There is strong speculation that U.S. and Taliban negotiators are moving closer to a deal. We should have no illusions, however, about this alleged breakthrough: The Trump administration is not negotiating a final peace between the warring factions but a U.S. exit from Afghanistan. Just as it was in the Vietnam War, leaving is the point. As my forthcoming book shows, there is an important parallel between the two wars. In both situations, the United States got involved in a conflict that it could not win without extraordinary (and politically impossible) measures. Rather than rationally revising its objectives or striving to attain a victory, the United States kept on fighting, while trying to contain its costs until finally its main objective was not to win, or to achieve a political compromise, but simply to get out.
U.S. leaders fight losing battles until they are exhausted.
Some political scientists have argued that states can go to war, even if they are rational, because they do not have full information about the capabilities and intentions of their opponents. Once they figure out what they are up against, they may exit the conflict. But history suggests that there are organizational and psychological reasons why individuals and governments have difficulty in reevaluating what they are doing, even when it isn’t working. This means that governments and militaries may keep on doing the same thing until they can no longer continue.
For example, during the Vietnam War, the Johnson administration conducted a relentless bombing campaign to try to keep North Vietnamese personnel and supplies out of South Vietnam while trying to kill enemy forces on the ground faster than North Vietnam could replace them. However, North Vietnam sought to drag out the conflict, knowing the United States would tire first, and eventually won its bet.
In Afghanistan, the Bush administration mistakenly presumed that the U.S. military could quickly build up the Afghan army and police, so that the Afghan state could help the U.S.-led effort, while U.S. allies would help carry the burden. Most egregiously, it assumed the war was over once it drove the Taliban government from power, shifting resources to the Iraq War. With few U.S. troops and an unprepared Afghan government and military, the United States found itself struggling to defeat a rising Taliban insurgency.
With no end in sight, costs become everything.
Once winning seems out of reach, democratic leaders may care more about containing their costs than achieving victory or cutting their losses. In the Vietnam War, as Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts argued, Lyndon B. Johnson chose a middle course, neither escalating and meeting additional troop requests, nor withdrawing, but maintaining roughly a half-million U.S. soldiers in the country. This seems rational on one level, but perhaps only because its costs weren’t as obvious as those of the two extreme options. It may not have been rational to assume that doing more of the same would persuade Hanoi to concede to U.S. terms.
In Afghanistan, the Obama administration opted for a U.S. force “surge” in 2009. However, Barack Obama soured quickly on the war effort once he understood the failings of the Afghan government and the ongoing costs of fighting the war.
When the president chose finally to send additional forces to Afghanistan, he sought to constrict the mission. He pressed his advisers for less costly options. He gave the U.S. military fewer troops than it said it needed. He imposed a compressed timeline for assessing the success of his surge. He also established a modest (indeed, somewhat nebulous) mission for U.S. forces that they could hardly help but achieve.
His goal was not to defeat the Taliban and build viable central government institutions. Nor was it even to ensure that Afghan security forces could carry the load after a U.S. departure. Instead, once again, Obama was mostly worried about containing costs.
Eventually, U.S. leaders head for the exit.
The war, by this point, has lost its luster. Indeed, a new administration, less invested in past policies, might initiate a new plan with the goal of getting out. After Johnson left office, the Nixon administration continued to invest heavily in the war, invading Cambodia, increasing bombing and supporting a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. It figured it could leave Vietnam with a bang and maybe weaken the enemy sufficiently so that Saigon could carry the load. It withdrew U.S. forces, however, without worrying much about whether South Vietnamese forces could pick up that load.
In Afghanistan, the Obama administration committed to a “fixed” withdrawal schedule, which it revised to a “withdrawal in place” when Afghan forces proved unable to stem the Taliban resurgence. It contracted U.S. troop levels and responsibilities, and opened negotiations with insurgent factions, supplying only enough support to avoid immediate defeat.
The Trump administration continued this approach. In August, President Trump reluctantly accepted the military’s recommendation to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Yet the administration pressed the Afghan military to withdraw from less-populated parts of the country, ceding those areas to Taliban control, and is apparently preparing to order a U.S. troop decrease. Just as in Vietnam, the United States sidelined the host government (in Saigon and Kabul) in ongoing negotiations with the adversary. The U.S. aim was to settle the “military” issues of the war — that is, negotiate a U.S. withdrawal — before talking about (much less settling) the contentious political question of who will control the government.
In Vietnam, the eventual result was a North Vietnamese victory by force. The Kabul government could meet the same fate. In both wars, the United States engaged an enemy that viewed negotiations as a means to facilitate a U.S. exit from the country and viewed the host government as a U.S. puppet.
The fate of the government is no longer a principal U.S. concern. Leaving is now the primary U.S. objective.
James H. Lebovic is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.