I was not alive to witness the shame of the evacuation of Americans and Vietnamese from Saigon in April 1975 when South Vietnam fell to an invasion from North Vietnam and was unable (and perhaps its corrupted elites were unwilling) to resist their forcible incorporation into a Communist regime. But I am a witness to a similar scene that is taking place right now in Afghanistan. It is not particularly surprising to anyone who has two brain cells to rub together (admittedly a rare thing sometimes) that Afghanistan’s regime has lacked the ability and the will to defend themselves against the return of Taliban rule in the absence of American troops to bolster that will. The fact that this seems to have been a surprise to some people is admittedly a bit baffling. If there is a vision of the last few days that seems destined to last as a sign of the times, it is the horrific image of people falling to their death from American transport planes leaving Kabul as they desperately try to escape certain death for their collaboration with American and allied forces over the course of the last two decades.
This past Sabbath after church, before finding out that the Taliban were on the verge of taking over all of Afghanistan, I had reason to think about one of the more odd books of my library, a book that I acquired from the estate sale of an eccentric Mormon woman–The Women Of Afghanistan Under The Taliban–and this book and its problems is increasingly relevant to the problems of Afghanistan and other countries at present. The book itself presents Afghanistan as being involved in a false dilemma between urban radical leftists (including radical feminists) on the one hand, supported by Western political elites and military force, and the underestimated and disrespected forces of the Taliban, with grassroots support from rural areas and the ability to bribe and corrupt and co-opt military forces that should be defending urban Afghanistan from them. It is going to be a massive humanitarian disaster for the Taliban to rule over Afghanistan, but whatever the desire of urban Afghanis not to be ruled by the Taliban, that feeling was not converted into actual military capability and will despite twenty years of funding and training by the Americans.
It is hard to imagine what hard-pressed nation would want the United States to be involved in regime preservation or regime change. If you know that your enemies are as ruthless as, say, the Taliban, then your options when engaged in a struggle against them are victory or death. You had better make sure you are going to win in such a case, and if you are depending for survival on another nation being willing to send its people to fight and die on your behalf, you had better be providing with something that makes it worth the blood and treasure they are spending on you. Few nations in history have provided that over the long haul. To be sure, there are still American troops in places like Japan and South Korea, to name a few examples, but these nations are all cases where the initial protection came about after war and where the nations themselves managed to develop in such a fashion that their regimes provided something of genuine worth to the world in culture as well as economic strength. Afghanistan has not provided anything of the kind, and while I certainly question the wisdom of America’s involvement in such a country when it has a long history of being the graveyard of empires, the way things have happened recently is disgraceful and this will cause lasting harm to America’s ability to influence nations who can read the sign of the times and sense America’s unwillingness to expend blood and treasure to support the regimes who are wiling to call us their friends.
For students of American diplomatic history, though, this American fickleness as an ally is by no means a new thing. During the American Revolution, for example, the United States was allied with France, Spain, and the Netherlands against Great Britain. This alliance, though, was only an alliance of convenience on both sides, as the United States’ friendship with France would last barely 20 years as a formal alliance before France and the United States engaged in the Quasi War during the late 1790’s. While in general I do not mind that the relations of the United States with other nations has depended largely on America’s own interests, it has made the preservation of long relationships very difficult. As late as the American Civil War there was the possibility of warfare between the United States and Great Britain, and in 1891 the United States nearly went to wear with Chile over the treatment of American sailors by some Chileans in Valparaiso. We are a prickly nation that is both quick to take offense and quick to no longer desire fighting, and our history demonstrates a high degree of treachery as an ally–see, for example, our treaties with native peoples or our relations with the Philippine and Cuban insurrectionists against Spanish colonial rule in 1898, or the way we ended up taking over Hawaii for a few of many such examples. It is to be expected that once we leave Afghanistan and abandon our formal allies and associates to their grim fate that we can be expected to airmail some bombs from time to time to deal with the inevitable hostility the Taliban and their friends will show to us in our embassies around the world and even at home, but we cannot be trusted to have the stomach to do anything long-term about it, it would appear.