The hasty withdrawal from Kabul has inevitably been compared to the Fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. Pictures of a Chinook flying over the US embassy in the Afghan capital to pluck staff to safety did bear something of a resemblance to the airlift of 1975. But is the comparison fair?
Joe Biden, at least, has been keen – for understandable reasons – to deny that Afghanistan is anything like Vietnam. A month ago, Biden told a reporter he saw ‘zero’ parallel between the Vietnamese and Afghan withdrawals:
‘The Taliban is not the same as the North Vietnamese army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capabilities. There’s going to be no circumstance wherein you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan’.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, had gone as far as to tell reporters: ‘I do not see that unfolding’. ‘I may be wrong, who knows, you can’t predict the future, but…the Taliban just aren’t the North Vietnamese army. It’s not that kind of situation.’
In this, if nothing else, he was right. It took two years for Saigon to fall to the North Vietnamese after American soldiers left. The Taliban took Kabul sixteen days before America was scheduled to go.
Biden’s administration is conscious of the fact that it has inherited a quagmire in which military force was used to achieve ephemeral or political goals – a situation far more similar to Vietnam than they might like to admit. Political and military leaders in the wake of America’s catastrophic experience in Vietnam have frequently drawn out simplistic and misleading explanations for America’s failure, hoping to convince a tired and distrustful public that they have learned from its mistakes.