So over the past few days in Afghanistan, there’ve been more than six dozen Taliban attacks and the US has resumed airstrikes against them. Yet I seem to keep running across people hailing Trump as some kind of visionary diplomatic savant (as opposed to the *other* kind of savant) who’s scored some kind of history-diverting coup in securing a sort of ‘peace with honour’ deal in Afghanistan.
“Peace with Honour”, now *there’s* a historically resonant phrase. Trump is often compared to Nixon, for reasons that should probably be obvious (although with the people making the comparisons generally forgetting that Nixon won re-election despite the allegations against him being well-publicized all throughout the electorate quite some time before polling-day); yet it’s that particular ‘promise’ of Nixon’s that springs to mind now.
Facing an arguably unwinnable war in Vietnam, the American public had understandably soured upon its continued prosecution. Yet a simple cut-and-run would have been substantively politically unpalatable. So instead, Nixon ran for the Presidency on a “pledge” (as he put it) of “honourable peace”, which some might have noted was a subtle yet important distinction from his earlier declaration of intent to secure a “victorious peace”. Not that either ambition came with an actual detailed stratagem for its attainment; prior to winning the White House, the closest he seemed to come to one was vague braggadocio about implicitly threatening via supporting parties the North Vietnamese et co til they stopped gaining ground.
Once in office, he attempted to make good upon this approach through escalating bombings (including of sites in officially neutral Cambodia, carried out in secret; a gambit Trump has also tried, including thermobaric-style) and blustering bombast about massively increased pressure in other areas. But he also pressed forward with another much more important strand of his strategy – “Vietnamization”. Or, phrased another way, making the war on the ground and its unstaunchable flow of casualties effectively somebody else’s problem.
If it had any meaning, Nixon’s dictum of an “honourable peace” probably just meant attempting to give the South Vietnamese military an allegedly “fighting chance” as far as the ‘honourable’ component went – and when it came to the “peace” bit, one could quote the worlds of Ronald Reagan (ironically, speaking about the then-brewing Vietnam War in 1964) – “Do they mean peace, or do they mean we just want to be left in peace?”
Much of the American public did, indeed, “want to be left in peace” by the Nixon presidency, and understandably so. Nixon’s inability to actually *deliver* on his previous pledge of “peace” – “victorious”, “honourable”, or “otherwise” – over the four years of his first term in office, didn’t seem to significantly harm his electoral prospects in 1972; with the run-up to the November election featuring a steady stream of announcements as to the ongoing ‘progress’ of peace negotiations, in any case.
These eventually culminated with the Paris Peace Accords signed some four and a half months later, that secured the near-total withdrawal of US and allied forces from Vietnam. That’s where Nixon’s iconically famous phrase of “Peace With Honour” actually comes from – his trumpeting of the eventual ‘success’ of his Administration’s negotiation (and negotiation-from-30,000-feet) in late January 1973 a few days before the Acccords’ signing.
On January 27 1973, the Paris Peace Accords came into effect.
The ceasefire held for, it appears, less than 24 hours.
However, within two weeks the US Senate would begin its formal investigation of Watergate; and as the increasingly disconcerting revelations from *that* particular low-light of the Nixon Era began to take over the headlines in earnest, the failure of both the War nobody wanted to care about anymore, as well as the Peace With Honour which was supposed to end it with something resembling “integrity”, edged ever further out of the public-political consciousness.
Lies, atrocities, and illegal acts carried out far away across the Pacific Ocean seemed far less significant, somehow, than those purportedly engaged in against the American People at home, by their own ruling caste.
Within two years, South Vietnam had effectively ceased to exist; the Fall of Saigon in late April 1975 also encompassing the last US combat deaths of the War.
Now lest I be misinterpreted … I am not for a moment seeking to draw the more immediately obvious parallel that so often gets trotted out pertaining to Trump and Nixon. Both men faced Impeachment. One is still standing afterward; and it would seem unutterably foolhardy to presume that, barring some seismic shift in American politics, there shall be any more successful foreshortening of Trump’s time in office via legal means, and with it being only slightly more probable at this late stage that electoral means shall prove any greater or more successful in this endeavour.
Instead, I simply seek to suggest to the various sorts of people I’ve seen hailing Trump’s ‘peace with honour’ in Afghanistan – that what is likely to ensue there is probably not entirely far removed from what Nixon “achieved” in Paris with regard to Vietnam.
That is to say, a great flurry of headlines, a certain upswing in cautious optimism from some of those who (understandably) want the American (involving) war effort there to be at an end, and a much more pronounced positivity from those … enthusiastic sorts for whom Their President Can Do No Wrong.
In real terms? Just as with Vietnam – official involvement and boots-on-the-ground will dramatically decrease. Actual American involvement, in the form of longer-range efforts that don’t create so many *American* casualties like drone-strikes and aerial sorties, shall likely continue (a ‘Linebacker’, you might call it); as will the under-the-table and downright dodgy efforts and illicit activities that are part and parcel of the Entanglements of Empire in the Back of Beyond. “The Great Game”, it was once called – perhaps this is the Great Videogame, with occasional hints of Minesweeper.
But Trump will be able to proclaim to his public that he (finally) fulfilled a campaign pledge, and brought American troops home – he may even ill-fittingly over-inflate his own achievements in Afghanistan to place him on a par with Ranjit Singh (look him up, one of the only rulers to ever win a war there).
He’ll be able to say – rightly or wrongly – that Americans shall now be “left in peace” by the conflict. Because that’s what this was really about. They don’t want a “cease-fire” – they just want to cease being fired upon. An ambition common, also, to just about everybody involved. Even if it means simply deferring and/or duplicating some of the more active conflict down the road and via the continuation of warfare via any other means in the local political arenas.
The Taliban, meanwhile, are presumably looking forward to a re-run of the chaotic sequence of events following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in the late 1980s; that is to say, taking advantage of an increasingly fractious internal situation that they themselves are going to be doing their darndest in many cases to fracture further – to rebuild their rulership back to something approaching pre-2001 levels.
And The World at large shall move on.
We’ve got other “Peaces” to turn into mere “Honorifics”.
Almost puts one in the mind of a favourite quotation of mine; from a much earlier cynical Joaquin Phoenix movie –
“‘When there is peace, the warlike man attacks himself.’ That’s Nietzsche, and his point is that there really is no peace. There’s always some war, somewhere, with someone. And there are no winners or losers either. Just those who are still around to fight another day.”
That seems to be Afghanistan these days – in much the same way that Pakistan is not, as other countries are, a state with a military … but rather, a military with a state; Afghanistan seems less a country having a civil war, than a civil war having a country.
Trump’s “Peace With Honour” then, is a “Peace Agreement” lacking in that most fundamental ingredient: a potentially viable prospect for “Peace”.
What it has instead is a commodity in conspicuously hot demand in recent weeks – a vast quantity of hand sanitizzer, for the vigorous Washing Hands Of This. With a similarly vocal cry of “Out Damned Spot!”
As applies the ineluctable comparison between Nixon’s crab-(rave-)scuttle out of Vietnam, and Trump’s “dealmaking” to leave Afghanistan, it is once again abundently clear that while History may not, strictly speaking, repeat – it sure does rhyme.