Imperial Fiasco: Half a century of failed US adventures, from Vietnam, to Afghanistan

Since the Second World War, the United States has lost just about every war that it has fought in a developing country. It has epitomised the tragedy of a world power’s inability to win a small or medium war in asymmetric conflicts. The latest war, from which the United States bowed out without having achieved its original objectives, was the twenty-year conflict in Afghanistan. The disastrous consequences of this move for Afghanistan, the region and NATO’s reputation cannot be underestimated. It may have worked as a factor in emboldening Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

After the Vietnam fiasco and the Iraq debacle, as well as the example of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, one could have been forgiven for expecting that the United States and its allies would have been wiser in their choice of intervention. But Afghanistan’s case clearly demonstrated the opposite. US interventions have been driven mostly by a self-assured Washington view that it has the necessary military power to overwhelm an enemy. Yet that has turned out to be, more often than not, untrue.

As was the case with Vietnam and Iraq, and lately with Afghanistan, Washington’s planners have proved very effective at launching an intervention or invasion, but come unstuck when trying to win the war. Four interrelated themes essentially bind and explain America’s failure in these three countries, notwithstanding the 1991 US-led reversion of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

The first theme is Washington’s inability to comprehend the complexity of the countries it invades, and their regions. In each instance, Washington failed to recognise the possibility of it being trapped by national and international adversaries with a vested interest in humiliating it.

In Vietnam, not only North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, but also the Soviet Union and China made sure to frustrate America’s plans. Had it not been for Moscow’s and Beijing’s support of the opposition, the United States would not have fought for as long or suffered as much in terms of human and material losses as it did. It was sunk in a quagmire from which it could see no way out other than to settle for a negotiated agreement from a position of political weakness rather than strength.

The 1969 the Vietnam Paris Peace Accords were essentially designed to facilitate the US troop withdrawal. They provided no ironclad guarantees to ensure South Vietnam’s survival and security as a democracy in support of America’s democratic ideals and the containment of communism. The Accords were not worth the paper on which they were written by US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart, Politburo member Le Duc Tho. The negotiators were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as peace makers, but Kissinger could not claim too much glory given the events that followed the signing of the Accords. Once the last US troops had left in 1973, the North overran the South. The US’s final chaotic evacuation from Saigon and its associated humiliation in 1975 could not have been more confronting.

The United States experienced similar outcomes with its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq nearly thirty years later. America intervened in Afghanistan in late 2001 in revenge for Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the US on 9/11. It did so in conjunction with waging an elusive war on terrorism and a campaign of democracy promotion that aimed to change the world into its own image, to forge a US-centric global order and to make the twenty-first century that of America. In Afghanistan, the prime objective was to destroy the Al Qaeda network and to dismantle the medievalist regime of the Taliban, which had acted in the name of its version of Islam and harboured Al Qaeda’s leaders and main operatives. It was also to ensure that Afghanistan would never again become a hub for international terrorism. In a similar fashion to Vietnam, during two decades of fighting and botched state-building, with the support of NATO and non-NATO allies, the United States found itself involved in an unwinnable war.

While failing to quell the Pakistan-backed, Taliban-led armed opposition, it took two strong critics of the Afghanistan war—the neonationalist, impulsive Republican president Donald Trump and his politically savvy Democrat successor Joe Biden—to call it a day in Afghanistan. The Trump administration signed the infamous March 2020 Doha Peace Agreement with the Taliban. The deal was negotiated and signed by the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, the Afghan-American and self-confessed neoconservative Zalmay Khalilzad, and a Taliban deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Bradar, in a similar vein to the Vietnam Peace Accords.

The deal essentially provided for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan within fourteen months, ostensibly as a pathway to a political settlement between the Taliban and its counterparts inside Afghanistan—including the United States’s protégé government in Kabul—and the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails. In return, the Taliban pledged not to let Afghanistan’s soil be used for hostile actions against the United States and its allies by such groups as Al Qaeda and Daesh. It ended hostility between the Taliban and foreign forces, but did not provide for a universal ceasefire, let alone a political settlement. The way was left wide open for the Taliban and its supporters to intensify their operations against Afghan government forces, whose strength, cohesion and operational capability were very much dependent on support from the United States and its allies.

