"The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army." -President Joe Biden
By Brendan Wilson
“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan.” President Biden’s July promise aged like a glass of warm milk after the Taliban marched through Kabul’s city gates last week, completing a conquest of Afghanistan that was remarkable in its speed and terrifying in its implications for the future of a population already too accustomed to violence.
After 20 years, 2 trillion dollars spent, and nearly 2,500 American casualties, the ambitious nation-building crusade that began in 2001 collapsed in just over a week.
Since August 15th, images have flooded the internet of Chinook helicopters ferrying Americans from the embassy to Hamid Karzai International Airport in a frenzied attempt to exit the country. But escape seems far less certain for the hundreds of thousands of targeted Afghan nationals that worked with the Americans during the last two decades of coalition rule. Facing certain persecution, these desperate families handed crying babies over barbed wire fences, trampled one another in stampedes, and clung to the side of outgoing transport planes, inevitably falling hundreds of feet to their deaths.
Many observers were quick to note the eerie similarities between America’s disorderly exit in Kabul and its evacuation of Saigon in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam.
The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board labeled it “the worst U.S. humiliation since the fall of Saigon in 1975.” “This is Joe Biden's’ Saigon,“ tweeted Republican House Conference chair Elise Stefanik.
Of course, the events are not perfect parallels, but they do rhyme.
American military involvement in Vietnam began in the 1960’s to stem the advance of the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese and deny America’s Cold War foe greater influence in southeast Asia. But after a decade of fighting and over 200,000 casualties with little to show for it, domestic support for the war effort collapsed. The Nixon administration was forced to pull out in 1973.
Under the Paris Peace Accords, the United States agreed to withdraw troops in exchange for the release of prisoners and a commitment not to attack the departing Americans. Further, Vietnam was to be reunified under peaceful terms. A small contingent of 5,000 American diplomats and advisers remained in Saigon.
After the Americans withdrew, however, the North Vietnamese initiated a plan for reunification by less peaceful means. They moved south, quickly winning territory in a series of bloody, one-sided battles. By April 1975, the South Vietnamese army collapsed, and the communists prepared to enter Saigon. Despite the countless atrocities, President Gerald Ford was unable to convince a war-wearied Congress to authorize new military action to defend our former allies in the south. Interestingly, the fiercest opponent of reengagement was first-term Delaware senator Joe Biden.
On April 29th, Ambassador Graham Martin ordered the helicopter evacuation of all remaining embassy personnel. Graham expanded the scope of the plan to save thousands of South Vietnamese citizens that would have faced violent persecution if left behind. Massive, disorderly crowds rushed the embassy, climbing over walls and fighting to get onto the last outbound helicopters. Too many were left behind.
As in Vietnam, the chaotic collapse of the Afghan government is a major blow to the perception of American military and moral superiority. As in Vietnam, a poorly defined vision of success gave way to mission creep. As in Vietnam, an awful deal exchanged troop withdrawal for little more than a promise not to attack Americans as they headed for the exits. As in Vietnam, the strength and determination of the enemy was severely underestimated.
As in Vietnam, the true crisis is not America’s compromised standing on the world stage. On the contrary, while defeat in Vietnam was a gut punch to its reputation, the United States won the Cold War and emerged as the world’s peerless superpower less than two decades after the last helicopters flew out of Saigon.
The real crisis, rather, is humanitarian. As soon as the Taliban entered the marbled executive mansion in Kabul, the Afghan clock was set back to the 8th century. What is to become of the men and women who supported the American backed government? The Taliban has promised to behave, but reports have already begun to circulate of extra-judicial executions, forced marriages, and other sickening atrocities.
Despite the devastating human toll caused by the war in Vietnam, the United States evacuated 130,000 vulnerable South Vietnamese in 1975, settling thousands in the United States. Experts estimate that there are still roughly 100,000 translators, security personnel, women’s rights activists, and other targeted Afghans trapped in Kabul.
It is our duty to get them out.
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BBC. (2020, February 29). Afghan conflict: Trump hails deal with Taliban to END 18-year war. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51692546.
Board, T. E. (2021, August 15). Opinion | Biden's Afghanistan Surrender. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/biden-afghanistan-surrender-withdrawal-ashraf-ghani-kabul-saigon-jihadist-9-11-11629054041?mod=opinion_lead_pos1.
Gibbons-neff, T., Abed, F., & Hassan, S. (2021, August 13). The Afghan military was built over 20 Years. How did it collapse so quickly? The New York Times.
U.S. Department of State. (2021, April 30). The fall of SAIGON (1975): The bravery of American diplomats and refugees - National Museum of American diplomacy. U.S. Department of State. https://diplomacy.state.gov/u-s-diplomacy-stories/fall-of-saigon-1975-american-diplomats-