It's been said that every great empire which has invaded Afghanistan has not just been defeated, but collapses soon after. Examples which have often been cited include: Alexander the Great's, the Mongols, the British, the Soviets, and now, perhaps the Americans. Well, maybe. Genghis Khan did it. So did Tamerlane, and the Persians, Turks, and others. So, it's true that empires have fallen after invading Afghanistan, but not necessarily because of Afghanistan. It's not the foregone conclusion that some think.
Nevertheless, for a great many people, there was just something about the last military flight out of Afghanistan in the darkness of Kabul which smacked of sneaking out; as if we were ashamed of what we accomplished or failed to accomplish. A thief in the night. Our withdrawal was seen by the world as unorganized and chaotic. Not what you would expect from a superpower.
There are already stories of hundreds of Americans being left behind; stuck and surrounding by a Taliban looking for some "after occupation" revenge, and yet the last flights out of Kabul were all Afghan nationals. Of course, we can't forget the vast amount of military hardware left abandoned by the Afghan army; so much so that the Taliban now has a larger air fleet than Australia (albeit much of it in disrepair). Still, it now has tanks, Humvees, heavy trucks, artillery, drones, transports, night vision goggles, and everything else you would want for that despot on your Christmas shopping list.
Years later, the retired General Gromov confirmed that there were no Russians remaining in Afghanistan, and added that Soviet Union was "done" with Afghanistan. Soviet troops destroyed or took with them nearly everything they could, leaving little to nothing for the mujahideen, which at the time included a embryonic Taliban and Al Qaeda. So, what happened to us?
Our withdrawal and evacuation is being called by many as an example of a defeated military. The Chinese are using it to intimidate Taiwan and bully other nations. They claim that it shows that America can't be trusted to defend their friends or keep their word. They are subtly urging nations to reconsider their allegiance to America and the Western Powers; suggesting that they move closer to the Chinese orbit.
When the Soviet troops began their pullout of Afghanistan in 1988, the American Pentagon and State Department used the occasion to call Afghanistan the USSR's "Vietnam". Now, Russia is reminding us and the world of its irony. The Soviet's attempted and failed to install a puppet government just as we did, and both imploded for pretty much the same reasons---tribalism, incompetence, and good ole corruption.
In 1994, the Taliban seized control of government and began imposing it radical version of Islam (curricular 950 AD). Now, 20 years after we invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban in our hunt for Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership, they're back with it's Taliban 2.0 and it promises to be even more retro! Besides, thanks to the Afghan army and an inept government, it now has state of art military hardware.
Afghanistan was not another Vietnam. We didn't "sneak" out. We accomplished our stated objective. We took out Osama bin Laden and the leadership of Al Qaeda. We have a great deal to be proud of when it comes to the men and women who went there and did their job. We asked much of them and they delivered. But, like Vietnam, it became a political war, and by that, I mean it was about multi-million dollar contracts and prolonging a war for the purpose of greater profits.
Wars are rarely ever fought for the sake of freedom any more. They are fought for profit. They stimulate dragging economies and artificially inflate prices. Wars help corporations gain access to markets or gain control over resources and assets. They also exist to reduce "excess" populations. It may sound cynical, but wars are now a built-in part of domestic and foreign economic policy. That's why there's always one brewing.
There is, however, one curious connection between Vietnam and Afghanistan I'd like to mention. Flashback if you will to that terrible day in September 2001. Flight 77, leaving out of Washington-Dulles International Airport is hijacked by five Saudi hijackers with connections to Al Qaeda. Shortly after departing, the hijackers took control of the American Airlines Boeing 723 and redirected to the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia.
Working at the Pentagon that day, in Veteran Affairs, was 69 year Max Bielke. Max, who was the deputy chief of the Retirement Services Division, was called a quiet and introspective guy. He was a big guy of German heritage, who grew up near Alexandria, Minnesota on a small farm. Max really cared about veterans and was instrumental in getting TRICARE passed by Congress, thanks to his hard work, attention to detail, and willingness to testify before nearly endless committees.
You see, Max Bielke was the last official soldier to leave Vietnam. He entered the history books on March 29, 1973, when he boarded a C-130 leaving Saigon for (as they say in the military) "anywhere but the hell here". The truth was, he was headed home just like General Donahue 48 years later. When you're in the military, there's no other place you want to be. It's worth noting that just before he boarded the C-130, a North Vietnamese colonel gave him a rattan table mat with a pagoda weaved into it (a pagoda is a Buddhist symbol for success and luck).
The Russians call our involvement and subsequent departure in Afghanistan an "irony" reminiscent of a second Vietnam, and perhaps it is. However, what I find to be more of an irony is the fact that the last soldier to leave Vietnam, who spent the rest of his life trying to help fellow veterans, should be a victim of a terrorist hijacking which triggered our involvement in a new kind of war; this one in Afghanistan. So, perhaps Vietnam and Afghanistan have more in common than not.