The Biden administration extended the peace agreement’s term of implementation by three months for logistical reasons, but implemented the deal in spite of advice from military advisers about the fragility of the Afghan government and its armed and security forces. The Taliban, along with its Pakistani and Al Qaeda backers, could not have hoped for anything better. They were able to fight their way to Kabul and take over the capital by mid-August 2021. Thus the very forces that the United States had aimed to eliminate regained power, leaving it and its allies high and dry and prompting them to mount an emergency evacuation, with scenes that were a replay of that of Vietnam—both confronting and humiliating. At least in Vietnam, NATO was not involved, but in Afghanistan both the United States and its NATO allies had to wear the indignity of defeat.

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq tells a more or less similar story. In contrast to the Afghanistan intervention, for which the United States had the sympathy and support of most UN member states, the Iraq adventure lacked any UN legitimacy and was opposed by some of America’s traditional European allies such as France and Germany, as well as most states of the Middle East. It was backed only by Britain and Australia in a ‘coalition of the willing’. The purpose was to get rid of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, which had become a thorn in the United States’s side since its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and America’s successful reversion of it six months later. The United States and its allies pegged their invasion on what turned out to be a baseless claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime was linked to Al Qaeda and possessed weapons of mass destruction. Washington was also motivated by a neoconservative plan to transform Iraq into a beacon for the spread of democracy in the region, with a close eye on its main regional adversary, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The United States had a plan for the invasion of Iraq, but not one for bringing peace to the country. In the process of toppling Saddam Hussein, it also dismantled the Iraqi state. It basically changed the multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian Iraq from a strong dictatorial state with suppressed societies—the main ones being the Shia majority and the Sunni and Kurdish minorities—into a weak state with strong societies. As it failed to fill the power vacuum using an Indigenous-based approach, Iraq was plunged into a bloody sectarian conflict that opened the way not only for Al Qaeda to find a place in the country, but also for neighbouring Iran to energise its sectarian relations with receptive Shia segments of the Iraqi population and gain greater influence than the United States in shaping Iraq’s destiny.

Prioritising Iraq over Afghanistan and facing another quagmire, Washington had to finally end its very bloody and costly occupation by signing an agreement with what Iraqi government it could cobble together in 2011, as it had done in Vietnam and was destined to do in Afghanistan. It left behind a broken Iraq at the mercy of conflicting internal forces and regional interventionism led by Iran. The fragile Iraqi situation, in conjunction with the Syrian crisis triggered by the Arab Spring, or pro-democracy uprisings in parts of the Arab world, ultimately gave rise to the so-called Islamic State. This development brought the United States back to Iraq, though this time indirectly on the same side as Iran, to combat the new extremist force.

The United States certainly played a critical role in the territorial defeat of Islamic State, but without necessarily degrading the ideological and operational capability of the group. However, its subsequent policy blunder of not punishing the Iran- and Russia-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad when it crossed the red line by using chemical weapons against its opposition widened the opportunity for Vladimir Putin’s Russia to form a de facto alliance with Iran and apply devastating air power to save the Syrian regime. The indiscriminate Russian bombings killed thousands of civilians, destroyed cities and towns and caused massive population destitution and dislocation. Putin has pursued a similar approach in his invasion of Ukraine since February 2022.

Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates states frankly in his 2014 memoir that the United States is good at overthrowing governments but has no idea what to do when it comes to their replacements. In relation to Iraq and Afghanistan specifically, he argues that the United States invaded them without a clear and deep understanding of the very complicated nature of their societies and intricacies of their neighbourhoods. This view is also applicable to its Vietnam fiasco.

The second theme is that in all three cases, the United States has not been able to secure a credible and effective partner on the ground. This was as true in South Vietnam as it was in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every leader and government that the United States backed in these countries turned out to be incompetent, manipulative and unpopular, presiding over widely kleptocratic and dysfunctional systems of governance. They were in place at the behest of the United States and were void of selflessness, dedication and capability, and could not generate national unity, expand their power bases or secure majority public support.

