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Op-Ed: Mistakes the U.S. made in Vietnam were repeated in Afghanistan. We must break the cycle

President Biden sits at a long table and watches a screen for a virtual meeting.
In a photo released by the White House, President Biden meets virtually with his national security team and senior officials for a briefing on Afghanistan on Sunday at Camp David.
(White House via Associated Press)

The rapid collapse of the Afghan government has lessons to teach us, if we will listen. Many of these are lessons we could have learned from the Vietnam War, but we did not.

In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the enemy was very real. The Viet Minh began as a nationalist response to the abuses of French colonial rule but upon taking power in the north showed themselves fully committed to the totalitarian ideology that killed and imprisoned tens of millions of people. Their close allies, the Khmer Rouge, perpetrated one of the most staggering genocides since World War II. Their ascendancy sent untold numbers to brutal “reeducation camps,” where many died.

The Taliban, similarly, began as a reformist reaction to the endemic corruption and civil strife that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. This promise won them widespread support against the country’s unloved warlords. But once in power, they turned out to be just as heedless of human life as their predecessors, imposing a maniacal, distorted version of Islamic law, stripping women and girls of their basic civil rights, and oppressing adherents of other strains of Islam. They also provided a safe haven to the Al Qaeda terrorist movement in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks.

In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, tens of millions of innocent people were subjugated to brutal regimes they had no plausible chance to remove. The case for humanitarian intervention was compelling.

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Ours, however, were not true humanitarian interventions. Although we paid lip service to freeing the people of Vietnam and Afghanistan, our primary goals were strategic and self-interested. In Vietnam, we wanted to check the spread of communism, to stop one more domino from falling. In Afghanistan, we wanted to avenge the 9/11 attacks and debilitate Al Qaeda.

We could have accommodated both humanitarian and strategic aims: Neutral, honest governments responsive to their respective people’s wills could have checked the spread of communism in Vietnam and expelled Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, in both countries we wanted governments responsive to our wishes rather than those of the people.

We selected an authoritarian president for Vietnam, who had his rule confirmed in a fraudulent referendum. We then green-lighted a military coup against him. Corruption was rampant, and the regime imprisoned and tortured thousands of its non-communist opponents. By the time the U.S. forces withdrew, few Vietnamese had much regard for the regime, and it quickly fell.

So, too, in Afghanistan, we imposed our choice for a president, micromanaged allocation of power in the post-Taliban government, and orchestrated deals with the same despicable warlords whose abuses had originally given rise to the Taliban. We looked the other way when the regime perpetuated itself with a series of tainted elections. And the aggressive but unfocused “anti-terrorism” campaigns we demanded alienated the Afghan people by attacking villagers not engaged in violence. As we have seen this summer, once our troops were gone, virtually nobody had any stake in the regime’s survival.

In both countries, we also were myopic. We placed all our faith in the regimes we had installed without strong efforts to develop offsetting power centers and the robust civil society necessary for liberal democracy to survive. We acted in Vietnam as if only communists could oppress their people. Similarly in Afghanistan, we obsessed about radical Islam as the only enemy worthy of consideration, ignoring the corruption and strife that gave rise to the Taliban’s sway in the first place.

Sometimes what matters in foreign policy is not what you can accomplish but what you can avoid.

Indeed, once we deposed the Taliban we quickly lost interest in favor of the invasion of Iraq. By the time we refocused, the regime that the U.S. installed had irretrievably destroyed its credibility.

Sadly, we are repeating these mistakes on a much grander scale in the Middle East. Obsessed alternatively with fighting Sunni Muslim extremists and countering Shiite Muslim Iran, we act as if corrupt authoritarian regimes like that of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi are the only alternative.

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Just as the corrupt regimes we backed in Vietnam and Afghanistan never achieved popular support or staying power against the communists or radical Islamists, the regimes we are backing in the Middle East will not provide a long-term defense against radical Islamic groups hostile to human rights, the preservation of Israel and other U.S. interests.

Even more importantly, the dichotomy between authoritarian strongmen and radical Islamists is just as false in the Middle East as it was in Afghanistan (as was the dichotomy between strongmen and communists in Vietnam). Westerners would never accept such a limited array of choices, and we should stop believing the dictators who insist self-interestedly that people in their region have lower aspirations.

Our true allies in the Middle East are secular democrats, just as they are in other parts of the world. A bitter irony is that these secular democrats are being suppressed by the very authoritarian regimes we keep supporting. Secular democrats, who believe in open political discourse and peaceful protest, are far more vulnerable to repression than conspiratorial radicals hiding in the shadows. Even among Islamic parties, the repressive regimes disproportionately target moderates willing to engage in the democratic process.

We should take a clear stand for democracy, condemning the recent coup in Tunisia, conditioning aid to Egypt on respect for human rights and engaging with a much broader range of leaders and communities in these countries. We cannot afford to see the desperate last days of the U.S.-backed regime in Kabul repeated in Tunis, Cairo or Riyadh.

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David A. Super is a professor of law and economics at Georgetown University Law Center. @DavidASuper1


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