In October of 1970, Nixon launched a “major new initiative for peace” which was promptly rejected by Hanoi. More US troops were withdrawn and the process of Vietnamization accelerated. Nixon also expanded the war into Laos in 1971 to disrupt enemy supply lines and to force a military decision. Talks failed over the same fundamental issue: the future of the South Vietnamese government under Thieu.
Later in 1971, Kissinger made yet another secret proposal to the North Vietnamese: Complete US withdrawal in exchange for US POWs held in Hanoi. Again North Vietnam rejected the offer, reluctant to concede one of the few bargaining chips for negotiating with the United States. North Vietnam again insisted on the removal of the Thieu regime, which the US dismissed. North Vietnam proposed open elections in September 1971, on the condition that the United States withdraw support for Thieu. Kissinger and Nixon refused.
In March 1972, North Vietnam launched a large-scale invasion of South Vietnam with conventional forces, having carefully prepared its offensive capabilities the previous two years and having stalled negotiations in Paris. Despite some initial progress, North Vietnam was repelled by massive US air raids in the demilitarized zone, Hanoi, and Haiphong. Kissinger for the first time made secret concessions to North Vietnam that would allow for North Vietnamese Forces in South Vietnam after a cease fire, undermining the sovereignty of South Vietnam, but still insisting on the future existence of the Thieu regime. North Vietnam rejected the deal, and Nixon even further escalated the air war over North Vietnam, and mined Haiphong harbor. In June 1972 alone the US dropped 112,000 tons of bombs.
North Vietnam estimated that it would need three years to recover from the losses incurred during the Easter Offensive (which proved correct) and agreed to shift their war strategy to a “strategy of peace” to buy time and to guarantee the withdrawal of US troops from South Vietnam. A Tripartite electoral commission comprising the Thieu regime, the Vietcong Provisionary Revolutionary Government, and neutralists such as the Buddhists was tasked with formulating a political solution to the conflict after the US withdrawal. Nixon ordered additional bombing raids over North Vietnam over Christmas 1972 to force the Vietnamese to agree to a settlement and to save face vis-à-vis Thieu and the American people. Despite massive air raids, it did not, however, set back North Vietnam’s capacity to conduct war in the South. When the United States and North Vietnam finally came to an agreement in Paris in January and February 1973, Thieu, who had the least interest in an agreement and withdrawal of US troops, did not sign the treaty. The Paris agreement was a compromise agreement securing the return of the majority of US POWs, guaranteeing US troop withdrawal from South Vietnam, and leaving the Thieu regime in power. North Vietnam still had forces in the South, and the large question of the political future of Vietnam was unresolved.
A comparative review of the Nixon administration’s year long struggle to extract the United States from Vietnam holds some valuable lessons for the Obama Administration. First and foremost, it shows that there can be no solution to the conflict if the underlying fundamentals causing the insurgency are not addressed. North Vietnam could not accept the Thieu regime. The Taliban will not accept the Karzai regime, which in their view is illegitimate, corrupt, and foreign imposed. Especially given the looming withdrawal of the majority of NATO led forces and the debility of the Afghan National Army and police force, major political concessions cannot be expected in the near future. The only answer will be unconditional Afghan-led talks between the warring factions with peripheral US participation should any agreement ever be reached.
Second, Afghans have to make peace with Afghans. A chief dissonance in the Vietnam War was that North Vietnam considered the United States to be its prime interlocutor in negotiations, sidestepping South Vietnam’s representatives on many occasions. It is critical that the United States play a role in any peace talks (along with regional players), but in a muted and discreet manner. Afghans have to be able to decide for themselves about their country’s future, a something that was never allowed for the South Vietnamese. However, make no mistake: Despite not playing as prominent of a role as in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s, the United States will be the determining factor in any talks.
Third, military escalation of the conflict will not fundamentally influence the negotiation process; it will only prolong the fighting. Temporary military setbacks by either side may delay talks, but the essential issues will remain unchanged: How can the United States extract itself without jeopardizing its core security interests and how can Afghanistan be stabilized?
Fourth, Thieu proved a very difficult partner in negotiations because Nixon and Kissinger never consulted with him on major changes in US foreign policy such as Vietnamization. President Karzai was also presented a fait accompli with the July 2011 withdrawal deadline, and voiced his deep concern that it would empower the Taliban in the long term. A perception of the White House as becoming increasingly insular is gaining a foothold in Kabul and among NATO allies. Whether true or untrue, when it comes to making peace, allies and partners need to be informed of every aspect of US strategy since any reconciliation of warring factions has to be based on consensus. At the end of the day, the United States will be the deciding factor of Afghanistan’s political future.
Fifth, the United States, in any negotiation, should stick to its core national security interests in Afghanistan. The United States made the critical mistake of equating the preservation of the Thieu regime with rolling back communism in Southeast Asia because it lacked a clear perception of its central purpose in the region. Supporting Karzai may or may not guarantee the dismantling of all Al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan (and will most certainly not influence the shifting Al Qaeda activity in Pakistan), but the United States must insist that a future government, which may include insurgent-Taliban representation, disassociate itself completely from Al Qaeda and terrorism. Destroying Al Qaeda is the core national security interest of the United States in Afghanistan and Southwest Asia. Reconciliation, on the other hand, as already pointed out, should be entirely left to the Afghans.
Last, and most important: Afghans, on all sides, know that Western forces will eventually leave. This alone undermines any military credibility sought for the purpose of having a strong negotiating position with the Taliban. Any discussions implying that the current troop surge can influence the Taliban and force them to the negotiation table is wishful thinking. Nixon’s bombing campaigns, as illustrated above, did little to influence North Vietnamese decision making. Vietnamization too had it limits as the United States painfully learned with the fall of Saigon and the defeat of the South Vietnamese Army in 1975. The current capabilities of the Afghan National Army leave little doubt how the tide will turn once US forces have left Afghanistan. Betting on military successes in the next twelve months to obtain concessions on the negotiation table will only lead to increased casualties on both sides without tackling the underlying problems of Afghanistan.
Franz-Stefan Gady is an associate at the EastWest Institute and just recently returned from Afghanistan. The views views expressed in this article reflect those of Franz-Stefan Gady and not those of the EastWest Institute.