By John Isaacs
Both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees held high-profile hearings with the top U.S. military brass on the dismal end to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Most of the hearings consisted of GOP Members of Congress lambasting the Biden administration’s exit strategy and Democratic members responding that that the war was, as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley pointed out, a 20-year failure of four Presidents, 12 Secretaries of Defense, seven chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and 20 military commanders in Afghanistan.
Congress noted the parallels that several national security experts and others analyzed before them: the U.S. failure in Afghanistan is akin to its failure in Vietnam in the 1970s.
As someone who spent 13 months working in Vietnam, it was all just a bit too familiar. In my work in the pacification program at the province, regional and national headquarters of the refugee program, I witnessed firsthand programs that never worked as advertised and the dichotomy between those in charge of the Vietnam War and what those at the ground level saw.
The takeaway should be now — as it should have been 48 years ago when the last U.S. troops left South Vietnam — that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but only time will tell if the United States has learned this lesson.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) perhaps captured this best: “This is not the first time that I think we have relied upon overly optimistic assessments of conditions on the ground or conflict conditions. It certainly happened in Vietnam.”
This is a key point, and, as much of Congress has no memory of Vietnam, one to keep in mind.
Milley, to his credit, acknowledged Hirono’s concerns, and suggested that one clear object lesson once again is not to “Americanize the war.” He contrasted the heavy-handed American footprint in Afghanistan with U.S. involvement in El Salvador and Colombia where those countries’ militaries, he claimed, bore the burden of the fighting insurgencies and there were very few U.S. advisors.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) noted that they always heard from the top leaders that the situation was difficult at the time, but was about to get better. This has shades of what we learned from the Pentagon Papers about the political and military leaders’ deceitful optimism about the war in Vietnam.
Peters implicitly pointed to another similarity; when he joined with ordinary soldiers in Afghanistan mess halls, they told a very different story from top officials about the war.
As someone who worked in Vietnam for more than 13 months, I can attest that the reports from the grunts then were totally at odds with rosy scenarios from MACV Commander William Westmoreland, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson. The grunts knew the war was being lost and did not trust the Vietnamese civilian or military leaders.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ-07) confirmed Peters’ experience and questioned intelligence assessments when 18-, 19- and mid-20-year-olds knew that “the Afghan army was not ready and they and were not going to be sustainable on their own” while the civilian and military leadership “absolutely missed this.”
When the North Vietnamese army launched its final offensive in March 1975, the South Vietnamese army disintegrated very rapidly. When Taliban forces took control of Kabul on August 15, it shocked U.S. intelligence and military.
Moderate Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) complained that the United States ignored the Vietnam War when “we learned not to go and try to change the nation.” Milley conceded the transition from a counter terrorism mission to nation building was a mistake and labeled the war a “strategic failure.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asserted, “We helped build a state, but we could not forge a nation.” Austin and Milley promised a thorough review of lessons learned.
Looking ahead to the immediate future, the final Fiscal Year 2022 Defense Authorization bill is likely to contain a provision offered by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) to create a 12-member commission to study the lessons learned, although the concept of a panel of Members of Congress she proposed would be improved if replaced by distinguished and veteran national security experts.
This commission may help us understand that not all security problems have military solutions. Should we fail to learn this lesson, we will remain likely to repeat the fiasco yet again.
It is imperative that we learn from our national security mistakes; especially the ones that have cost so many thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and that have done so little in the name of making America safer.