WASHINGTON — Former secretary of state, national security adviser and Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger is, by all measures, a foreign policy heavyweight. At a recent black-tie dinner, he stood — stoop-shouldered and peering imperiously over his signature thick, black-frame glasses — and remarked: “Unilateral withdrawal is not victory.”
Whom could he have been talking about?
Kissinger knows a thing or two about the pain of walking away. After negotiating the Paris Peace Treaty to end the Vietnam War, he saw President Richard Nixon resign in disgrace over Watergate, then watched Congress pull the plug on all support for South Vietnam.
America’s 25-year effort was squandered. With Soviet backing, the North Vietnamese rolled over the South. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were washed in a bloodbath of oppression and genocide. Emboldened, the Soviet Union bankrolled new revolutions in South America and Africa and fostered a wave of transnational Islamist terrorism in the Middle East.
Though many Vietnam War protesters, including now-Secretary of State John Kerry, trumpet America’s withdrawal as a triumph, there is no reason to be proud of how we left. While we can still debate the wisdom of going to war there, there is no doubt that our total abandonment of our allies left a bloody and shameful legacy.
Kissinger’s comments weren’t meant to recall ancient history. He was lamenting history repeating itself. The prospects are now high that Afghanistan will fail, needlessly.
The Obama administration’s Afghan strategy is a virtual carbon copy of its withdrawal from Iraq. It assumes that once the imminent threat of the collapse of the regime has passed, it’s OK to head for the exit. But absence of imminent failure is a poor criterion for declaring victory — no better than George W. Bush’s unfortunate high-five under the “Mission Accomplished” banner after the initial invasion of Iraq.
That’s not to say the United States should plan major, unending commitments to a country after a fight. But once the levels of violence have come down, some further commitment is usually necessary to help peace and stability become “the new normal” and let good governance take root. Iraq is a case study in how to get it wrong. It is fatuous to argue that the White House could not have gotten permission to retain a residual force there. It simply didn’t want to. It is also clear that the U.S. pullout left a vacuum that was eagerly filled by a resurgent al-Qaida. Today, Iraq suffers much higher levels of violence than when Obama took office.
The prospects for Afghanistan are even grimmer. Obama’s Afghan “surge” was not nearly as massive and effective as the Bush surge in Iraq. The Taliban still have sanctuaries in Pakistan; the Haqqani network is as robust as ever and al-Qaida is waiting in the wings. The narco-trade that fuels the insurgency remains robust as well. These are daunting challenges for the Afghan people. While Obama talks of finishing the job in Afghanistan, many in the administration would be delighted to go with the “zero” option — no U.S. troops, period. But it’s not clear that a small multinational presence will be enough to hold the hard-won gains there.
The U.S. went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan to eradicate the terrorist forces that had killed thousands of Americans and threatened to kill many, many more. Job one was not to bring freedom and justice to those lands, but America always prefers to leave a path to liberty and prosperity in the wake of its war.
Sadly in the case of Afghanistan, Obama seems once again poised to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory, as he did in Iraq. Future administrations will reap the blowback and have to deal with it — probably at greater cost. “Unilateral withdrawal is not victory.”
James Jay Carafano is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at The Heritage Foundation. Readers may write to the author in care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. 20002