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Afghanistan: A Vietnam Made

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Talk to the Taliban or risk a messier Vietnam

By Michele Kearney

After November, America must offer a ceasefire and genuine negotiations. The alternative is savage civil war 

The US campaign in Afghanistan today is as much about Vietnam as it is about Afghanistan. The US military is deeply concerned to avoid the appearance of complete defeat captured in the images from Saigon in April 1975. In large part this explains the US determination to keep bases, military advisers, Special Forces and airpower in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of ground troops in 2014 to go on bolstering the Government in Kabul. 

The problem is that this risks landing the US — and Britain — in the Vietnam not of 1975, but of 1964. In that year, the US had no ground troops in South Vietnam but it already had thousands of military advisers and trainers. As the South Vietnamese regime crumbled, more and more of these Americans were killed, and Washington faced the choice of withdrawing them and letting South Vietnam collapse or sending in ground forces — which happened the next year, 1965. 

The difference this time is that there is no chance whatsoever that once US and NATO ground forces have left Afghanistan they will be sent back. The similarity is that whatever happens in Afghanistan after 2014, thousands of US and British soldiers and civilian officials will be stuck in the middle. In that sense, we are not “withdrawing” at all. We just risk withdrawing so many that the remainder will be unable to defend themselves properly. Yet if the US and its allies are pressured into complete and hasty withdrawal, it would mean acknowledging complete and humiliating Western failure in Afghanistan. 

The threat is not, however, that the Taliban will sweep to power in Kabul. Here the Vietnam parallel breaks down because Afghanistan is infinitely more ethnically and regionally divided than Vietnam. Whatever happens will be a lot messier than Vietnam — and still potentially very unpleasant for British soldiers and officials caught up in it. 

Much of the mess may come from our own Afghan allies. The reason is not just that they are more internally divided than the Taliban, but also because according to the Afghan constitution there has to be a presidential election in 2014 that will bring these splits to the fore. 
Hamid Karzai will most probably try to ensure that a member of his own clan succeeds him as president; but given his own unpopularity, this could be achieved only by colossal rigging. Washington has no desire to see a continuation of the Karzai clan in power — but has no idea who to replace him with. In fact no one can suggest a candidate who could bridge the country’s divisions and create a workable administration. 

The collapse of the civilian Government in Kabul, quite possibly followed by a military coup, is a real risk. Not only would defending a military government be bitterly unpopular with US and British voters, but if the coup was seen as having been carried out by Tajik generals, who dominate the senior ranks of the army, large numbers of Pashtun soldiers would defect to the Taliban or to local warlord militias. 

This would still not mean that the Taliban, who draw their strength from the Pashtun, the largest ethnic group, would sweep to power. As long as the US was prepared to deploy air power against them, the Taliban would find it impossible to storm not just Kabul but most likely Kandahar and other Pashtun cities as well. As a journalist for The Times in 1989 I saw the anti-communist Mujahidin get a bloody nose when they tried to storm Jalalabad. 

And if the US refused to supply such firepower, Russia and India, who fear a Taliban return, are very likely to step in, sending arms and equipment. The threat, therefore, is not of an outright Taliban victory, but of unending and savage civil war, with Afghanistan’s neighbours becoming involved on opposite sides and al-Qaeda continuing to operate in Taliban areas. 
Our best remaining card is that intelligent Taliban members know this and fear such a future. This is what figures close to the movement told me in the Gulf in July when I met them as part of a group of Western researchers. This recognition that they cannot win an outright victory is at the root of the willingness of pragmatic sections of the Taliban to reach a political settlement that excludes al-Qaeda.

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