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Searching for Kissinger’s ‘Decent Interval’ in Afghanistan

Make no mistake, we're coming home. The only question is how long the fig leaf will be.

For the geopolitically minded in Washington, the grim quip goes: “Lose a war, gain a restaurant.” That’s why, according to Yelp, the D.C. area boasts 379 Vietnamese restaurants. Most of them, if not all, were established, of course, after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, when hundreds of thousands of refugees fled communism and made their way to the U.S.

At the moment, only 30 Afghan restaurants grace D.C. That number will likely soon change—upward. Why? Because the U.S., after 18 years, is headed towards the exits in Afghanistan, and so there’s going to be a refugee influx from that afflicted country.

Needless to say, the news from Afghanistan is always murky, and the U.S. is far from gone. Still, the BBC headline from September 3 tells us a lot: “Afghanistan war: US-Taliban deal would see 5,400 troops withdraw.” U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad has hammered out an agreement, “in principle,” with the Taliban. He has now shared some of the details with the Afghan government—which, revealingly, hasn’t been involved in the negotiations—and with the world as well.

In other words, the U.S. has been bypassing its Kabul client regime in pursuit of a deal with the Taliban. Obviously, the fact that our Afghan ally has been left out of the negotiations is not a good sign for its relevance—or its viability.

To be sure, even if those 5,400 American troops leave, another 8,600 would remain, plus an unknown number of contractors and operatives. Yet it’s obvious that if the U.S. couldn’t pacify Afghanistan with 100,000 troops at the beginning of this decade, it’s not going to do much with a tiny fraction thereof.

In fact, our current dealings with the Taliban recall our dealings with North Vietnam in the early ’70s. Back then, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger were looking to negotiate with North Vietnam to find a way out. Their hope was for “peace with honor.”

Yet the appearance of “peace with honor” is not necessarily the same thing as the reality. Behind the scenes, it was grubbier. Nixon and Kissinger understood that the South Vietnamese government was deathly afraid of a U.S. deal with North Vietnam because Saigon understood that any such agreement would leave it in the lurch, unable to defend itself. North Vietnam, after all, was supported by both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. And so Nixon and Kissinger simply pushed South Vietnam out of the loop.

Indeed, South Vietnamese fears would have been fully confirmed had they heard Kissinger speaking to Nixon inside the White House in October 1972, as recorded by the notorious secret taping system. As Kissinger put it, the U.S. should be hoping for a “decent interval” between the American departure and the inevitable fall of the Saigon government. And that’s what happened: the Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, and barely more than two years later, on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell. Understandably, millions of South Vietnamese sought to flee the communists, and that, again, is how D.C.—and the U.S. as a whole—gained so many new restaurants.

All that history is familiar to the policymakers and pundits of today. And so inside the Beltway, the debate over the future of Afghanistan—more precisely, U.S. involvement in the conflict—is far from over. As TAC contributor Doug Bandow noted on August 29, the foreign policy establishment, a.k.a. “the Blob,” is perpetually in favor of staying in Afghanistan, because, well, establishments are always perpetually in favor of doing everything that they’re doing, perpetually. After all, who wants to admit a mistake? Especially when establishmentarians can snugly oversee the war from their armchairs in a Massachusetts Avenue think-tank?

In the meantime, American losses continue to mount. On August 29, another G.I. was killed in Afghanistan; that would be Army Sergeant First Class Dustin B. Ard of Idaho Falls, Idaho. He leaves behind his pregnant wife Mary and daughter Reagan. Ard’s death was the 15th this year, bringing the total of American military deaths in Afghanistan to nearly 2,400.

Yet in spite of all this American sacrifice, the Taliban controls more territory than at any time since 2001. Indeed, the Taliban has proven its ability to strike anywhere, including inside Kabul; just on September 3, suicide bombers struck an international compound, killing at least 19. Tellingly, local Afghans now want the international residents out of their neighborhood, because they know the presence of foreigners is a magnet for Taliban killers—whom nobody seems able to stop.

We can pause to observe that such popular fatalism dooms a regime. It makes people—especially those with links to the West—likely to flee.

To be sure, there’s no telling exactly when the Kabul government will crumble, as well as how, exactly, it will crumble. After all, President Trump hasn’t even signed off on Khalilzad’s draft deal, and even if he does, he could always change his mind. The ability of the Blob to swallow presidents is not to be underestimated—and Trump is a case in point.

For decades, reaching back to his career as a businessman, Trump had been a skeptic of foreign military engagements, and he explicitly campaigned against “endless wars” in 2016. Yet since then, the Blob has been extending pseudopods of keep-the-status-quo cajolery deep within his administration. Trump has thus been persuaded to keep the U.S. engaged, or, if one prefers, quagmired. Remarkably, in August 2017, Trump even delivered a primetime speech on Afghanistan in which he pledged “victory.”

Even if Trump doesn’t talk up victory anymore, nobody can say what exactly he will do. Does he want to get credit for extricating the U.S., finally, from an unpopular war? Or does he not want to see a foreign capital fall on his watch?

Whatever the case, it seems evident that the remaining sand is running out of the Afghan hourglass. In the two years since that go-get-‘em speech, Trump has expended zero rhetorical effort in support of the Afghan mission; instead he and his administration have shifted their focus to China. (And yes, there’s also that fascination with Iran, although there again, because Trump is Trump, it’s hard to know what will come of it. It could be anything from an armed conflict to a Kim Jong-un-ish summit.)

In the meantime, the Democrats, too, have moved on. It wasn’t that long ago that Barack Obama was referring to Afghanistan as the “good war,” while surging American troops; Obama, too, was pseudopod-ed by the Blob. And while the 44th president soon enough realized that the new doctrine of counter-insurgency wasn’t working any better than the old doctrine of counter-terrorism, he chose not to get cross-wise with the Blob—and so American troops stayed.

Yet today, nobody in the 2020 Democratic presidential field—not even Obama alum Joe Biden—has any enthusiasm for the Afghan mission.

So whether it’s a re-elected Trump or a newly elected Democrat in the White House in 2021, the U.S. is going to be looking for that fig-leafy “decent interval.” It could come in the form of a bilateral agreement, or perhaps an international conference, complete with the promise of U.N. peacekeepers (although unless they’re Pakistani or Chinese “peacekeepers,” any foreign force will likely wilt in the face of the Taliban, which is nothing if not good at killing).

Yes, it’s intriguing to note that Afghanistan has trillions of dollars’ worth of natural resources waiting to be mined. And so if a stable regime could ever be established in that war-crossed land, great wealth could spring forth. But that’s a manifest destiny for someone else, not Uncle Sam.

What we’re going to get stateside when this misadventure finally comes to an end is a lot of new refugees—and a lot of new restaurants.

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.