Tuesday’s announcement by President Biden that “it is time to end America’s longest war” and withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11 of this year has disappointed some in the national security establishment. Eliot A. Cohen, dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, wrote that withdrawal “will come at the cost of strategic reputation.” Washington Post columnist Max Boot drew parallels between Biden’s decision and the 1973 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, saying in a tweet that America is now abandoning its Afghan allies “just as we abandoned our Vietnamese allies.”
Boot and others who look to the past correctly note that the War in Afghanistan, like the Vietnam War before it, has presented Americans with difficult choices. But this should not detract from the more important lesson of Vietnam: withdrawing from unwinnable wars leaves Americans better off. For that reason alone, Biden was right to commit to withdrawing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
That the United States can safely leave Afghanistan should be welcome news for Americans, as the war there is not winnable in the first place. Like the communists in Vietnam before them, the Taliban in Afghanistan are unbeatable opponents because they are indigenous to their territory and effective at maintaining power. That first condition matters because the United States never had and never will have as much stake in the future of Vietnam or Afghanistan as the Vietnamese or Afghan peoples, respectively. The second matters because U.S.-backed governments in both Vietnam and Afghanistan have not been nearly as popular or effective as many think. In fact they have had more difficulty exerting control compared to their communist and Taliban counterparts. It is hard to win a war under such circumstances.
This is difficult for many American foreign policy hawks to accept, however, because they wrongly believe that the conflict Afghanistan—like Vietnam decades ago—is an essential war. In fact, withdrawing from Afghanistan would likely cause little-to-no harm to U.S. interests in the short run. The idea that another 9/11-style attack may emanate from a Taliban-ruled “safe haven” in Afghanistan neglects that, after two decades of fighting the United States, the Taliban has little reason to risk another war by letting terrorists prepare attacks on its soil. Even if Al Qaeda wanted to plot another attack on the United States and was able to operate undetected by the Taliban, the incredible surveillance and domestic policing capabilities developed by Washington since 9/11 should be more than capable of stopping an attack.
Opponents of withdrawal also contend that pulling all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, with all the Vietnam-esque calamity that would allegedly bring, will damage U.S. credibility elsewhere. However, this argument is flawed in the same way that the domino theory was during the Vietnam War. Advocates of that war speciously warned that the rest of Asia would fall to communist forces should the United States withdraw from Vietnam. But they were wrong. Communism did spread to Laos and Cambodia after the fall of Saigon in 1975, but then it stopped. It was not the case that each country’s political fate was solely determined by whether or not its neighbors went communist. Withdrawing from an unsuccessful twenty-year long war in Afghanistan cannot plausibly impact longstanding U.S. treaty commitments to other countries.
Moreover, Vietnam shows that there is little reason to believe that withdrawing troops forecloses the possibility of future engagement with Afghanistan (even a Taliban-ruled one). It is true that Vietnam did not conduct its foreign policy as the United States would have preferred in the years after the Vietnam War. To this day, Vietnam conducts its internal affairs antithetically to American values. Yet, after U.S. withdrawal, Vietnam eventually returned the remains of U.S. troops and opened up its economy to the world. Today, Washington maintains normal relations with Vietnam and has been partnering with it on select foreign policy issues—something Biden and future presidents can and should try to emulate in Afghanistan after U.S. troops leave.
These arguments often fall on deaf ears, however, because they do not appeal to a sense of moral universalism or American exceptionalism as Vietnam analogies do. Disastrous U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya have similarly been preceded by feel-good calls to topple “evil” dictators and ensure that “fierce reprisals” against U.S.-backed rebels do not go through. The call to “just do something” is resounding, especially for Americans who believe that the United States is an “indispensable nation” or a “can-do power.” And make no mistake—Afghanistan after a U.S. withdrawal is unlikely to be an exemplar of peace or universal rights.
But once America becomes embroiled in a messy war it cannot win, there will always be something to do, for there will always be something wrong. War is not the ideal time to prioritize what is fair or just, even for allies who chose to trust the United States. It is easy to find ways for the U.S. government to help non-Americans, but that is not its primary obligation. Serving the American people, if need be by withdrawing from bad wars, is.
History alone cannot provide the answers to hard questions, but it can help. Vietnam shows why leaving Afghanistan is the right thing to do.
Ethan Kessler is an intern at a think tank in Washington, DC. He is currently writing a policy report on the US-South Korea military alliance as a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Michigan and previously interned at the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control and the Forum on the Arms Trade in Washington, DC.