Memories of Saigon: How the north-American foreign policy has repeated the same mistakes of 50 years ago

“Every man for himself!”

In these last weeks the political and military situation in Afghanistan has been receiving enormous attention from the media. So enormous that it could be considered as the most broadcasted international event since the north-American elections in 2020 and its repercussions during the first weeks of 2021.

Those who have been keeping up with the issues in Afghanistan in the last 10 years shouldn’t, however, face the recent happenings with surprise. The truth is since the very first mandate of President Barack Obama, a similar scenery that we are able to see today had already become inevitable.

The United States and its international allies invaded the country back in 2001 with the means to end Al-Qaeda’s threat in the region and avenge the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks in the same year. The removal of the forces of the Taliban regime in power, was in the beginning of the hostilities a secondary goal. Nothing more than a strategy to get unconditional support from the Afghan military organization also known as the Northern Alliance.

Despite the escaping of Osama Bin Laden to Paquistan few months after the attacks, in 2002 the terrorist system on the central Asian country had already been destroyed as an effective strike force. Since then, the purpose of the western forces in the country was already too uncertain.

In the following 18 years, the International Security Assistance Force’s mission (name of the NATO led military mission supported by the United Nations) changed from counterterrorism, to counterinsurgency, nation building and even merely logistic support to the Afghanistan military.

Four presidents later and this uncertainty only tended to increase. Thousands of millions of dollars were injected into the country in order to build more schools, hospitals and other infrastructure works. Between those was the well-known project from Ring Road, a chain of roads and highways that connected all the major cities in the country. A project that thanks to the interference of the Taliban and other local forces, as well as the shortage of maintenance service made the various sections of the roads deteriorated (notice that today a major part of this road chain has disappeared). (Vox 2018).

With the lack of capacity to pacify the forces of Taliban and the failure of the seduction from hearts and minds from the Afghan people, it was concluded that the presence of the western coalition served as a stabilizing force. A lesser evil. A necessary evil. From the moment that the western forces removed themselves, the danger of the return from the Taliban regime to the position of power was much likely possible.

Trump ‘s Administration initiated the dialogue with the leadership of extremist forces. On the signed accord, the Taliban were asked to seal the entrance of terrorist forces in the country as well as start negotiations with the central government. On the other hand, President Donald Trump had promised the removal of the majority of North-American forces until the end of May. A highly polemic decision, that was made without the consultation of the American allies from NATO and even the Afghan government.

Biden inherited a very dubious accord. However, despite major political and ideological differences with his predecessor, Biden’s Administration agreed to follow the agreement.

As Vice President, Biden had already expressed his unhappiness about the route of this conflict entering in many situations of contrast against President Obama. Biden believed that a removal within a month, a year or twenty would hardly provoke a different result. This is the reality that will take five presidential mandates to understand (or just simply until now neither of them had the courage to assume the responsibility of assuming the reality).

The soldiers of the Islamic fundamentalist movement only had to wait until the day that the fragile regime of Kabul was abandoned by its international companions.

And that day has arrived.

History repeats itself: first, as tragedy, second…

Today the USA faces the one event that can possibly be the biggest failure in their history in terms of foreign policy. Probably, even bigger than the Vietnamese collapse, that had marked forever a generation and had represented the darkest event of the Cold War to the American people.

The events that have been happening in Afghanistan, are very similar to those horrific experiences that happened in Vietnam over 50 years ago.

Here are some examples of those similarities:

  • Both conflicts were characterized by an American military intervention in an undeveloped country. Sustained and justified by dubious arguments. The escalating American presence in Vietnam was justified by the Tonkin Gulf incident, where a small group of North Vietnamese frigates attacked an American ship. The reality is that this event served merely as a smokescreen to justify to the congress the deployment of thousands of soldiers to Southeast Asia with the purpose of fighting the global ambitions of Moscow and Beijing. The Western intervention in Afghanistan was sustained by the presence of terrorists from Al Qaeda in the country, the ones responsible by the attacks in 2001, and for the complicity of the Taliban with these;
  • On both conflicts the USA found themselves fighting in an asymmetrical war against a much inferior enemy in terms of military force. At the same time supporting the development and armament of its allies in the region (in the Vietnam war, it was the regime of Saigon and in Afghanistan the central state of Kabul). The expectation from the American leaders was that the American smashing superiority when it came to resources and firepower would rebalance decisively the equilibrium in favor of pro-western forces. Something that was never proven;
  • On both cases, the conflicts prolonged many years although the political and military executives had come to the sense of the impossibility of a military win;
  • Both in Afghanistan and in Vietnam, the American and western forces ended up removing themselves, leaving the responsibility of the maintenance of this conflict to the ally country of the region. In both Saigon and Kabul, the feeling of betrayal and abandonment by the American side was tangible. Just as the accords signed with north Vietnam, the accords signed with Taliban forces didn’t demand their disarmament. As a result, both groups kept ready to return to the hostilities whenever the Americans forces left;
  • In both cases, the ally regime was defeated a few times after the removal of the Yankees, not being able to offer a realistic defense against its enemies. The fast pace from the enemy ‘s forces obligated in both situations a quick and disorganized evacuation of all the American civil, diplomatic and military body out of many places.

These are some aspects where we can identify some similarities. Considering that we shouldn’t forget the difference between the paradigms of both cases. The American intervention in Vietnam resulted from the context of the cold war, to put the brakes on the proliferation of communist regimes in Southeast Asia (a fear justified by the domino ‘s theory). The American and NATO ‘s intervention in Afghanistan resulted of the necessity of George W. Bush ‘s administration to show that even Injured, the American power was supreme. A demonstration of strength.

