Ghani, Thieu & Saigon Syndrome
Many may not be able to appreciate in this time of post truth politics that last few years of South Vietnam regime have so many similarities to the National Unity Government of Afghanistan today, one of the iconic figures of that time was Nguyen Van Thieu, the last President of South Vietnam, who left Saigon a few days before the ultimate North Vietnamese victory and fall of Saigon. He died in Boston, Massachusetts in September 2001, without many epitaphs published by the Western press.
“I resign but I do not desert”, these were the words of the South Vietnamese strong man Nguyen Van Thieu five days before he was whisked away by CIA from Saigon on a C-118 transport plane in the end of April 1975. David Lamb while writing the last post for Thieu in Los Angeles Times on Ist Oct 2001, described the sentiments, “On 21 April 1975, tears welling his eyes, Thieu delivered an address in which he blamed the US for failing to fulfil its promises and for abandoning an ally”. Never wrote a memoir, garneted few interviews and received few visitors, he was criticized for heading a corrupt and incompetent government.
Coming back to neighbourhood, Afghanistan, after 18 years of Operation Enduring Freedom, looks to be in the same situation as that of South Vietnam in 1970s.
3 Million Vietnamese were killed in the devastating Vietnam War, in Afghanistan the figures are unknown, however a conservative estimate puts it at about half a million. US losses in Vietnam were 58000 killed, in Afghanistan these may be less than 3000 but the psychological cost of the war may be more damaging than the Vietnam War, reportedly 185000 US soldiers are suffering from PTSD today. Economically Afghanistan War has cost more than a trillion dollars, definitely more than Vietnam War which cost less than 200 Billion dollars.
Afghanistan was never subjugated by the US military, right from the outset. As reported by TRT World on 17th April, there are two Afghanistans in almost every district, the rural and the urban, while minority elite in Kabul or Mazar e Sharif may be enjoying the modern lifestyles benefiting from the presence of foreign troops and military, 70% of Afghanistan has suffered tremendously in past five years. Rural Afghanistan has actually borne the brunt of ferocious war in Afghanistan, as this has become either contested area or Taliban controlled.
In Afghanistan the contrast between the rural and urban areas has developed into a permanent fault line. Rural areas have suffered due to massive poverty and remaining out of focus for development, where urban areas have witnessed rampant corruption by the elite sitting in their cushy homes and their children enjoying the goodies of life, these factors have militated against the Western alliance and their supported NUG. Taliban has played on this divide and no wonder they have almost a de facto control over most of the rural areas, barring few pockets.
Interestingly the famous Tet offensive launched by the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong against Saigon regime in 1968, led to loss of rural Vietnam to the Ho Chi Minh regime and finally shaped the public opinion against the US military occupation of South Vietnam. Taliban Spring offensive this year is being seen in similar effects.
Another major destabilizing factor in Afghanistan this year is the elections and power wrangling within various factions. Despite the fact that Supreme Court of Afghanistan has extended Ghani’s government till the new elections are held, the other power brokers are seeing it with suspicion. Number of major power brokers have existed in Afghanistan and are exerting pressure for political space, in Northern Afghanistan Balkh province Governor Atta Noor has remained defiant to Ashraf Ghani and continues to run his state like a private governorate. Uzbek Generalissimo Rashid Dostum holds sway in North West Afghanistan through a system of militias and private armies, in the capital Kabul the old guards like Abdullah Abdullah and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are being challenged by ex-Intelligence Chiefs like Amrullah Saleh, Rahmatullah Nabil and a host of others.
While Ryan Crocker cautioned the American public about ‘Vietnam redux’ and humanitarian and geopolitical consequences, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reminded the international community that US was contemplating leaving Afghanistan.
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Even western political commentators like George C Herring suggest that there are similarities and differences in Afghanistan and Vietnam wars, while commenting on the end game in the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine, Herring suggests that the US and North Vietnam negotiated the 1973 peace settlement directly with each other, ignoring their respective allies, the government of South Vietnam and the NLF, in Afghanistan the US is now negotiating directly with the Taliban, sidestepping its ally, the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
Donald Trump and his close aides in the White House feel that Afghan War is costly, unending and fruitless. Herring believes that the departure of establishment figures like Gen McMaster and Gen Mattis has created more space for Trump to fulfil his election promise of bringing back the US soldiers home. General public mood in America is also inwards looking and seeks to solve teething problems within the US rather than costly campaigns to remake the world in American image.
It may be interesting to look at the psyche of the power brokers and leadership at the helm of affairs in such situations where the end game of conflicts nears its conclusion. In the spring of 1975, US ambassador to South Vietnam Graham Martin stubbornly refused even to plan for a withdrawal, for fear of encouraging the enemy and discouraging the South Vietnamese, a stance that made US departure more chaotic than it might have been, similar sentiment can be felt in the US establishment in Afghanistan and Dr Ashraf Ghani’s government, an effort to cling to straws.
Thieu died silently in 2001 and was cremated and interred in Boston; the fall of a powerful friend of America in the heydays of Vietnam could not find and appropriate epitaph for his grave stone, that’s the normal end of such leaders.
All told, Dr Ashraf Ghani has reached the dead end of his carrier and is being sidelined by the US because he no more fits the new game and is to be discarded into dust bin of history, that’s what happened to Nguyen Thieu of South Vietnam in 1975 and that’s what is happening to Ashraf Ghani.