Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s criticisms of the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by January 15, 2021, by comparing it with what he claims were disastrous decisions made in Vietnam in 1975 and Iraq in 2011 are without merit and misleading.
McConnell claims the consequences of what he called a premature exit from Afghanistan would be reminiscent of the humiliating departure of U.S. troops from Vietnam in 1975 and President Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, which he argues, fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism.
We did not withdraw troops from Vietnam in 1975. We actually ended the American military involvement in that disastrous war in Vietnam in January 1973 by signing the Paris Peace Accords. By April 1975 most of the South Vietnamese army — which had been trained and supplied by us for over a decade — had refused to effectively carry out their mission of protecting their country from the counterinsurgents and the North Vietnamese military. We had to evacuate 5,000 Americans from our embassy, but they were all civilians. The only military people were the Marines guarding the embassy, which they do in every country.
Vietnam became a unified country in 1975. The United States formally recognized the country at the urging of Vietnam War veterans and heroes Senators John McCain and John Kerry, during the Clinton administration. Today, Vietnam is an integrated member of the globalized capitalistic economy and has normal relations with the United States. In fact, each year thousands of Americans visit the country (including President Trump) and this year an American aircraft carrier, the USS Roosevelt, actually paid a port call there.
What would McConnell have had us do? Should we have kept fighting and not signed a deal with both North and South Vietnam in 1973? The first American soldiers were killed there in 1959 and by 1973, almost 60,000 had died and millions more had suffered physical and mental wounds. As the peak of our involvement, we had about 550,000 troops, most of whom were draftees, in that country.
And we dropped more bombs than we did in World War II and still could not achieve our objective of preventing Vietnam from becoming a communist country because the people of Vietnam did not support our ally, the government of South Vietnam. Moreover, our unfair draft system placed the burden of that war on the lower classes. Many of our future leaders, including four presidents and Mr. McConnell himself, avoided serving in that war through educational or medical deferments.
Tied to a status of forces agreement signed by his predecessor George W. Bush, President Obama had to withdraw from Iraq in 2011. During the 2008 presidential campaign, when I was part of the Obama foreign policy team, I met with the Iraqi foreign minister and asked him if we had to set a specific date to leave. He said Iraq would not sign an agreement unless we agreed on a fixed date for departure. (Something I relayed to a surprised Dennis McDonough.) Bush signed the agreement after Obama won and before inauguration, in December 2008.
The Iraqis were clearly serious about this. In a meeting arranged by Obama’s future secretary of defense Chuck Hagel in December 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki insisted that we had no choice but to take U.S. troops out of the country — he said essentially you made an agreement, you must keep it. At the same meeting General James Jones, Obama’s first national security adviser, said Obama was willing to leave up to 10,000 troops. Would McConnell have wanted us to violate the sovereignty of the elected government in Iraq?
We have been in Afghanistan longer than in Vietnam. And while the cost in lives and treasure is not as great, the fact of the matter is that the Afghan government, like the South Vietnamese government, does not have the support of the majority of the Afghan people. And many members of the Afghan military do not fight with the same intensity as the Taliban.
Moreover, although I believe that our intentions are not the same as foreign countries like the United Kingdom or Russia, many citizens of Afghanistan see us in the same manner. I remember one night in Vietnam in 1966, when we got lost and came upon a Catholic monastery. The monks fed us and gave us directions but asked why we thought we would make out any better than the French. For many in Afghanistan we are the second coming of other imperial powers.
Similarly, after ISIS came into Iraq, the Iraqi government asked us to return and we not only came back, but with the help of the Iraqi military, we defeated ISIS and remain there to this day, with the permission of the Iraqi government.
Just as we were correct to end our involvement in Vietnam in 1973 and Iraq in 2011, Trump is right to begin leaving Afghanistan despite the Majority Leader’s concerns.