Despite many critical voices of the overuse of the Vietnam War metaphor when talking about the war in Afghanistan, there are many striking similarities between the last years of the Vietnam War and the Obama administration’s attempt to extract most US combat forces from Afghanistan within the next twelve months.
Recent news from Afghanistan that the Taliban and the Afghan government have started negotiations should be treated with caution. Initial talks may only be the beginning of a long drawn-out negotiation process towards peace, as an examination of the Nixon administration’s effort to win the Vietnam War on the negotiation table and its determination to have, in Nixon’s words, “Peace with Honor” illustrates. The United States will not play as important a role in direct Afghan to Afghan talks that may involve other regional stakeholders (Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan etc.), but ultimately the United States and NATO will cast the decisive vote on Afghanistan’s future by deciding when to withdraw its combat forces and what amounts of foreign aid the Karzai regime will receive in the years to come.
Given the upcoming NATO Summit in Lisbon in November and the already looming withdrawal of most NATO combat forces from the region within the next eighteen months, looking at Nixon’s and Kissinger’s attempt to end the war in Vietnam may be worthwhile.
As a historical precedent to President Obama in 2009, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon came into the White House in 1969 to end the War that had become a “bone to the nation’s throat”, to quote a former White House speech writer. Talks with the North Vietnamese, begun under the Johnson administration in Paris, were stalled. The main objectives of the United States on the negotiation table were the territorial integrity and independence of South Vietnam, a withdrawal of all US combat troops from South East Asia, and a cessation to communist insurgent activity in the South.
Similar to the dilemma of supporting a controversial head of state in Afghanistan today, the Nixon administration reluctantly propped up a largely unpopular leader, Nguyen Van Thie, who was reelected in 1969 after winning a fraudulent election, and whose regime was infamous for its corruption. North Vietnam’s strategy, in a nutshell, was to outlast the Americans, oust the Thieu regime, and take possession of the country once the United States withdrew.
Comparable to President Obama’s surge strategy, Nixon decided to increase military pressure on Vietnam. Henry Kissinger insisted that, “A fourth rate power like North Vietnam must have a breaking point.” Upon taking office in 1969, Nixon secretly conveyed to the North Vietnamese that he was seeking peace and willing to negotiate, but that the United States was willing to escalate the conflict should its demands not be met. Nixon’s first attempt to gain concessions from the Vietnamese on the negotiating table failed. Over a period of fifteen months, the United States Air Force dropped more than 100,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia. The major stumbling blocks, the integrity of South Vietnam and the preservation of the Thieu regime, obstructed negotiations for the next three years.
The ratchet up strategy of current proponents of escalating US engagement in Afghanistan may be unwise. North Vietnam in 1969 shifted from an offensive to a defensive strategy, limiting offensive operations in the South and even withdrawing troops across the demilitarized zone, not due to military setbacks, but to wait Nixon out until public opinion at home would force a US withdrawal of combat troops — something, as sources in Kabul claim, is precisely the Taliban’s strategy.
Frustrated by North Vietnam’s unwillingness to make any substantial concessions at the secret negotiations in Paris, Nixon ordered the formation of a secret National Security Council Study Group to come up with “savage punishing blows” for the North Vietnamese. Yet the conclusion of the Study Group, chaired by Henry Kissinger, showed that increased military pressure would not yield additional concessions from Hanoi.
The insurgents in Afghanistan, despite being battle weary, will certainly also not be willing to make any major concessions with US troop withdrawal a few months away, despite an increase in drone strikes and special forces operations activities throughout the country. Indeed, we know from the recently instated High Peace Council led by former President Burhanuddin Rabbani that the withdrawal of NATO combat forces is the major Taliban/insurgent condition for any Afghan led peace process.
The North Vietnamese, cleverly manipulating US negotiators, essentially bought time by making vague proposals that amounted to little substance, and complaining about procedural matters such as the size and set up of tables at the negotiations in Paris. Their real goal until 1972 was to buy time for North Vietnam to resupply and strengthen their forces for the final military blow against the Thieu regime. The insurgents in Afghanistan, although in no way comparable in size, equipment, and capabilities to the Vietcong and the regular North Vietnamese Army, will probably employ similar delaying tactics until the withdrawal of US led coalition forces. Any initial “willingness” by Taliban and other insurgent leaders to talk has to be seen in this critical light.
The famous Vietnamization policy was a direct consequence of the United States’ failed attempt to break the deadlock at the negotiating table with military force and domestic pressure to start withdrawing US combat troops. Without consulting his South Vietnamese ally, Nixon unilaterally announced this policy, frustrated by the lack of military progress and mounting US casualties. Within months, the South Vietnamese Military became one of the largest and best equipped armies in the World (by 1974 South Vietnam’s Air Force was the fourth largest in the world). At the same time the United States stepped up its Phoenix program, headed by the CIA, and — just as its modern successor, the Drone strike campaign, targets insurgent leaders — aimed at decapitating the leadership of the Vietcong and destroying Vietcong strongholds in the South. The United States claimed substantive gains and the elimination of over 20,000 Vietcong cadres in South Vietnam. However, the Vietcong’s command structure and ability to conduct operations remained intact. So far, despite successful hits, the same is largely true for Taliban personnel in Pakistan who have been targets of drone strikes.
Indeed, there are also striking similarities between Obama’s decision to step up the drone strikes into Pakistan and Nixon’s controversial decision to invade and bomb Cambodia to buy time for Vietnamization, and destroy North Vietnamese safe havens. At the end, despite having claimed to have killed 2,000 insurgents and substantially disrupted North Vietnamese supply bases and “treasure troves” of intelligence (according to Henry Kissinger), it did not alter the outcome of the conflict, but led to the massive destabilization of Cambodia. Events in Pakistan today illustrate the danger of undermining a government’s authority in their own territory. The strategic military impact of recent drone strikes remains to be seen, but so far have not influenced the Taliban’s offensive capabilities substantially.
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.