Fig leaves

The tragedy of imperial retreat

By Tarak Barkawi, 21 Jul 2011 17:16

Not so long ago, Western powers were doubling down on their commitment to Afghanistan. Dire warnings circulated about how the US “abandoned” the country after the Soviet retreat. This time, the West would stay and help Afghanistan achieve “stability”. It would withdraw only when “indicators” found that the Taliban insurgency had been contained.

Now it is obvious that those indicators were set for President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.

The course and timing of imperial retreats usually reflect circumstances in the imperial country, not the target country. It’s about the US and the West, not Afghanistan. As ever, Vietnam is instructive.

The device by which the US withdrew from Indochina was the Paris Peace Accords of 1973. Provisions included a ceasefire between South and North Vietnamese forces, the return of US prisoners of war, and withdrawal of US troops.

Nixon and Kissinger had found an acceptable formula – in domestic political terms – by which the US could withdraw from a disastrous war. US prisoners of war were coming home. Incredibly enough, many Americans in 1974 believed that the US had actually won the war. South Vietnam was saved in a “peace with honour”.

In fact, South Vietnam was left to twist in the wind. It is little appreciated that through the application of tremendous firepower and the devastation of the countryside, the US and South Vietnam had all but defeated the insurgency. The country would fall to a conventional invasion from the North.

At the time of the Paris Peace Accords, Nixon assured the South Vietnamese that should North Vietnam attack, US munitions and airpower would arrive to save the day. When the attack came, the Democrat-controlled Congress cut financial aid, and neither resupplied the South Vietnamese nor contemplated the use of US airpower.

The US had turned in on itself, mired in multiple crises generated by Watergate, the oil shocks, and domestic racial, social and economic turmoil. Those South Vietnamese who had stood with the US and depended on US assurances were abandoned to their fates. They were shut outside the embassy gates while the US airlifted its remaining personnel to safety in April 1975. Very few of them were even to be given asylum in the US until the plight of the “boat people” shamed the West.

To be sure, South Vietnam was an artificial and murderously repressive state established and maintained by US power. Its officials rivalled Karzai’s in their kleptomania, corruption, and self-defeating behaviour. At the same time, many South Vietnamese and US soldiers and officials believed deeply in what they were doing, as today among their successors in Afghanistan.

Redeeming the blood debt

Ironically but unsurprisingly, it was often US soldiers who felt their country’s betrayal of South Vietnam most deeply. They were the ones who had shed tears, sweat and blood for higher purposes. They were the ones who had established personal bonds with their counterparts, and who had firsthand experience of the country and its people. They were the ones who shared with the Vietnamese the tragedy and violence of war. And, as now in Afghanistan, they were also the ones who hoped for a victory that was just around the corner. If only the West would live up to its values and stay the course, they believed, the blood debt might yet be redeemed.

Take the case of Iraqis who worked for the US and the UK, many of whom have been hunted down by insurgents. Neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations had much interest in ensuring their safety after they risked everything to build a new Iraq with the West. The UK left theirs behind in Basra, to be rounded up and killed after British forces departed. Many US soldiers have worked tirelessly, against their own government’s bureaucracy and fears of terrorist infiltrators, to help their translators emigrate. But rather than honour those who stood with the US, Bush and Obama have left unfilled 18,000 visa slots of 25,000 authorised for Iraqis by Congress.

The sad fact is that when crises at home overtake Western politicians and publics, they have a remarkable capacity for simply forgetting those who stood with the West in the non-European world. Indian soldiers, who had fought for the Allies in World War II, found themselves the objects of racism in the post-war UK; the South Vietnamese were left hanging off helicopter skids or stewing in communist re-education camps; and there is little doubt what will happen to many Afghans who have placed their hopes in the West’s staying power.

For perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that neither Western intervention nor those who fight against the West offer much hope for justice, peace and democratic rule. In Vietnam, the choice was between the insanity of Saigon and the totalitarianism of Hanoi. In Afghanistan, it is between the hopeless venality of the Karzai regime and the Islamic version of the Khmer Rouge.

The killing of bin Laden and Vice President Biden’s “counter-terrorism” strategy are the fig leaves that will attempt to cover the protruding shame of US retreat this time around. Promises of nation-building have been steadily downgraded. The hope now is that enough Afghan soldiers and policeman can be trained to turn Afghanistan into a kind of permanent counter-insurgent state, only with Afghans doing all the dying on both sides. While some real progress has been made in building an army, as was also the case in Vietnam, an army without a regime or a cause to support it is unlikely to hold together for long. US drones will circle above the bloody madness to come, occasionally firing missiles.

Meanwhile, back at home, the bill for Bush’s wars will come due in a United States that has become ungovernable. The same corrosive neoliberalism that undermined US development programs in Iraq and Afghanistan – contracted out to a private sector interested only in its own bottom line – has left the US unable to respond to the multiple crises it faces. It is these crises, economic and political, as well as the electoral calendar, which have sealed Afghanistan’s fate.

Tarak Barkawi is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge.

Photograph by Hubert Van Es/Bettmann, Corbis.

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1 comment

    • Mike Nunn on July 22, 2011 at 6:39 am

    The real tragedy is that we became involved in the first place. In Vietnam we supported a corrupt regime. In Iraq, we had no business becoming involved. In Afghanistan, we knew the problems and ignored them.

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