Our scramble from Kabul resembles the surprise and panic of our 1975 rush out of Saigon. In many ways.

Both debacles were set up in advance, in Vietnam by the 1973 Nixon-Kissinger deal with Hanoi and in Afghanistan by the February 2020 Trump-Pompeo deal with the Taliban. As Trump cut U.S. forces from 15,500 to 2,500, Afghan provincial chiefs saw what was coming and quietly cut their own deals with the Taliban, allowing them to quickly grab the country.

It should not have been so surprising. Intel warned that Vietnam and Afghanistan could rapidly collapse, but presidents, commanders and ambassadors had to voice optimism because speaking blunt truths would trigger regime collapse. We could have gotten people out earlier, but that would signal that we’d given up, unleashing panic and chaos. Under such circumstances, any evacuation must appear bungled.

Both wars had vague, infeasible goals, respectively, to make Hanoi and the Taliban desist in trying to take over the country. They were civil wars over sovereignty, which are never settled in compromise but when one side thoroughly beats the other. In both wars, U.S. soldiers muttered that they weren’t sure what they were fighting for — except not losing and staying alive. No positive strategic goals.

We knew nothing of the histories, politics, languages, religions and geography of either country, which led to series of misappraisals. Both wars were conceived in anger — Vietnam in Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs humiliation and Khrushchev’s sneers, Afghanistan in rage over 9/11 that had to vent somewhere. Congress approved both wars in haste and nearly unanimously, but neither were vital U.S. interests.

U.S. trainers used to say of the South Vietnamese army: “You can’t transplant backbone.” On paper, the Vietnamese and Afghan armies were well trained and equipped and outnumbered their adversaries. It was illusory. Troops deserted while commanders took the pay of “ghost soldiers.” A South Vietnamese rifle “had never been fired and only dropped once.” The same plagued Afghanistan. Napoleon: “In war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.”

Generals rarely admit that interventions are failing. They demand more troops, money and time and persuade most presidents with sunk-costs arguments: We have spent too much blood and treasure to leave the job undone. They could not foresee or warn of rapid collapse.

Pervasive corruption crippled Vietnam and Afghanistan. Billions were stolen, but we couldn’t accuse crooked host regimes because that would undermine the whole war effort, especially public and congressional support. When I was being trained to serve (with USIA) in Vietnam, we were told that officials routinely got 10% to 15% kickbacks on contracts and were not worth fussing about.

Washington sent big crates of bundled $100 bills to Afghanistan to fund our activities. Rumors say some crates were not even opened but shipped to the United Arab Emirates, where Afghans built luxury homes. President Ashraf Ghani fled to the UAE. ($100 bills sustain crime and we should get rid of them altogether, but our national-security establishment protests that they’re necessary for overseas operations. North Korea counterfeits them.)

In both wars, brilliant Harvard-educated officeholders tailored their facts to hide reality (McNamara). Many subordinates knew they dissembled but few openly contradicted them because they liked their jobs. Those who did were isolated and bypassed (George Ball). Some conscientious ones leaked to the media (Ellsberg).

In both wars we stumbled into the double bind of nation-building: You must do it, but you can’t. A sense of nationhood underlies successful resistance to takeover. But nation-building attempts by outsiders build no patriotism or legitimacy. Beware of fake nations.

The Afghan fiasco may bring fresh realism. We may cease playing globocop. For a generation after Vietnam we avoided war. Now we will avoid new Persian Gulf wars. This may prevent conflict with Iran or rescuing shaky sheikhdoms. Some will denounce this as “neo-isolationism,” but it’s really just hard-earned caution.

Won’t this undermine U.S. credibility? Maybe, but that started when Trump took office. Would continuing the Afghan war rebuild U.S. credibility? The “loss” of Vietnam mattered not at all. Communism collapsed on its own a few years later, and the world rallied to U.S. leadership. Few countries will pay much attention to Afghanistan; most will continue as before, pursuing their national interests.

Washington lobbyists and think tanks overwhelmingly favor overseas intervention. Much of their funding is from those with stakes in U.S. involvement abroad, including defense contractors. A few church and antiwar groups caution against new adventures but are largely ignored.

A positive response to the Afghan debacle would be to shift U.S. priorities from far to near. For a fraction of the $2 trillion we squandered in Afghanistan we could pull Central America into economic growth and stability and away from poverty, crime and emigration.