Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2021

It took courage for President Biden to announce that all American forces will be out of Afghanistan by September 11. He was criticized by both Republicans and Democrats and the media, but the public seems to approve. His assertion that twenty years of occupation and nation-building is enough was applauded by NATO allies whose troops will also be out.

Looking at Afghanistan from a historical and strategic perspective, a realist must conclude that the United States has no vital national interest in Central Asia. That includes not just Afghanistan, but also Pakistan, the Taliban's principal supporter. Russia, Iran, and India have a major stake in preventing Afghanistan's disintegration as a state.

America had no stake in Central Asia until al-Qaeda terrorists used bases in Afghanistan to attack the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. That made Afghanistan a temporary vital interest until U.S. forces drove al-Qaeda out of the country and ousted the Taliban government that had protected it. Four months later, President George Bush decided that America would not withdraw but instead work to rebuild Afghanistan into a functioning democracy. The U.S. stake suddenly became a long-term vital interest. That was a major mistake, in my view.

Comparison with Vietnam

It's instructive to compare Mr. Bush's 2002 decision to stay in Afghanistan with President Lyndon Johnson's 1965 decision to send more troops to Vietnam. Johnson had the option in 1965 to withdraw the small military force he inherited form President John Kennedy, Instead he made the fateful decision to send nearly 200,000 ground troops to South Vietnam. His purpose was to save the U.S.-backed government and pressure the North's Communist leaders to negotiate. Intensified bombing of North Vietnam continued in 1965. But by year's end Hanoi showed no interest in negotiating or stopping its armed infiltration of the south.

President Johnson then made an open-ended commitment to prevail in Vietnam. The result? By early 1968, the U.S had over 500,000 armed forces in Vietnam, with no end in sight. New advisers, including Clark Clifford who replaced Robert McNamara at the Defense Department, convinced the president the war was unwinnable. In March the president addressed the nation, said he would deescalate the war, and would not seek reelection. It took another five years and many more casualties before all U.S. forces were out of Vietnam.

The lesson of the interventions in Vietnam and Afghanistan is that presidents should not commit American forces to combat without weighing carefully the potential costs of achieving the objective. Vietnam was a failure of major proportions; and Afghanistan is a failure with large costs, but is less harmful to America's world reputation.

And Iraq?

Iraq presents a different strategic problem for the U.S. It occupies a key location on the Persian Gulf, exports large supplies of oil to world markets, and is supported by other Arab states. Like Afghanistan, it's a deeply divided country along sectarian lines between Shia and Sunni Muslims. And it has a powerful neighbor, Iran, that's determined to control the future of Iraq.

When George Bush decided in 2002 to invade Iraq and oust its dictator, Saddam Hussein, he calculated that America had a vital interest there, for three reasons: 1) Saddam's threat to Iraq's neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia; 2) belief that Saddam was in process of developing weapons of mass destruction; 3) Saddam's potential threat to Israel, a U.S. ally. Today America is no longer dependent on Persian Gulf oil, it discovered that Saddam didn't have WMD, and; Israel is no longer in position to influence its Middle East policy.

But Iraq is a near-vital U.S. interest because it prevents Iran from dominating the Persian Gulf region and oil exports to world markets. So long as Iran is ruled by Islamic clerics determined to control the Arab countries, it will be viewed as a threat to vital US regional interests. That can't be said of Afghanistan.


Joe Biden will face opposition in Congress to his withdrawal decision, but he can thank Donald Trump for easing Republican opposition because he had agreed to a May 1 deadline. The additional four months gives US. forces time to move 3,000 troops and equipment out of landlocked Afghanistan, largely through Pakistan. Although Biden pledges continued political and economic support to Afghanistan, he is leaving it to quarreling factions to organize themselves and give the Taliban a prominent role. He leaves it to Pakistan, India, Russia, and possibly China, to help with negotiations. The reality is that America, which has spent twenty years and a trillion dollars in Afghanistan, will no longer be the principal negotiator on its future.

File last modified on Sunday, 02-MAY-2021 07:25 PM EST

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