The similarity of the page-one images is haunting: the fat, Chinook helicopter lifting diplomats and escapees above the vast United States compound in Kabul this morning, August 16, 2021; and the famous, April 28, 1975, photo of Vietnamese evacuees clambering up a spindly ladder to an Air America helicopter atop an apartment building a short distance from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. 

The two experiences are different, of course, but both images symbolize the climatic end to a costly, misguided American adventure abroad. Both raise the same troubling question: “Will we ever learn?”

            Lord knows we have been warned, first by Rudyard Kipling about Afghanistan, “the graveyard of empires,” and in 1968, by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, then the leader of Cambodia, talking about the folly of the U.S. effort to prop up the crumbling government of South Vietnam.

            In an interview I conducted with Sihanouk in Phnom Penh and published in The New York Times on November 17, 1968, the Prince forecast: “You will be forced to take your troops and leave Vietnam. You cannot block the majority will.  You cannot stop the reunification and yes, the communization of Vietnam. The majority of the people want to be with Ho Chi Minh and there is nothing you can do about it. You would be wise to withdraw and let the Vietnamese settle their own problems themselves.” It took seven more years, billions of U.S. dollars and countless American and Vietnamese lives before the American effort collapsed, but every word Sihanouk said that day in 1968 proved true. 

This account is included in my forthcoming memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents, A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House,” to be published by Rowman and Littlefield on Oct. 15, 2021. The link to pre-order the book follows:



There was no way that President Obama could win with his speech last night on Afghanistan.

His compromise drawdown–10,000 U.S. troops by the end of the year, 23,000 more by the end of next summer– was bound to disappoint the McCain School, the military men who want to keep as many boots on the ground as possible, and the Biden School, which wants to sharply reduce the U.S. footprint in favor of targeted, counter-terrorist strikes. The first group wanted a nominal, 3,000-5,000 troop withdrawal over time, the second a major, swift, pullout.

Obama himself may even have been disappointed, since he knows that the 10-year-old Afghanistan war is now inescapably his war.

“Tonight, “ the President said from the East Room, “we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding.” His lack of conviction as he delivered that statement was revealing. He must know that under the long goodbye he articulated last night, it will be a very long war indeed.

The President may also privately believe, as so many do, that our Afghanistan adventure is a fool’s errand. He surely recognizes that the outcome will be a disappointment to all sides, most especially the Afghan people. And yet, after a serious, thoughtful, three-month policy review last year, he concluded that he had no choice but to soldier on. Hence, the surge.

He also realizes that even after the withdrawals announced last night, the U.S. will have 70,000 troops in Afghanistan and nearly 100,000 contractors (soldiers-for-hire) in country and involved in an on-going struggle between Afghan factions with no end in sight. No surprise that the President’s demeanor was subdued and serious.

He also knows that the cost, estimated at $10 billion a month, is ruinous. Gamely, he spoke of increasing investment in America’s crumbling infrastructure and creating green energy projects that could lift the economy. But even as he spoke, it was painfully obvious that the country cannot afford guns and butter, not in this economy, not with this debt. Even the Tea Party School has reached that conclusion.

The irony is that this President is the same person who as Candidate Obama, campaigned against the unnecessary, unjustified war in Iraq and was elected on a promise to bring those troops home. He is fulfilling that promise, but replacing one quagmire with another.


Two of the best columnists writing in America today have written excellent pieces in recent days that caught my eye. The first was by Tom Friedman in the NYT in the wake of Bibi Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, the second is Eugene Robinson’s piece in today’s Washington Post on the futility of the war in Afghanistan.

Friedman’s point was that the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” is moribund because the respective leaders, Netanyahu and Abbas,  are stuck in the past. Each is recycling tired old demands and preconditions that effectively stall any progress towards a solution. Totally true.  Neither has had an original idea in years and both are playing to their respective constituencies. CYA politics, Mideast-version.

No wonder George Mitchell resigned as Obama’s envoy.  He had the patience to hammer at the Northern Ireland problem for six years until both sides agreed to the Good Friday Accord. But two years of beating his head against the Israeli-Palestinian intransigence was enough.  No surprise.

Eugene Robinson’s column today, “Declare Victory — and Go,” is an eloquent appeal to common sense.  “What on earth are we doing?” in Afghanistan, he asks.  “We have more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan risking life and limb, at a cost of $10 billion a month, to pursue ill-defined goals whose achievement” can only barely be imagined.

“We wanted to depose the Taliban regime, and we did,” he writes. “We wanted to install a new government that answers to its constituents at the polls, and we did.  We wanted to smash al-Qaeda’s infrastructure of training camps and havens, and we did. We wanted to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, and we did.”

“The threat from Afghanistan is gone,” he concludes, “bring the troops home.”

That is so clearly the right course of action that it is strange that the Obama Administration does not adopt it immediately.