Historical Perspective from History Over Simplified
August 19, 2021
The sudden collapse of the pro-American Afghan regime is resurrecting memories of the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975. Especially for people old enough to remember it.
I was nine years old at the time and remember the stream of Vietnamese refugees into Southern California, where I grew up, in the months and years that followed the fall of Saigon.
The images of Afghans desperately seeking to board planes at the Ka-bull airport to escape the Taliban, justifiably draw comparisons to South Vietnamese just as desperately trying to board American helicopters forty-six years ago to escape communist forces.
Yet the debacle, and the involvement of the still young Biden administration, also calls to mind another new administration’s botched involvement in another foreign fiasco
The Kennedy administration and the Bay of Pigs affair of April 1961.
The Bay of Pigs refers to the failed invasion by Cuban exiles of their nation in April 1961
The exiles had been trained and supplied by the American Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA.
The plan for the Bay of Pigs invasion had been conceived during the later period of the administration of Dwight Eisenhower, as relations deteriorated between the United States and the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro, whose forces in 1959 had overthrown the pro-American Batista dictatorship.
Many Castro opponents fled into exile in the United States, where they began to organize to mount a military invasion to retake the island
They found support from the fervently anti-communist CIA, then led by Allen Dulles
The CIA funded the proposed invasion, training the exiles in the pro-American nation of Guatemala, organizing the Cuban exiles as Brigade 2506.
Executing the invasion of Cuba by Brigade 2506 still was pending when Eisenhower left office in January 1961.
When John F. Kennedy took office in January 1961, he had to decide whether to allow the Bay of Pigs operation to go forward
Kennedy had retained Allen Dulles as head of the CIA, and Dulles recommended the operation go-ahead.
Given the hardline stance toward Castro’s regime which Kennedy had taken during the 1960 presidential campaign, it would have been hard for JFK not to green-light the invasion. Especially as Castro, had formed a cozy relationship with the main American adversary in the Cold War, the Soviet Union. Which meant that blocking the Bay of Pigs operation would allow Kennedy’s opponents to paint him as soft on communism.
So JFK approved the invasion which went forward in April 1961. It was a disaster.
Castro’s army quickly bottled up the exile’s beachhead at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs and the members of Brigade 2506, who had not managed to escape, were forced to surrender 3 days after their arrival
Kennedy came off from the failure looking indecisive, weak, and incompetent.
Like Kennedy in 1961 with Cuba, Joe Biden in January 2021 inherited the American problem with Afghanistan from previous administrations going back to that of George W. Bush.
U.S. forces had initially entered Afghanistan in October 2001 in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks inside the American homeland.
The administration of George W. Bush sought to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization, which they correctly held responsible for the attacks of 9/11.
Bush also wanted to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had given bin Laden and his organization sanctuary, and allowed them to establish bases where the 9/11 hijackers had been trained and dispatched to hijack planes and crash them into landmark buildings on the American East Coast in New York City and Washington, D.C.
While American forces and their Afghan allies in the anti-Taliban resistance were successful in quickly toppling the Taliban, bin Laden escaped the American grasp. And the government the U.S. helped install in the aftermath of the invasion proved weak and corrupt.
Also, as time went by the Taliban mounted an effective guerrilla war inside Afghanistan, which meant the U.S.-backed. government did not have effective control of much of the country, which was similar to the situation of the Saigon regime in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
The Taliban’s resurgence was facilitated by the inattention to Afghanistan which began in 2002. The George W. Bush administration became increasingly distracted by its plan to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. And by the insurgency inside Iraq against American forces that followed the 2003 invasion.
When Barrack Obama became President in early 2009, the position of the American-backed government in Afghanistan was tenuous. Leaving the new president with the choice of pulling out of the country entirely, or surging American troops in the hope of buying time in order to salvage the Kabul regime in the hope it could eventually successfully fight the Taliban on its own.
While the so-called surge rolled back Taliban gains since 2002, the American-backed regime in Kabul remained weak and corrupt, and unable to control much of the country outside major cities.
By the time the Trump administration took control in 2017, the vast majority of American public opinion favored a U.S. pull-out from Afghanistan.
Especially since Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Navy Seals in 2011 in Pakistan obviating the manhunt for him as the most compelling reason to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Plus, the Al Qaeda threat was increasingly supplanted by seemingly more extreme jihadist groups such as the so-called Islamic State.
Despite his strong-man posturing, even Donald Trump favored a pullout and his foreign policy team announced a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, which foresaw a complete U.S. pullout within 14 months if the Taliban honored its commitments in the agreement.
Successfully implementing the February 2020 agreement would have been difficult in any case. But it took place within the context of a global pandemic and raucous presidential election in the United States. And the unprecedentedly difficult transition between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
The pandemic distracted decision-makers in the U.S. from the successful implementation of the agreement.
The bitter presidential election in the U.S. and its aftermath meant that Trump officials were not as cooperative as they should have been with the incoming Biden administration.
Biden’s appointees claim that during the presidential transition, Trump’s people were slow to brief them on the Afghanistan withdrawal plans.
Indeed, it has since emerged that Donald Trump tried during the transition to remove the remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan before Biden took office. But he was persuaded to leave 2500 troops in place. A number Biden later complained wasn’t enough to manage the remaining withdrawal properly.
Biden’s team also contends when Joe Biden took office, there effectively was no plan in place to complete the U.S. withdrawal. Especially a plan that not only included withdrawing American troops, but also American contractors and diplomats.
As one Biden official stated to the online publication Axios, “When we got in, on Jan. 20, we saw that the cupboard was bare.”
The main historical similarities between JFK and Biden highlighted here are: 1) being confronted with tricky situations inherited from previous administrations early in their first term; 2) having the tricky situation explode on them; 3) taking responsibility for a failure arguably mostly not of their making.
Kennedy took responsibility in a speech to newspaper editors on April 20, 1961, the day the survivors of Brigade 2506 surrendered to Fidel Castro’s army.
Biden took responsibility for the faster-than-expected collapse of the American-backed government of Afghanistan in a television address on August 16, 2021, as the Taliban was entering Kabul and horrific images of desperate Afghans trying to escape the country emerged.
Historically, Kennedy taking responsibility proved politically beneficial, at least in the short run with JFK’s already high approval rating increasing from 78 to 83 percent.
Although also should be noted that his decision not to use U.S. forces to salvage the exile’s invasion made him seem weak to foreign leaders, especially the USSR’s Nikita Khrushchev. This contributed to the Soviet leaders’ aggressive approach with Kennedy two months later when they met for a summit in Vienna, Austria.
Yet it remains uncertain what impact, if any, the Afghan collapse of August 2021 will have on Joe Biden’s political fortunes.
History would suggest that Biden might actually benefit from his “buck stops here” approach to the crisis.
However, JFK didn’t have to cope with the current pervasive and ruthless right-wing media machine. A machine that seems intent on using the collapse in Afghanistan to challenge the established narrative of Joe Biden’s competency.
For example, even as Biden took responsibility for the Afghan debacle, Fox News used the same speech to claim that Biden hadn’t taken responsibility and was creating disrespect for the United States not only with its rivals but also its allies. In any case, as people look to history for insight into the 2021 Afghan collapse, it is worthwhile to get beyond the images of South Vietnam in April 1975 to seek additional insight in other pertinent historical episodes like the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961.