Tony Karon: Obama’s Afghanistan Plan ... Echoes of Vietnam in the U.S. Exit Strategy





Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME, where he has covered international conflicts in the Middle East, Asia, and the Balkans since 1997.

To understand the historical significance of President Barack Obama’s visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday, imagine that President Richard Nixon had, in the spring of 1972, flown to Saigon to signal American voters that the Vietnam war was coming to an end — and to ink a deal with President Nguyen Van Thieu codifying a long-term U.S. relationship with the Republic of South Vietnam, which would shortly be left responsible for its own security. “Today, I signed a historic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that defines a new kind of relationship between our countries – a future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation, and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states; a future in which the war ends, and a new chapter begins,” Obama said Tuesday.  Nixon might have said something similar on that imaginary 1972 visit. Except, of course, everyone knew that Vietnam’s future would not be defined by an agreement between Washington and Thieu, as much as by the one signed in Paris, two months after Nixon’s reelection, between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, representing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (a.k.a. “North Vietnam”). Even that deal collapsed, of course, with the DRV and its supporters in the south finishing off the Thieu regime 19 months after U.S. troops withdrew.
 
Any deal between Presidents Obama and Karzai premised on the ability of the current political order in Kabul to protect itself independently of foreign troops is hardly likely to be the last word, pleasing as the spectacle may be for presidential campaign purposes. The key — but by no means the only — conversation shaping Afghanistan’s future will be the one conducted on the battlefield, and at the negotiating table, between the U.S., its Afghan interlocutors and the Taliban. That point seemed to be underscored by a Taliban car bomb attack near U.S. bases in Kabul just hours after Obama’s departure, which served as a counterpoint to the President’s insistence in his speech that the insurgents’ momentum has been broken. Sure, the U.S. has made important tactical gains against the Taliban in designated operational areas in southwestern Afghanistan, but tactical gains in an expeditionary counterinsurgency war tend to be just that; the insurgents know that, as Henry Kissinger famously put it, guerrilla armies win by not losing. They know that the civilian population has little faith in Western forces or in the government those forces protect, and they know the U.S. and its allies are seeking an expeditious exit from Afghanistan. The brutal truth of the Afghanistan equation is that time is still on the side of the Taliban...


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