In South Vietnam, the successive governments of Ngo Dinh Diem, Nguyen Van Thieu and Tran Van Huong were of this nature. So were those of Nouri Al-Maliki and Haider al-Abadi in Iraq and Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan. They were more engaged in the politics of self-preservation and the protection and enrichment of the elites whose loyalty they needed as their functionaries. Repeated warnings by seasoned analysts about their fragility and unreliability fell largely on deaf ears in Washington. Regarding the Vietnam War, I had a long conversation with former US Secretary of Defense and architect of America’s strategy there, Robert McNamara, in Helsinki in 1999. One point that stood out was his profound regret about America’s involvement in that war. When I asked him why he did not make his regret operational at the time, his response was that ‘when you are in the thick of the war, all you want is to win the war’. The United States certainly lost its way in expectation of victory in all these three countries.

The third theme is that ultimately the United States was not able to sell its invasions and fulfil its original promises to the people of these countries. In respect of all three entities, it defined its prime objective and motivation as bringing them stability, security, prosperity and democracy. However, as it failed over time to score marked progress in any of these areas, a majority of the people grew disillusioned with its involvement, losing faith in both the United States and the government(s) that it propped up. While many of them were enticed to identify with opposition causes, a majority of them simply wished to see the end of their suffering, irrespective of who held the reins of power.

Meanwhile, the US political class could not maintain the support of its constituency for the continuation of any of these wars. The longevity of each war, its human and material costs and its atrocities invoked swelling opposition at home. Anti-war sentiments grew louder, not only from the public but also from some policy-makers and legislators, pressuring the political leadership to seek America’s exit from virtually unwinnable wars.

In respect of Vietnam, the war was fought not only in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia but also on the streets of America. The anti-war movement seriously undermined the United States’s efforts in the conflict theatres. The Iraq war was shunned as a war of choice by a majority of Americans from the start. In contrast, the Afghanistan war, in revenging the 9/11 attacks, initially enjoyed the widespread backing of the American people, but their support dwindled as the costs rose and prospects for success diminished. Whatever criticisms of the manner and extent to which Biden acted in completing America’s withdrawal, some 60 per cent of Americans favoured this complete pull-out.

The fourth theme is that the US political and military leaders at the helm of these invasions have not always acted according to a single timetable. Whereas the Commander-in-Chief has tended to be conscious of his political fortunes and historical legacy, and therefore favour short-term involvement and speedy victory, the commanders leading the fight on the ground could not easily back down in the face of defeat. They preferred condition-based rather than time-based exits, and always thought there was a chance for victory. The military saw its role as being one of the three elements that could lead to success, the other two being the political and developmental dimensions of state-building. Failure in these dimensions could not but undermine the effectiveness of their military operations and contribute to overall defeat.

In each case, the US president of the time advanced an ideological and geopolitical justification for America’s involvement and claimed a kind of victory. In Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson claimed that America’s Vietnam adventure prevented a communist domino effect in the region from Southeast Asia to Polynesia. In Iraq, President George W. Bush announced that the elimination of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship removed a major threat to US interests and international security. In Afghanistan, President Joe Biden claimed that the mission was accomplished by preventing a repeat of 9/11. Yet none of these amounted to the fulfilment of Washington’s originally declared objectives, as in all cases America’s adversaries won the day.

In view of these losses, it is not surprising that President Biden has stood firm in defence of Ukraine against Russian aggression and in support of Israel against attacks on it by the militant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and of Israel’s massive military response, especially while America’s own democracy is experiencing serious turmoil. Let us hope that the United States’s indirect involvement in these conflicts will not go down the same path as its direct interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Note: This is an edited version of Victoria University’s Jean McLean Oration, delivered by Amin on 24 October at the city campus of Victoria University. We thank the University for their assistance.

About the author

Amin Saikal

Amin Saikal is Emeritus Professor of Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies at the Australian National University and Adjunct Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia, and the author of forthcoming book How to Lose a War: The Story of America’s Intervention in Afghanistan, published by Yale University Press.

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I am pleased to receive a copy of Amin seikal article in the Arena magazine of his speech
for the
jean McLean Oration at Victoria University

Good to hear, his article will also shortly be in print in the forthcoming Issue 16 of Arena Quarterly. It’ll be available in bookstores and our online shop very soon…

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