US troops withdrawing could have a domino effect, causing other allies contributing to the war effort in Afghanistan to contemplate a more comprehensive and faster withdrawal than initially planned.

Secondly, most media comments so far say the announcement made by the US president is predominantly electoral. Well-known analyst Robert Kagan was writing on Friday on his blog: ‘The entire military leadership believes the president’s decision is a mistake, and especially the decision to withdraw the remainder of the surge forces by September 2012. They will soldier on and do their best, but (…), they believe the decision will increase the risk to the troops and increase the chance that the mission will not succeed. It bears repeating that the deadline imposed by the president has nothing to do with military or strategic calculation. It has everything to do with an electoral calculation.

President Obama wants those troops out two months before Americans go to the voting booth. Last but not least, it is the very future of Afghanistan after the final withdrawal of the military forces of the international community. What President Obama says seems to be expediting the puling out, giving Afghanistan the prospects of a ‘relapse in the past,’ going back to the radical and terrorist Taliban political leadership that was removed back in 2001.

One of the main justifications for the withdrawal before next September of this contingent of US troops, invoked by President Obama, was that the security circumstances of the country had notably improved, that the transfer of responsibility to the Afghan forces controlled by the government in Kabul was taking place in a fast and positive manner. Moreover, as a US official was noting before Obama’s speech, ‘we haven’t seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years,’ and that ‘the threat has come from Pakistan over the past half-dozen years or so, and longer.’

The commitment on pulling out from Afghanistan was made by the new American administration as soon as it had taken over and was set to be completed by the end of 2014. In the context, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s statement that, at the end of 2014, the country would be capable to control the entire territory through its own forces is encouraging. As a matter of fact, the information that has been more frequently published in the international press recently, suggesting the US are also initiating peace talks with the insurgent Taliban forces with natural strings attached such as observance of the Constitution of the state and breaking off with the militant Islamic radicalism is also encouraging. However, it is very hard to assume that a definitive withdrawal of the military forces of the international community from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 would secure an irreversible positive evolution of the country. Quite a few commentators have mentioned these last few days in the international media the parallelism of the current situation there with the withdrawal of the US troops from Vietnam in 1975, when Saigon and South Vietnam  were actually abandoned and surrendered to the Northern insurgents and communists with whom peace talks had been advanced and agreements had been reached. The spectre of the US deserted Saison seems to be haunting some part of the commentators preoccupied with the future of Afghanistan.

As for the domino effect of the withdrawal of the US troops on the rest of the allies and partners present in Afghanistan, some have already announced similar intentions. French President N. Sarkozy has already said about 4,000 French soldiers would start a gradual withdrawal, co-ordinated with the American one. British PM David Cameron has said that, given the already announced intention that British forces should not be engaged in combat after 2015, decisions would be made to ‘bring troops home sooner.’ Last week, reactions of certain army heads became public, accusing an excessive use of own military resources in military campaigns in Libya and Afghanistan in the current financially austere context.  This particular military reaction is practically an unprecedented fact in respect of the civil-military relations in the UK in the last twenty years. German decision-makers have announced a gradual withdrawal of the 5,000 German troops deployed to Afghanistan. It is not excluded that other nations may announce a faster withdrawal of military capabilities from the country in the near future. The global financial and economic crisis has practically obliged many states to re-prioritise military commitments compared to the situation one or two years ago.

A certain domino effect of the American decision cannot be avoided. In fact, the German defence minister was recently warning his US counterpart that he should ‘be aware of the psychological effects of an overly ambitious American withdrawal on the German and European public.’ Until now, NATO has said its withdrawal from combat operations would be possible by 2014, as the missions are taken over by the Afghan forces, with the allied troops remaining available for their training and co-ordination. The counteraction of such domino effect is now the main task of both political and military leaders, because the material and human resources invested by the international community in the last 10 years cannot be wasted by hasty and unthoughtful decisions. Afghanistan has to continue to be a priority of the NATO allies and partners until the security situation is finally restored. It means the government in Kabul will need to take control over the national territory through national forces, that any perturbing intervention in the country will need to be avoided the situation along the Pakistani border is becoming increasingly concerned – which calls for the presence of deterrence allied troops (therefore not engaged in actual combat missions) in Afghanistan for a long time from now on. Saigon -1975, to the extent to which the situation then is comparable with today’s Afghanistan – will have to be avoided, as well as its consequences. The Vietnamese leaders then found it axiomatic that the political opinion in democratic countries ‘does not possess … the psychological and political means to fight a long-drawn-out war.’  But such thing is false, as it has been repeatedly proven by history.

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