Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the Taliban Peace Talks

Latest Afghanistan Peace Talks

The announcement of progress in the Trump Administration’s peace talks with the Taliban, including agreement on a “framework” for a peace agreement, has, inevitably, generated a storm of criticism from numerous experts.  Not surprisingly, comparisons have surfaced of these negotiations with the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that allowed the United States to withdraw the last of its military forces from South Vietnam.  Most conventional wisdom among America’s policy elite blames the Paris agreement for the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.  However, the historical record suggests a different interpretation of events. 

The 1973 agreement was concluded after the South Vietnamese military, advised by U.S. military officers on the ground and aggressively supported by U.S. aircraft, defeated a massive North Vietnamese offensive the previous year.  U.S. tactical air strikes in the south were complemented with strategic bombing in the north and the mining of Vietnam’s major ports, cutting key supply lines to China and the Soviet Union.

Paris Peace Accords

When the Paris Peace Accords were signed, the United States, based on its bilateral agreements with South Vietnam, fully intended to maintain military advisors on the ground and to keep significant airpower available to support South Vietnam in the event North Vietnam attempted to repeat its failed 1972 offensive.  There should be no doubt that if these plans had remained in place, North Vietnam’s 1975 invasion would have been rebuffed as decisively as its 1972 effort, if North Vietnam would have invaded at all.

However, Congress passed legislation in 1973 and 1974 denying the Nixon Administration authority to use the U.S. military to support the South Vietnamese and funds to provide necessary equipment and training to the South Vietnamese military.  North Vietnam’s 1975 victory is much more a product of the actions of Congress than the Paris Peace Accords. 

The evolution of U.S. – Vietnamese relations since 1975 is equally relevant.  Despite the bitterness among the American populace about both the conduct and outcome of the Vietnam War (depending on political association), the United States government gradually and systematically negotiated over a 20-year period a series of agreements to normalize relations with Vietnam.  Behind this process was a realization among leading Vietnam veterans and foreign policy professionals that it was in America’s interests to improve relations with Vietnam.

The positive repercussions from dealing with the Vietnamese from a standpoint of mutual respect have been quite remarkable.  The remains of over 700 of the 1973 Americans missing in action (MIA) from the Vietnam War have been identified and returned home – with both governments actively working together to find and identify the remaining MIA.  Bilateral trade and investment have mushroomed, employing tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese in good jobs.  And the U.S. and Vietnamese military forces are involved in a variety of regional security endeavors, including the occasional discussion about cooperative efforts to deter Chinese aggressiveness in Southeast Asia.  Put in this long-term context, the signing of the Paris Peace agreement looks more like the win-win outcome it was intended to be.

Negotiating With The Taliban

It is past time to begin negotiations with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan conflict and bring them into normal Afghan political life.  Undoubtedly, they will seek power, but their record is known to Afghan citizens.  Moreover, the United States should make clear to the Taliban that we will honor our security commitments to the Afghan government.  Thus, the terms of any agreement should require the Taliban to grant guest rights to every American who remains in Afghanistan to advise and assist the Afghan government consistent with existing agreements.  Our negotiators must also make clear to the Taliban that any attempt to reconquer the country will be met with a massive American military intervention.  On the other hand, a Taliban commitment to peace and reconciliation, if fully honored, could lead to an Afghan-American relationship that resembles or improves upon current Vietnamese-American relations. 

One of the many foreign policy failures of the Obama Administration was its unwillingness to follow the successful Vietnam example and capitalize on tactical military victories during the 2009 – 2011 surge by opening negotiations with the Taliban to the end the war.   Now, President Trump, negotiating from a weaker position, must try to make good on both President Obama’s campaign pledge and his own to end the Afghan war and bring our troops home.  Let us see if President Trump can achieve what his predecessor would not even attempt.