Evidently fed up with America’s “endless wars in the Middle East,” President Trump announced Dec. 20 he would pull out the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria in 100 days. The next day, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis quit. In his resignation letter, he cited the necessity of a great country like the United States keeping a steady hand and honoring its commitments. Echoing these concerns, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned: “When America retreats, chaos … follows.”
As a Vietnam veteran myself, the president’s rash announcement has provoked traumatic memories for me of our catastrophic defeats in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975. They have triggered an image of a trail of tears from the Hmong tribesmen of Laos to the ethnic Kurds of Syria and Iraq. This linkage from 1975 to 2019 reveals a shameful pattern of Americans abandoning local allies whenever conflicts become protracted.
It is a grim record to recall.
To go back: in 1972 in Vietnam, the United States helped defeat the Easter Offensive of the North Vietnamese communist army, which led to the Paris Peace Agreement of 1973 that established a cease-fire and the withdrawal of all American forces. No sooner had U.S. troops left, than the Communists immediately resumed the fighting. The U.S. Congress refused to allow American forces to be recommitted; and, in 1975, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos promptly fell.
True to Pompeo’s subsequent words, chaos engulfed all three countries. One million refugees fled South Vietnam even as 500,000 South Vietnamese soldiers were sent by the communist victors to re-education camps, where most of them died. The communist Khmer Rouge emptied all of Cambodia’s cities in three weeks, driving the residents to “killing fields” in the countryside, where an estimated one-third of the country’s population perished. These communists were hardly the agrarian nationalist reformers so portrayed by the antiwar movement.
An even greater stain on America’s conscience was the abandonment of its Hmong allies in Laos. The Hmong (the free), also called Meo (slaves), are mountain tribals, who, under CIA and U.S. Air Force support, fought two North Vietnamese army divisions to a standstill, thereby preventing them from joining the fight in South Vietnam. In achieving this valued stalemate, the Hmong lost 150,000 on the battlefield, which represented 5 percent of the total Hmong population. A comparable sacrifice by the United States would be 16 million people, more than eight times the casualties of all of our wars combined. Yet we betrayed them.
The Hmong-equivalent of today are the Kurds. The Kurds are a non-Arab, Indo-Aryan ethnic group of 30 million people distributed across Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Like the Palestinians, the Kurds are stateless, and have been victimized in all these countries. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Saddam Hussein turned on the Kurds with a poison gas attack on the Iraqi town of Kalabja, killing 5,000. The subsequent defeat of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War of 1991 by the United States and its allies liberated the Kurds from Hussein’s oppression. They were kept safe in the 1990s by the no-fly-zones imposed on Hussein by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Since then, the Kurds have been our faithful allies.
With the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds prospered in the reconstitution of the Iraqi political system under American “guidance.” However, in 2010, President Obama’s tepid efforts to procure a “Status of Forces Agreement” to permit retention of American troops in Iraq failed, and U.S. forces were withdrawn.
This failure led to another Pompeoan nightmare of chaos and mayhem: the rise of ISIS. Into this vacuum poured radical Muslim Jihadis recruited from around the world, and they quickly overran fully a third of both Iraq and Syria. ISIS then proclaimed a caliphate in the twin cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and held sway over 10 million people.
Under American leadership, a counter-force was formed to drive ISIS from power. Our staunchest allies were the Kurds. They provided the bulk of the ground forces, and nearly all the casualties, and drove ISIS out of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. Despite these battlefield victories, the fight to destroy ISIS is far from over. Meanwhile, the Turks, our supposed NATO allies, refuse to promise not to attack the Kurds in Syria after we withdraw.
What further chaos will be wrought by yet another premature American withdrawal — and how can America ever be great again, when it has proven, time and again, to be so faithless a friend?