On this matter, they have succeeded. However, it still feels peculiar that a whole country got invaded with basically the only goal of capturing (or killing) a single man. From the moment that the western coalition got proof of the escaping of Bin Laden from the country, the purpose of the mission would immediately become questionable and even unnecessary. (Ott 2021)

The removal of the forces from Vietnam occurred majorly because of the unpopularity of the conflict and the smashing need of the Americans in getting out of a war from which they never truly understood as well as the reasons for its involvement.

In Afghanistan however, the period for major revolutions and manifestations had ended much time ago. Many Americans had already accepted the permanency of this conflict and the casualties that were about to occur from it- the forever war.

It is also important to remember that in September 2001 the international community and the American society were united in the necessity of retaliation after the attacks on 9/11. An event that paved the way to such a scary paradigm that for a brief moment even the major external rivals from the USA and western side were able to forget their differences.

20 years later, we observe the quick paced removal of foreign forces. The images of this moment evoke memories of the 1975 evacuation in Saigon, that even Joe Biden had to demystify this idea – “In nothing that both situations are similar”, he referred.

On my understanding, hardly could both situations be more similar… we will have, however, to wait to discover the true effects on the long term from these developments.

Has Marx used to say, “History repeats itself: first as a tragedy, second as a farce”

Goodbye Afghanistan. Hello, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

The American intervention on Iraq back in 2003, the combat against the Islamic state on the second half of the decade of 2010, the confusions on Libya and Syria, the rise of its own political rivals (the Russian federation and the Popular Republic of China) and the failure that has been happening on the past weeks, were only able to fragilize the American position on the international field as an incumbent superpower.

The eyes of the Chinese dragon and the Russian bear have already started to fall over this powder keg ready to implode. There is only one thing to know, if one of these two challenging powers will look forward to fulfilling the empty space left by the removal of their principal political rival or just simply relish the international humiliation of Uncle Sam.

The disaster in Vietnam compromised the American leadership in three different presidential periods – from Johnson to Nixon and even Carter – making the US withdraw themselves to heal the wounds on a national perspective. The Reagan revolution was necessary to give back to the USA some of its own spirit. However, until the end of the Cold War, the American people opted majorly to use the so-called soft power on their proxy wars against the red threat.

Only in the presidency of the first Bush and Clinton was America able to openly use its military power as it used to (noticeable on the American interventions in Panama, Iraq and Somalia).

Although it’s quite easy to personify the issue in just one single man, in one single president, I believe that we shouldn’t forget that what failed was the foreign policy apparatus and complex military industry. Two institutions that perform a tremendous influence on every level of the government in the US, from the Camera of Representatives to the Oval Office.

It is still quite early to say if the happenings of today could affect the still very recent presidency of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Only with the perspective that history offers us we could make that analysis. Notwithstanding, this certainly will be remembered as one of the darkest periods in Biden’s Administration.

The images of Afghanistan people holding in desperation to an Air Force plane as this one is about to depart. The videos of mothers giving their sons and daughters to American soldiers in order to save them. Or even just the mere vision of the red, green and black flag symbolizing 20 years of democratic experience being overthrown on behalf of fundamentalists will never ever be forgotten. 

I leave this message for the reader. After 20 years of war, millions of thousands of dollars invested in the military, thousands of wounded and dead, Afghanistan didn’t get too different. The only difference is that the western side leaves behind a more populated country, developed, armed and with a deepened hatred feeling towards the Americans that left them.

We could affirm that the “cemetery of empires” has just gained another tombstone…

Noble people

We in Portugal, thanks to our geographical periphery and passivity on an international level, have a tendency to belittle this kind of international phenomena – “This is their problem” or “ Let them solve this”.

We shall never forget that Portugal was favorable to military intervention from NATO back in 2001 and hundreds of Portuguese soldiers were deployed in combat zones (where two national fighters – Sargent in command Paulo Roma Pereira and soldier parachutist Sérgio Pedrosa- passed away serving our country). (Ferro 2019)

We are not totally immune from responsibilities.

The outcome of the Vietnam war generated one of the major refugee crises of our history. We will see if this becomes another aspect where these two events get similar. If that happens (as many are expecting) the neighboring countries, and eventually, the EU will hold a gigantic problem on their hands. We all are familiar with the difficulties that Europe has been facing in the past 10 years with the increased migratory flow into the continent… and the forces that gained visibility by using this polemic situation.

We are not totally immune from the consequences.


Council on Foreign Relations. The US war in Afghanistan. 16 de agosto de 2021. (acedido em 17 de agosto de 2021).

Cruz, Mariana Teófilo da. “Militares portugueses numa guerra eterna.” Sic Notícias. 19 de fevereiro de 2019. (acedido em 18 de agosto de 2021).

Ferro, Carlos. “Atentados, tiroteios e acidentes. O que enfrentam os militares nacionais nas missões de paz.” Diário de Notícias. 14 de junho de 2019. (acedido em 17 de agosto de 2021).

Ott, Marvin. “Afghanistan: Echoes of Vietnam?” Wilson Center. 13 de julho de 2021. (acedido em 16 de agosto de 2021).

The Economist. “Afghanistan: why the Taliban can’t be defeated | The Economist.” Youtube. 20 de fevereiro de 2020. (acedido em 17 de agosto de 2021).

Vox. “How the US failed to rebuild Afghanistan.” Youtube. 11 de janeiro de 2018. (acedido em 18 de agosto de 2021).

(Translated by Maria Luís Dias)

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