Vietnam peace treaty deja vu?

The Democratic presidential primary season and the coronavirus threat overshadowed an event last week that in normal times would surely have constituted the lead story in American media outlets. 

It’s the signing of an agreement to begin the peace process in Afghanistan. 

If it succeeds, it would bring an end to decades of fighting in that ill-starred nation and lead to the return home of thousands of American troops.

We should be under no illusion about how difficult that goal is. But every such attempt has to start with a first step. Success will depend on how committed our government is to our enforcement of the agreement’s pledges.

Ideally, all parties to the infighting among various Afghan subgroups will see the advantage to halting military action. But the sad truth is that such eventualities have proved unlikely when the United States negotiates agreements from positions of weakness following years of stalemate.

Under the agreement signed by the U.S. and the Taliban last Saturday, the United States will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan within 14 months, thereby ending 18 years of American military involvement there. 

For that to take place, the Taliban must agree to prevent terrorists from using Afghanistan as a staging area to attack America or its allies.

Several problems are apparent immediately with that precondition. For one, the Taliban, even if they have sincere intentions, don’t control all of Afghanistan. Rogue groups that lie outside the control of either the Taliban or the Afghan government could continue to assist terrorists regardless of Taliban entreaties.

For another, the Taliban have a history of using negotiations as a way to reduce American and Afghani government military efforts while meanwhile ramping up their own forces.

For another, the proof of the agreement’s success will depend on America’s determination to make it work, and whether in the event of Taliban violations we will maintain or even increase our military strength to try to force compliance.

America’s record in that regard is spotty at best. 

In January 1973, with support for the Vietnam War plummeting in the U.S. and no prospects for allied victory, the Nixon administration signed the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

The provisions called for:

• Withdrawal of all U.S. and allied forces within 60 days.

• The exchange of prisoners of war.

• Clearing of mined North Vietnamese ports by the U.S.

• A cease-fire in South Vietnam.

• Creation of a national joint council of all Vietnamese groups to implement democratic liberties and organize free elections in South Vietnam.

• A four-nation commission (Canada, Hungary, Indonesia and Poland) to implement the cease-fire.

• Withdrawal of foreign troops from Laos and Cambodia.

• Any introduction of war materiel into South Vietnam would be only on a replacement basis, and no further military personnel would be injected into the nation.

• U.S. financial help to rebuild all of Indochina.

The Nixon administration had not informed South Vietnamese President Thieu of the secret negotiations between the U.S. and North Vietnam, and Thieu was furious when he discovered he had been left out of the discussions. He had little choice but to comply, though, because his government was totally dependent on U.S. help to remain in power.

As was probably expected, both the North and the South began to violate the treaty almost as soon as its ink dried. 

Because antiwar sentiment in the U.S. had burgeoned by the early 1970s, and both Nixon and Congress were unwilling to back up American promises to help Thieu if the North’s wartime activities continued, the communists were underway in full attack mode again by March 1973, just two months after the agreement’s signing.

North Vietnam began its final offensive in early 1975, and the U.S. evacuated our last personnel by helicopter from the American embassy’s rooftop on April 30 of that year.

The question now is whether the Afghan situation will resemble Vietnam in terms of the American response. Would we be willing to send American troops and military resources back into Afghanistan if the Taliban violate last Saturday’s agreement?

It’s a no-win situation. 

If we don’t back up our pledge, America’s word will once again prove false. If we were to return to Afghanistan, it would signal the failure once again of peace negotiations.

Unfortunately, the future is pretty much in the hands of the Taliban. 

For centuries, first one foreign power, then another, has tried to steer Afghanistan’s course: Alexander the Great’s Greeks, Muslim Arabs, Mongols, the British, the Soviet Union and the United States. None have succeeded, including us.

As with the Paris Peace Accords discussions and Thieu’s South Vietnamese government in 1973, the U.S. negotiators shut out the recognized government of Afghanistan from the recent U.S.-Taliban negotiations. That did not end well in 1973, and it’s likewise a major hindrance in this modern-day agreement.

And two dozen Republican U.S. senators sent a letter to President Trump last week warning him against a full-scale military withdrawal from Afghanistan because of our experience with the Taliban’s previous bad-faith history.

Civilian casualties in the war-torn nation since 2009 now top 100,000 — about half of them injuries and the other half deaths. 

Whether those will now halt at that level is unknown.

The current start on a course toward peace is certainly worthwhile — but we should recognize that success is a long shot.

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