“America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out,” President Donald Trump declared in August 2017. It was an aspirational sentiment aimed at a domestic audience, and one with eerie parallels to the Nixon administration’s approach to negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Of course, Hanoi did “wait us out,” as Henry Kissinger feared they would. The Paris Peace Accords were flawed from the start, and American officials knew it. The U.S. objective was withdrawal, even at the expense of American prestige and the safety of the allies it had cultivated and protected in South Vietnam. The United States is reliving this trauma today in the effort to extricate itself from Afghanistan.
Unlike the president, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Austin Scott Miller, sounded far less determined to show the Taliban that their resolve will not outlast America’s. In a recent interview with NBC News, Miller expounded on what has become the bipartisan consensus U.S. policy toward Afghanistan: face-saving withdrawal. “My assessment is the Taliban also realizes they cannot win militarily,” the general said. “So you do not necessarily wait us out, but I think now is the time to start working through the political piece of this conflict.”
Republican lawmakers spent the better part of Barack Obama’s second term in the White House castigating the president and his administration for negotiating with the Taliban to secure the terms of America’s eventual withdrawal from the country’s longest foreign conflict. A particular source of consternation for the GOP was the deal that White House officials worked out with the Afghan insurgency to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five ranking Taliban detainees held in Guantanamo Bay. Those Taliban officials were transferred to Qatari custody with the understanding that their movements would be restricted and their activities monitored. Today, however, those five Taliban detainees have resurfaced in Qatar as political representatives of the insurgent group. They are tasked with negotiating terms in which “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” will transition to the post-American era.
As Bloomberg’s reporters observed, Taliban’s old guard is being rehabilitated, which bodes ill for the future of Western negotiations with the fundamentalist organization. So, too, does Pakistan’s release of a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, after seven years in custody—a move that conspicuously followed Washington peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s visit to Islamabad earlier this month. It seems reasonable to assume that the United States maintains no formal objection to the Taliban’s efforts to reconstitute its status quo ante political leadership.
In more foreboding echoes from the Vietnam era, the Taliban refuses to negotiate with the government in Kabul, calling it an illegitimate puppet regime, and is supported in Afghanistan by insurgent networks operating across the border in Pakistan. On the day that America withdraws completely from South Asia, this Islamist network will be well-positioned to begin the reclamation of the territory it lost after the September 11 attacks. And because the Taliban is getting the old band back together and has never renounced their pre-2001 support for al-Qaeda, the United States has few assurances that Afghanistan won’t again become a haven for terrorists.
The parallels between the Afghan conflict and Vietnam do have a limit. The voting public long ago resigned itself to the idea that the Afghan war was a wasted effort. The fall of Saigon was a national trauma, in part, because the political class assured the public that Washington would never let it happen. By contrast, Americans knew the war in Afghanistan was lost long before their representatives began acting like it.