After the U.S. military withdrawal from Indochina in 1973, the governments there that the U.S. had been supporting were all overthrown and replaced by Marxist regimes. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the Moscow-backed Marxist regime there fell in 1992. It is not surprising, then, that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would lead to the downfall of the regime that Washington had been supporting. What is surprising is that the Kabul government fell to the Taliban even before the completion of the U.S. withdrawal.
Among the questions that arise is whether another pattern that occurred after these earlier withdrawals will occur again. The U.S. withdrawal from Indochina in 1973 was followed not just by the coming to power of the Marxist-Leninist regimes there, but to an upsurge of Marxist revolution throughout the Third World, including in Ethiopia in 1974, Portugal’s African colonies Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau in 1975, Afghanistan in 1978, and Nicaragua and Grenada in 1979.
Similarly, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in early 1989 did not just precede the downfall of the Marxist regime there, but also the downfall of communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe later in 1989 and the Soviet Union itself in 1991. There were, of course, many factors that contributed to the success of Marxist revolution outside Indochina in the 1970s and the downfall of Marxist regimes beyond Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War. But both the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina in 1973 and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 signaled to the world that the U.S. was not going to intervene elsewhere to prevent Marxist revolution in the 1970s, and that the Soviet Union was not going to intervene elsewhere to protect it at the end of the Cold War.
Will this pattern be repeated? Will the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan encourage Islamic revolutionary forces elsewhere to try to seize power in other countries? And if so, will the U.S. intervene to defend its authoritarian allies in the Muslim world that they seek to overthrow?
Military withdrawal from one country need not necessarily lead to the downfall of governments in other countries. But al Qaeda, ISIS and other Islamist groups operating in other countries are likely to feel energized and emboldened by the downfall of the Kabul government and the return of the Taliban. Nor does it seem likely that the U.S. will be willing to intervene elsewhere against jihadist forces after what happened in Afghanistan. Indeed, it is questionable whether the U.S. would now send forces back to Iraq if ISIS grew strong enough to threaten the Baghdad government, as it did in 2014 following the first U.S. withdrawal in 2011.
This does not bode well. Still, there is reason to believe that the pattern exhibited after the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina in 1973 and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 is not destined to be repeated after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. When the U.S. withdrew from Indochina, the Soviet Union and its allies Cuba and Vietnam were active in supporting Marxist revolutionaries to come to power in some countries and to stay in power afterward. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan occurred at a time when the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had come to view Moscow’s Marxist allies in Eastern Europe and the Third World not as assets but as liabilities.
The present situation differs from these earlier ones. None of America’s great power rivals is actively supporting the rise to power of Islamist regimes the way that the Soviet supported the rise of Marxist ones. Indeed, America’s main great power rivals — China and Russia — fear jihadism as much or more than the U.S. Even the Islamic Republic of Iran has reason to fear the rise of Sunni jihadists elsewhere as they have proven to be as anti-Shi’a as they are anti-Western.
In addition, while both the Trump and Biden administrations clearly came to conclude that the Kabul government was no longer worth the cost of defending, this does not mean that the U.S. is prepared to see the downfall of all its allies in the Muslim world the way that Gorbachev was prepared to sacrifice Moscow’s Marxist ones. Indeed, America’s continuing concern for Israeli security means that the U.S. will continue to support Arab governments that are not hostile to it — as these governments well know.
Finally, while the Taliban has returned to power in Afghanistan, jihadist forces that have been trying to seize power in many other countries for the past two decades have been unable to do so. Governments that have been able to suppress their jihadist opponents without the presence of American troops in the past may well be able to continue doing so in the future.
Still, even if the revived Taliban regime does not support jihadist activity in other countries, their coming back to power is likely to embolden jihadists to try to seize power elsewhere. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan now may not lead to the same pattern of numerous allied governments falling as the U.S. experienced after its withdrawal from Indochina in 1973 and the Soviets experienced after their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. But the U.S. and other countries may have to go to considerable effort to prevent those who want to see this pattern repeated from succeeding now.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.