Baghdad and Kabul – A Reminiscence of Saigon

The fall of Saigon in April of 1975 left an indelible scar on the American psyche. The memorable scenes of the U.S. embassy and intelligence officials boarding helicopters from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, surrounded by thousands of desperate and panicked South Vietnamese civilians, signaled the end of an almost 30 year struggle by the communists to throw off foreign dominance. With the current situation in Iraq in such a precarious state and the drawdown of NATO and U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the question of could it happen again is legitimate.

The fall of Saigon signaled the end of U.S. attempts to keep South Vietnam within its sphere of economic and military influence, safeguarding Vietnam (South) as part of a South East Asian raw materials depot for Japanese industry and as an anti-communist buttress protecting Indonesia and its vast natural wealth. So important was Indonesia, that Richard Nixon called it “by far the greatest prize in the Southeast Asian area.” Vietnam, but specifically South Vietnam, was seen as the ‘domino’ that could not fall. It became a symbol of the infamous Domino Theory, otherwise known as the excuse for everything. It stated that if the spread of Communism were not stopped, the whole World would eventually fall into the Soviet sphere of influence, like blocks in a game of dominos. “As if nations were blocks of wood,” says John Pilger, and not complex societies filled with their unique histories and animosities.

Despite facing the World’s most powerful and technologically sophisticated military machine, the North Vietnamese forced a Peace Treaty, signed in Paris in 1973. This was what President Nixon called, “Peace with honor” (of course, four years earlier, Mr. Nixon demonstrated no honor when he undermined peace in order to get himself elected).

Saigon and the scenes of its fall to the communists emphatically marked the failure of the United States in propping up of the artificial South Vietnamese state, military and institutions (largely outsourced to military contractors after 1973). It unmasked, if only momentarily, the facade of platitudes and soaring rhetoric indicative of the Cold War Era.

It brings no pleasure or enjoyment to pose the question of whether recent events in Iraq, will give us a repeat of what was seen in Saigon almost four decades ago. Is the military and government of Iraq, equally superficial? More troubling is the thought of something similar occurring in Afghanistan after U.S. troops leave in 2016 and American financial support dries up like it did for South Vietnam.

While comparing conflicts to the Vietnam War has become clichéd and, when taken too far, represents a simplification of the events occurring on the ground–the similarities are interesting nonetheless.

 

Iraq

As this is written, ISIS rebels had taken the town of Tikrit and attacked but were repelled at the outskirts of Samarra, less than 100 miles north of Baghdad. Iraqi Kurdish militia is attempting to hold ISIS in the north and prevent their expansion into Iraqi Kurdistan, while making advances of their own. Undoubtedly, Iraqi Shi’ites will not tolerate such an extreme group taking huge swathes of Iraqi territory, so it is possible that we will see a re-ignition of another civil war, what Michael Knight is calling “Iraq War III.” Encouraged by the words of Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, hundreds have gone to Baghdad to join the resistance and help stop the ISIS advance.

The watershed moment occurred on June 9, 2014 as the city of Mosul (Iraq) fell into the hands of rebel factions led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, with large swaths of northern Iraq and cities to the south also being threatened. The rebel forces met little resistance as Iraqi soldiers and police fled, leaving weapons and equipment behind. The attack was launched overnight by hundreds of gunmen, quickly capturing the “governor’s headquarters, prisons and television stations.” A video released soon afterwards showed scenes of the streams of people fleeing with their families and whatever they could carry, along with several police vehicles engulfed in flames and smoke. The latest from the UNHCR is that as many as 300,000 people have fled Mosul and the surrounding areas.

Iraq is a country already under the strain from the influx of Syrian refugees, this is compounded by Iraqis fleeing Anbar Province as a result of fighting that has been going on there since January of this year. We also have the violence and attacks that kill dozens on an almost daily basis. The intensity and frequency of these attacks has increased incrementally since 2010, escalating dramatically from 2012 through 2013, spiking daily over that last several weeks.

The seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the subsequent takeover of Tikrit and the emerging threat to Baghdad is a well-coordinated operation that served as a strategic and public relations victory for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It is what Andreas Krieg calls, “the most significant success for global jihadism since 9/11.” Al-Qaeda’s own version of “Shock and Awe.”

On social media, ISIS and its supporters have been busy gloating over their recent victory that has provided them with another staging ground from which they can recruit, plan attacks and consolidate power. As territory falls into their hands and the ability of governments to project power into these areas lessens, the probability that these territories will become to ISIS what Khyber Agency, North and South Waziristan are to the Taliban increases. It could be worse, on account of the organizational efficiency that ISIS commands, which supersedes anything that the Taliban in Afghanistan or the federally administered tribal areas can muster.

It is difficult to say whether ISIS will take Baghdad and hold it, but for now, the momentum is on their side. It is now up to the international community and the Iraqi government to come up with an answer and quickly. Iran, seeing that another one of its ally regimes is under threat, has stated that it is monitoring the situation. Early reports that Iran has sent troops into Iraq to help stop the ISIS advance, have been denied by Iranian officials—although they have confirmed sending advisors to help coordinate the Iraqi government’s counter-offensive. President Rouhani, has stated that Iran is willing to work with the United States in combating the ISIS threat to Iraq, with the Obama Administration making reciprocal overtures.

If the response is not adequate, we could very well have a Saigon repeat. In order to prevent this outcome, the Obama Administration has deployed nearly 300 U.S. troops to protect its massive embassy and to help advise Iraq’s military and policymakers—with airstrikes being considered. Ultimately however, exposing and exploiting ISIS’ lack of popular legitimacy might be the key to pushing them back.

 

Afghanistan

The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious as attacks heavily intensified before the country’s recent presidential election. Despite Taliban intimidation, many Afghans flocked to the polls with an election turnout of 58.3%, higher even than Egypt’s recent turnout in its election.

The success in the election is a sign of hope in the future and the sentiment is ripening among the Afghan people. Many in the Afghan elite also celebrated the voter turnouts as a symbolic victory over the Taliban and a historic moment in the nation’s history. As the presidential runoff begins, the eventual winner will face significant challenges, but what can be deduced from the front-runners, is that they are all intelligent and shrewd politicians. There is no doubt that whoever comes out the winner of the election, his talents will be tested in the coming weeks and months, if not years.

The second round of elections will have to overcome both the Taliban’s attempts at disruption and the allegations of massive, systemic fraud. The pressure is on Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission to keep fraud at a minimum and the security forces must do what they can to keep polling places secure, but more importantly, the Afghan people must once again show their defiance by coming out and voting. Every legitimate vote cast, is a vote that delegitimizes the Taliban’s influence.

Afghans from all strata of society, but especially the youth, are hopeful in their country’s future and are expressing in a variety of artistic, creative and intellectual ways. If hope is present, it must be understood that a secure and bright future is not guaranteed; it is up to the Afghan government, its international partners and the individual Afghan citizen to continue to hold the line against oppression of violent movements like the Taliban.

Certainly the Taliban cannot be ignored and must not be dismissed, doing so could prove to be lethal. Unfortunately for the Afghans, the Taliban is one of the most extreme forms of such groups in the World. They see all elections as a foreign fraud and see all improvements in Afghan social society as un-Islamic.

As the economic benefits of the occupation begin to fade, there will be less of a military presence on the Afghan countryside as the responsibility for security falls solely into the hands of the Afghan army—possibly allowing the Taliban to conduct its military operations with greater ease. They will also be able to make a better case for recruitment on account of a slow economy. Though some experts have stated their belief that the Taliban is incapable of retaking control of Afghanistan, the opportunity will be open to them if the Afghans are abandoned to fend for themselves. What could ensue next is anybody’s guess, but no scenario appears to be a good one.

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