Learning the Hard Lessons of Vietnam Once Again in Afghanistan

By Donald B. Smith

Like most Americans I have been watching the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan with horror and dismay. Last Thursday’s suicide bombings outside Kabul airport, which killed 13 U.S. servicemembers as well as killing and wounding scores of Afghan civilians, was a tragic and meaningless act of violence. It may also be a harbinger of future such attacks.

After 20 years of success in keeping terrorists at bay and thwarting attacks against our American homeland, we now leave Kabul in control of the very people who gave Osama bin Laden safe haven. This debacle will make America less safe for a generation or more, just as defeat in Vietnam did.

The American people only support putting our sons and daughters into harm’s way if U.S. national security is truly threatened. This was certainly the case in the wake of the horrific September 11, 2001, attacks.

However, many Americans grew weary of 20 years of commitment in Afghanistan and believed it was time to bring all the troops home. This was understandable, but the alternative should not be allowing Afghanistan to again become a breeding, training and staging ground for international terrorist groups who hate the United States, our values and way of life.

Unfortunately, our political leadership placed politics over our national security and the safety of the American people. Not only was the decision completely to withdraw from Afghanistan flawed, but the way this withdrawal – or more properly retreat – has been executed has become an international embarrassment.

We made mistakes that were unworthy of a global superpower. For example, announcing the withdrawal with a date certain that was not condition-based. Or not coordinating the pullout with our coalition partners. Or giving up our major military airbase at Bagram early in the withdrawal instead of as the final move, thus denying our forces and those of our Afghan allies the air support necessary to stave off the Taliban advance.

Furthermore, we abandoned Bagram Air Base in the dead of night on July 6 without any prior coordination with our NATO allies or the Afghan commander, thereby undermining the confidence of the Afghan forces in American support.

The message from the White House to the free Afghans was clear and deadly: you are on your own. The government in Kabul was told plainly not to expect any of the air, materiel or intelligence support their forces had always depended on from the U.S. and NATO. Facing the brutal reality of being abandoned by their patrons, is it any wonder the Afghan troops collapsed in front of the determined and well-supported Taliban? We now face a humiliating defeat that has diminished U.S. credibility and threatened global stability.

It did not have to be this way. Even sustaining a minimal commitment would have bolstered Afghan morale, kept the Taliban guessing and ensured stability in Afghanistan as it has for two decades.

The irony is that even before the White House set the withdrawal deadline the United States had mostly already pulled back from Afghanistan. Since 2018 our mission under the leadership of General Scott Miller transitioned to an air support, training, logistics and leadership role with limited U.S. troops. We reduced American forces in Afghanistan to 2,500 troops, and many military leaders believed this would have been enough to maintain the status quo. There were also more than 10,000 NATO and allied troops from 38 nations supporting the effort. Despite disparaging comments from President Biden, the Afghan military was doing the bulk of the frontline fighting and taking almost all of the casualties.

The 2,500 support troops in Afghanistan allowed us to maintain our intelligence capabilities, have an embassy on the ground and secured access to Bagram Air Base. This modest deployment of troops had a more direct impact on our national security and the safety of the American people than the current 39,000 troops in Japan, 35,000 troops in Germany, 24,000 troops in South Korea, 6,300 troops in Kuwait and 5,500 troops in Bahrain, just to name some. And before the Kabul airport bombings the United States had not had a combat death in Afghanistan since February 2020.

But now we are faced with a meltdown reminiscent of the endgame in Saigon 46 years ago. Make no mistake, this is not a military defeat but a political calamity, just like in Vietnam. And now Afghan War veterans will experience the same deep frustration we Vietnam vets felt, that after decisively defeating an enemy on the battlefield, politicians have squandered our victory. 

The more than 2,400 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan deserve better. As a nation, we must finally learn this hard lesson and never again let politics drive our national and homeland security strategy.

As we watch a third rate, ragtag military force dictate the terms of our withdrawal and force a weak president to adhere to their chosen timeline, we must pledge that we will return to a policy of “Peace Through Strength” – including all the elements of national power, whether economic, diplomatic, military or intelligence. And we must also restore the power of moral leadership not hampered by progressive notions of political correctness unconnected to national security.

We cannot afford to allow defeat in Afghanistan to return our country to the “hollow forces” of the 1970s. This tragedy should inspire a new commitment to build the best equipped, best trained, and very importantly, the best-led military in the world. And never to let politicians throw away another military victory again.

Retired Brigadier General Donald B. Smith is a veteran of the Vietnam War and is former sheriff of Putnam County.

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