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Cloudy, with a chance of revolution
From Saigon to Kabul
For people of a certain age, and for others who’ve read history, the chaotic collapse of the government of Afghanistan in recent days recalls the similar demise of the government of South Vietnam in 1975. The outlines of the stories run parallel: U.S. government props up local regime against armed foes but fails to make that regime self-sustaining; when Washington decides enough is enough and withdraws U.S. forces, the regime is overthrown and individuals associated with the Americans run for their lives.
In the aftermath, many observers find it irresistible to say they saw this coming. Perhaps they did. But after-the-fact predictions are inherently suspect, for even if the predicters did predict what actually happened, maybe they hedged their bets by also predicting the opposite. And supposing they provided a causal explanation—nationalism is inherently stronger than imperialism, for example—these retrodictions don’t extrapolate automatically to other cases. Why did German nationalism not result in the expulsion of U.S. forces from West Germany? Or Japanese nationalism have a similar result there?
The clever student of international affairs has responses to these questions. The Germans feared the Soviets more than they feared the Americans. The legitimacy of the old regime in Japan had been annihilated by that country’s utter defeat in the Pacific war, leaving a vacuum for a new regime to fill. These explanations aren’t wrong, but in 1950 there was no way of knowing if the forces they describe would outweigh the countervailing forces.
Take another case, or pair of cases. The United States went to the aid of South Korea against communist invasion from North Korea. After bitter fighting, an armistice line was established. This armistice—this non-victory—was assailed by many in America who thought the United States should and could win all its wars. But several American administrations settled for the stalemate until South Korea got its economic and political act together sufficiently that it could stand on its own. American troops are still in South Korea, but they’re not essential to the government’s stability. In other words, South Korea was a success story for American policy.
The United States first sent aid to Vietnam during the Korean War, while France still claimed Indochina, of which Vietnam was a part. After the French departed in the mid-1950s, Americans took their place, trying to replicate America’s Korean success in Vietnam. South Korea served as a model for South Vietnam. As things turned out, the model wasn’t apt, and the regime in Saigon never became self-sustaining, finally collapsing under the pressure of communist attack.
Again, ex post explanations point out that the North Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh were better organized and equipped than the North Koreans, that the Cold War had evolved to a point where China and the Soviet Union competed to sponsor North Vietnam, that the red scare of the Korean War era had lost its frightening effect in Sixties America. All these differences between the struggles for Korea and Vietnam were true, but whether they were true enough to outweigh the similarities wasn’t known—and couldn’t be known for certain—until the events played themselves out.
Afghanistan, if anything, was less similar to Vietnam than Vietnam was to Korea, in terms of politics, culture, religion, geographical context, and other elements important to military and diplomatic affairs. The world of the 2010s and 2020s was far more unlike that of the 1960s and 1970s than the world of the 1960s and 1970s was unlike that of the 1950s. So there is no prima facie reason the lessons of Vietnam should be more pertinent to Afghanistan than the lessons of Korea were to Vietnam.
All this is to offer a reminder that predicting the future is hard. Or, rather, it’s hard to get right, on a consistent and timely basis. Most of Lyndon Johnson’s advisers in 1965 told him the war in Vietnam was winnable; the chief dissenter, George Ball, turned out to be correct, but in 1965 he wasn’t obviously more intelligent or better informed than Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk and the other hawks. South Korea’s turnaround was a long time coming; many pessimists thought it might never come.
Predicting events in world affairs is like predicting the weather. Meteorologists don’t usually say tomorrow will bring rain or it won’t; they offer a probability. If they’re very confident, they might forecast a 90 percent chance of rain at a given hour; if it could go either way, they’ll put the chance at 50 percent. And they base their forecasts on how similar conditions today are to the days in the past that were or weren’t followed by rainy days. Then they leave it to you to decide whether to take an umbrella.
Intelligence analysts often do something like this. But their shadings of confidence can get washed out in the decision process, in which leaders typically have to make binary yes-or-no choices, and often feel obliged to defend their choices with more confidence than they actually feel. Outsiders are left to wring their hands afterward and ask why no one saw this or that coming. The fact is that people did see it coming, but only on a scale of probability.
So go ahead and second-guess the people who have to make the decisions. But remember the advantage you have over them: you know whether it actually rained. And, anyway, you’re probably sitting inside where it’s dry.