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From Saigon to the Mujahideen: the many historical echoes of the fall of Kabul

A U.S. Chinook military helicopter flies above the US embassy in Kabul on August 15, 2021.
History repeating. Wakil Kohsar/AFP

When Kabul fell to Taliban forces on August 15, observers rushed to draw historical parallels to make sense of the situation. There were abundant analogies to choose from, between Afghanistan’s four decades of war and the US’s various failed interventions and nation-building projects around the world.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken may have said of Kabul that “this is not Saigon”, but there are significant parallels between the country’s retreat from Vietnam in 1975 and its withdrawal from Afghanistan – down to the helicopters that hovered over the embassies.

Ashraf Ghani’s government shared multiple similarities with the South Vietnamese government of Nguyen Van Thieu. Corruption, nepotism, incompetence and over-reliance on the US plagued both regimes and both swiftly fell to opposition forces after the Americans withdrew.

Still, while South Vietnam held for two years after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords against an experienced communist army supported by China and the USSR, Afghanistan fell in a matter of weeks to a Taliban force that should not have represented such a daunting challenge.

This contrast is perhaps what makes the analogy most interesting: how could the Afghan government and the US-trained and equipped Afghan army prove so weak that they could not hold the Taliban at bay for even a few months? Why did ordinary Afghans seem to have so little invested in the US nation-building project?

Stephen Colbert compares the fall of Kabul to that of Saigon.

Russia and the Mujahideen

While instability and the rise of radical Islamism in Afghanistan are today preoccupying Russia and its partners in Central Asia, there is nonetheless a dose of schadenfreude in the former Soviet sphere in seeing the US fail even more spectacularly than the USSR did.

Ghani’s fall recalled the end of Mohammad Najibullah, the last communist ruler installed during the Soviet-Afghan War, to a Mujahideen coalition in 1992.

Najibullah held power for more than three years after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 despite dwindling Russian backing and steady US and Pakistani support for the Mujahideen. Najibullah’s regime presided over massive human rights abuses, yet it had a functioning army and, by 1990, a political platform centred on nationalism and “traditional Islam” that attracted support among part of the Afghan population, albeit a minority.

It also opposed a Mujahideen coalition that despite its internal divisions was better armed and supplied, and had more domestic and international backing than the current Taliban forces.

The contrast is therefore striking with the current regime’s demise. In many ways, its fall seems to vindicate Najibullah. The fact that, on the last day of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Ghani himself had called on President George H. W. Bush to pursue a more active Afghan policy because “the collapse of the besieged puppet regime in Kabul” was “just a matter of time” in an article in the Los Angeles Times, only makes the parallel all the more ironic.

When history goes in circles

In Afghanistan itself, the fall of Kabul feels like history tragically repeating itself. Former Mujahideen and opposition figures, Soviet-era warlords and their kin, and Pakistani-based armed groups are all once again involved.

This is no less than the seventh violent power transition since 1978, not counting the transition between communist rulers engineered by the Soviets in 1986 and the infighting among the Mujahideen between 1992 and 1996. It besides marks another de facto Afghan defeat of a superpower – after the wars with the British empire in the 19th century and the USSR – as the Taliban were quick to point out.

A billboard of former president Ashraf Ghani outside Kabul airport, August 16 2021
Tattered legacy: a billboard of former president Ashraf Ghani outside Kabul airport, August 16 2021. Wakil Kohsar/AFP

The fact that the Taliban victory appeared as ineluctable to many Afghan observers only added to the impression that the country’s history is bound to go in circles.

In June 2020, while in negotiations with the Taliban alongside the US, Ghani cautioned the West: “please don’t ask us to replay a film that we know well”. He argued that Najibullah had “made the mistake of his life by announcing that he was going to resign” in 1992. Ghani may have already been concerned about sharing Najibullah’s fate.

Learning from past experience

These historical parallels, to which one could add US interventions in Iraq and Libya, or the Taliban’s first takeover in 1996, are both misleading and revealing. They highlight the similarities but often obscure the differences with the recent events. Still, they can sometimes help us understand them.

Hence, Ghani’s regime seemed to have had even more limited political support and legitimacy in Afghanistan than that of Najibullah, the Taliban, or the former Mujahideen. Its lack of a clear platform and inability to appeal to a critical number of Afghans was one of the reasons why it fell so quickly.

In this context, those who criticised the US for exporting its democratisation agenda abroad are now experiencing an I-told-you-so moment. In response to the fall of Kabul, Russian president Vladimir Putin called on the West to stop its “irresponsible policy of… imposing foreign values” on other countries.

Nonetheless, there is also a bigger question about the usefulness of only drawing historical analogies after the fact. In this case, cautionary tales from the past were not heeded as the US withdrew – the writing had been on the wall in that regard for years.

The truth is that – as much as everyone may like to draw these parallels – history is often left behind when vital decisions, such as when and how to withdraw foreign military from a country, are made. This is perhaps the most crucial takeaway from the entire debacle, and a chance to think about how to strengthen the connections between professional historians and decision-makers.

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