I remember Saigon on television. As the youngest of seven kids, my dad was about the age I was when I had my oldest child. So, I’m over the “senior menu” age and have two boys, 12 and 10 years old. Here’s how I tried to explain what’s happening in Afghanistan to them.
My explanation began like a Michener novel: “Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principle features of the earth had been decided.” Not quite that far back, but I actually started in 1804, with the “shores of Tripoli,” President Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary war.
The Islamic states of the north African coast had no problem sponsoring “captured goods”—piracy—on the Mediterranean. Finally, after years of attempted negotiations and futile treaties, Jefferson sent the Marines and the Navy. The frigate Philadelphia was destroyed by our own Navy after the ship and its crew was captured by the pasha of Tripoli. We responded with a blockade, and a new treaty resulted. How little things change over hundreds of years.
In the 1960s, the fear of communist “dominoes” led America into a war engineered by President Kennedy, and greatly expanded by President Johnson. We lost 58,220 soldiers in Vietnam. As a candidate, Richard Nixon secretly torpedoed the 1968 Paris Peace talks, because his anti-war campaign needed the war to continue so he could end it. Johnson, who was not running, knew about Nixon’s operation, but did nothing, because he thought Nixon would lose to Hubert Humphrey. (Back then, the FBI had no problem “unmasking” bugged phone conversations between the South Vietnamese ambassador and a Nixon campaign aide.)
Under Nixon, the war continued six more years, including the abominable Linebacker II raids over Christmas 1972. In the early 1980s, I worked for a retired Air Force major who told me his story about those raids. He said he was the navigator on the lead B-52, in the first echelon, on the first day of Linebacker II. Every other bomber in the 27-plane formation dropped their ordinance on his hack. He said he saw his bombs destroy the rail yards in Hai Phong Harbor. The other 26 bombers merely bounced rubble.
They continued flying over Hanoi for 11 more days, flying the same route, up the same valley, while the NVA fired SAMs that looked like flying telephone poles at the bombers. We killed 2,368 civilians, and lost between 22 and 27 bombers (the number is still disputed), all to make the North Vietnamese use up their stock of SAMs. We conducted 769 sorties and they fired 266 SA-2 missiles, then went to the peace table.
There were only two people my former boss (who sadly passed away, thankfully before we entered Afghanistan) ever expressed a desire they should perish. One was Muammar Gaddafi (which is its own story), and the other was Richard Nixon, who he said deserved a firing squad for what he ordered the USAF to do.
The moment Nixon adopted “Vietnamization” of the war, it was lost. Without strong America standing behind it, South Vietnam was a house of cards and would immediately collapse. The North needed only to adopt George Washington’s strategy. They didn’t need to win, just to “not lose.” The collapse was stunningly fast, and our exit from Saigon so helpless and dishonorable, that explaining this to my kids, I could see the lights go on in their eyes.
I then explained what happened in Afghanistan. We went in after Osama bin Laden, toppled the Taliban to deny al-Queda land, infrastructure, and bases from which to operate, and built an enormous infrastructure to train the Afghan people to self-govern. Except the Taliban never really went away.
Once President Obama announced his intention to end the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban knew they’d won. They didn’t need to win, only to “not lose.” When we finally left, the collapse was stunningly fast, and our exit from Kabul so helpless and dishonorable, that we now have hundreds of stories of Afghan allies trapped and about to die at the hands of the Taliban, even as the Taliban spouts propaganda about being “inclusive” and offering “amnesty.”
President Biden cut a tiny notch out of his Camp David vacation to return to the White House long enough to say “I stand squarely behind my decision,” then fled back to the mountain retreat.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald detailed how our government lied for 20 years about our efforts in Afghanistan. We knew the ANSF couldn’t wipe its own butt without the strong U.S. military standing behind it, just like South Vietnam. We knew that our weapons, training, logistics, and command/intelligence structure, once gone, would leave the Afghans defenseless against the Taliban, who used money, tribal ties, and religion to pave their road to victory.
We knew all of that, but we lied to ourselves, that this time, things would be different. After Iraq, where we came, left, ISIS took over, we came back, and left again only to see Iran’s influence ascend, we believed that Afghanistan, which the Soviets could not subdue in the 1980s, would respond to our brand of exported, packaged, military-backed democracy and liberty.
As I went through this, the realization broke on my kids.
My youngest boy, Josh, exclaimed “how could we be so stupid?”
Biden’s cabinet and aides talk about “forever war” and “contingencies” and plans and operations. Talking heads blame former President Donald Trump, who had set a May deadline for getting our troops out. As bad as Trump is, I believe he understood that our departure meant a rapid transition to Taliban rule. In fact, I believe Trump wanted to pre-negotiate our surrender in the form of a “deal.” I believe Trump would have announced a $100 million weapons, logistics, and training agreement in exchange for some form of power-sharing and at least a titular amnesty, then left, with a few thousand hired security contractors handling our interests.
There’s no way to know for sure, but I suspect, if he had won in 2020, Trump would have stood with the Taliban in the Rose Garden and pretended a polished turd smelled like roses, but it would still be a turd. The media would call him a traitor, and the military would have held their noses, and retched at his presence, for this betrayal.
Biden simply pretended that we didn’t really surrender to the Taliban, and that somehow, the Afghan people would defend us and our allies on the way out the door. Even my 10-year-old could see how stupid that is.
Stupidity in the face of defeat is still a betrayal. What’s the “right thing” to do? I don’t know. Throwing away more American lives trying to go back in to Afghanistan to protect those who will now die for our stupidity might sound honorable, but it’s hard to motivate soldiers who know their efforts are in vain.
Perhaps our best course is to use this as a teaching opportunity for the next generation of leaders who will surely face these kinds of challenges. It’s okay to make a decision that will cost lives, or enrich people whose motivations aren’t aligned with our own. This is why we vote for civilian leaders.
But what’s not smart is to listen to the “experts,” the same ones who thought their way into Vietnam, the ones who came up with Linebacker II, the ones who inked every contract to build enormous bases in Iraq and Afghanistan so we can stay “forever” only to hand them over to those who we were fighting.
Next time something like this comes up—and it will, because the terrorists are feeling their oats right now—I will think about Josh’s words. “How can we be so stupid” needs to be the starting point when we made decisions, not the conclusion 20 years later.
The next generation needs to learn to not make these mistakes anymore. Let’s listen to Josh, and not be stupid.
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