“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” These were the words of a young antiwar activist named John Kerry, testifying before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Forty-one years later Kerry, now chairman of the same Senate committee, was defending the Afghan war, in which the last man has probably yet to die.
“A premature departure [from Afghanistan] would jeopardize the chances for a responsible transition,” he writes in the Chicago Tribune.
As the end game in Afghanistan draws near, half-heartedly and in confusion, the Americans are trying to put in place an exit strategy. As part of it, Pakistan has agreed to reopen Nato supplies.
The supply route was closed indefinitely seven months ago when U.S. bombers killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. For reasons of sanity, lets us not indulge in to the logic of why such an incident took place. Even if you kill my cat, I will try my best, not to allow you to live in a house next to mine.
For the Pakistani government and army, it was the last straw. Besides stopping Nato supplies to Afghanistan, Pakistan suspended other forms of cooperation with the U.S. and demanded an American apology for the killings.
For seven months the U.S. tried all sorts of diplomatic maneuvers to force Pakistan to reopen its “southern supply route” running through Pakistan. Those maneuvers included financial squeeze on Pakistan through the IMF, Pakistan’s exclusion from strategic talks on Afghanistan and overt preferential treatment of India, Pakistan’s arch rival. But Pakistan stood its ground and demanded nothing less than an apology for the killing 24 of its troops would make it consider the reopening of the supply route.
In the words of mark twain, “History never repeats itself but often rhymes.” Mention the Afghan exit strategy to any American in Afghanistan and the first thing that comes to his mind is Vietnam, America’s longest war until Afghanistan.
It is very difficult not to draw similarities between the Vietnam and Afghanistan. A corrupt government elected by a small minority, a consumer economy fueled by war spending, alienation and neglect of ground realities, and end game where exiting American forces are trying to pull a PR stunt to convince everyone that the local forces are fully capable fighting their war.
Some Vietnam parallels to this war are amazing. In the spring of 1972 then President Richard Nixon flew in to Saigon to ink a treaty with then Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, codifying a ‘long-term’ U.S. relationship with South Vietnam, which would leave Vietnam’s security to Vietnamese. In May 2012 President Obama flew in to Kabul to sign a “strategic partnership agreement” with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Said Obama: ‘Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation, and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states; a future in which the war ends, and a new chapter begins’. How much more secure will post-American Afghanistan be than was post-American Vietnam?
Before the exit of their combat forces from Vietnam, the Americans started believing that they were losing because Cambodia was supporting the rebels in Vietnam. Ali Syed writes “The Cambodians remained as neutral as they could but the Americans alleged that they are playing a double game, they bombed the border areas (since they believed that communists had set up sanctuaries there), with the result Khmer Rouge was formed and later what they did with their people is also horrid. There are stark similarities between the conflict of Vietnam and Cambodia and the one that we have now (Afghanistan and Pakistan).” In Afghanistan, many Americans blame their travails on Pakistani elements’ alleged support for the Taliban.
After seven months of intense negotiations and arm-twisting, Washington has persuaded Islamabad to reopen the NATO supply route through its territory. Hillary Clinton agreed to release a ‘Sorry’ statement and Pakistan accepted it and allowed non-lethal shipments to pass through its Karachi port.
Even though a second NATO supply route that runs through Central Asian countries was given a lot of hype after the closure of the Pakistani one, it was not viable. Ahsanurahman Khan writes in Pakistan’s Frontier Post newspaper that the Pakistani route is ‘the inescapable requirement of the NATO for the exit phase, despite the availability of the Central Asian routes.’
Pakistan’s help is essential for invaders’ retreat. Soviet invaders needed assurances from Pakistan to prevent mujahedeen attacks on their withdrawing units. Now NATO will need Pakistan’s cooperation to retreat safely from Afghanistan through Pakistani territory.
Many in Pakistan such as Asif Haroon Raja believe that there is no justification for Pakistan ‘to become party to the massacre of Afghans by the US kill teams particularly when drawdown has commenced and the US is actively engaged in parleys with Taliban in search of political settlement.’ They see the reopening of this route as ‘digging our own graves and consciously putting our heads in hornets’ nest.’
However, the closing and reopening of this route has some Geo-strategic implications. Mahmoud Majid in a policy paper points to ‘the American policy shift in favor of a ‘regional’ approach for a grand political reconciliation is in itself evidence on the limits of US power in the region.’
The U.S. apology shows that Islamabad can finally take an independent stand for its own strategic interests. We are also seeing the beginning of an era where Pakistan can view its relations with India without the American prism. All this will also help Pakistan in its relations with China and Russia.
Tajwali Khan is a guest contributor to ‘Islam and the West’. (He is an Independent researcher and blogger from Pakistan, with an interest in South Asian and Middle eastern issues. He is editor of the blog https://hopefulpakistan.org. He also writes for Oriental Review and Islamabad Times Online)