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U.S. Negotiators Are Closing In On A Limited Deal With The Taliban


U.S. negotiators are closing in on a peace accord aimed at ending nearly 18 years of war in Afghanistan. As NPR's David Welna reports, this deal echoes the peace agreement for what had previously been the nation's longest military conflict - the war in Vietnam.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Some months after taking office, President Trump delivered a prime-time address promising a way out of a war he'd inherited.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The American people are weary of war without victory. Nowhere is this more evident than with the war in Afghanistan - the longest war in American history.

WELNA: Forty-eight years earlier, another Republican in the first year of his presidency told the nation he had a plan to end the war he'd inherited; for Richard Nixon, it was Vietnam.


RICHARD NIXON: I pledged in my campaign for the presidency to end the war in a way that we could win the peace.

WELNA: But for both Trump and Nixon, before there could be peace, there had to be victory.


TRUMP: Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win.


NIXON: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States.

WELNA: There are major differences between these wars. Most Americans fighting in Vietnam were drafted; in Afghanistan, all were volunteers. Vietnam claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans; under 2,400 have died in Afghanistan. And Vietnam prompted a widespread protest movement...


COUNTRY JOE MCDONALD: (Singing) What are we fighting for? Don't ask me. I don't give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam.

WELNA: ...While Afghanistan has been nearly a forgotten war. Despite the two wars' differences, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker says there are many similarities.

RYAN CROCKER: The mounting casualty counts, the lack of any concrete indication that we were gaining ground at all, the efforts of the administration to portray a successful campaign, and all of the available reporting indicated the opposite.

WELNA: Trump and Nixon escalated the wars they inherited with bombing campaigns to gain ground against the enemy. Historian Andrew Bacevich was an Army lieutenant fighting in Vietnam's Central Highlands at the time Nixon was holding secret peace talks with North Vietnam.

ANDREW BACEVICH: The military advantage was clearly with the North. And although the nature of the Afghanistan war differs substantially from the nature of the Vietnam War, I think something similar actually can be said about the present situation. The Taliban would appear to have the upper hand militarily.

WELNA: Trump's first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, put it this way to the Senate Armed Services Committee.


JIM MATTIS: We're not winning in Afghanistan right now.

WELNA: And here's General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs late last year on the Taliban.


JOE DUNFORD: They are not losing right now. I think that's a fair statement.

WELNA: And so in Afghanistan, just as in Vietnam, the U.S. began formal talks with the enemy for a way out.

AARON O'CONNELL: And in both cases, the U.S. gave up on every one of its major sticking points.

WELNA: That's University of Texas historian Aaron O'Connell, a former Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, who was a staff officer in Afghanistan.

O'CONNELL: In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the United States said, fine, we'll cut out the government and negotiate with you directly. In both cases, the U.S. went from proposing reciprocal withdrawals of troops to unilaterally saying, we will withdraw our troops. And they did all of this because the other side was inflexible. They knew they were winning. They had no need to make concessions, and they didn't.


LOU CIOFFI: Around the now-famous Majestic Hotel, an impressive security force. It was here that, for almost five years, there were negotiations that seemed frustrating and never got anywhere.

WELNA: That's ABC's Lou Cioffi reporting on the Paris peace talks. Despite considerable skepticism, Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, insisted those talks were nearing an end.


HENRY KISSINGER: We believe that peace is at hand.

WELNA: Two months later, Nixon announced the U.S. had obtained, as he put it, peace with honor in Vietnam.


NIXON: At 12:30 Paris time today, January 23, 1973, the agreement on ending the war and restoring peace in Vietnam was initialed by Dr. Henry Kissinger on behalf...

WELNA: That Paris Peace Accord gave 60 days for U.S. troops to withdraw. It called for the release of nearly 600 American prisoners of war, and it allowed more than 100,000 North Vietnamese troops to remain in the south. The late General Maxwell Taylor oversaw the first big deployment of American troops to Vietnam and was later the U.S. ambassador there. Hours after that peace accord was signed, Taylor told NPR America had triumphed.


MAXWELL TAYLOR: We won it. We won it in accomplishing the things we set out to do, independent Vietnam - free from aggression, that's what this agreement is all about.

WELNA: But there were no guarantees the U.S. would defend South Vietnam. Two years later, that nation's leader fled and North Vietnamese forces surrounded its capital, Saigon. By then, Nixon had resigned. Gerald Ford had replaced him. Ford told students at Tulane University the time had come to leave Vietnam behind.


GERALD FORD: Today America can regain a sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished, as far as America is concerned.


WELNA: A week later, Saigon fell.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The people here were herded into groups, all they could take was hand luggage. Fifty at a time, they took off for the carriers waiting in the South China Sea.

WELNA: NBC News showed images of frantic Americans and South Vietnamese clamoring to get airlifted from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

LAUREL MILLER: In my view, it was never going to be a winnable war.

WELNA: That's Laurel Miller. Before quitting two years ago, she was the State Department's point person on Afghanistan for the Trump administration. Like in Vietnam, she says, the Afghanistan talks are more about the U.S. leaving than protecting its ally's future.

MILLER: A U.S. Taliban deal cannot be a peace agreement because it settles nothing about the disputes within Afghanistan; it only settles the question of the American presence in Afghanistan.

WELNA: Historian Bacevich, who co-founded the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, says, while it may well be time for the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan...

BACEVICH: In doing so, we need to recognize that we are abandoning our allies. We are abandoning a cause that, going as far back as 2001, we claim to be fully committed to. So there will be moral and political costs that we will have to shoulder as we cut and run.

WELNA: Although American officials are still hoping to keep some troops in Afghanistan to fight ISIS and al-Qaida, keenly aware of history and the perils that could arise from a wholesale exodus.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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