If the parallel between the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fall of South Vietnam is justified, the current situation harms U.S. credibility even more.
Sitting on the roof of an apartment building, the helicopter looks far too small for everyone who wants to get inside. A crew member gestures toward civilians down below. It is April 29, 1975. Saigon is on the brink of falling to North Vietnamese forces. Operation Frequent Wind allows for the emergency evacuation of 7,000 Americans and Vietnamese.
Forty-six years later, the memory of this defeat resurfaces when Kabul’s fate is mentioned. According to the most optimistic analyses, the Afghan capital can hang on for a few months. The most pessimistic reckon 30 days.* Will the Taliban raise their flag over the city before the 20th anniversary of the attacks that led to the invasion of the country? Will they take power once again — they who, two decades ago, harbored the minds behind al-Qaida? “There is going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy,” Joe Biden promised. Many worry we will see a repeat of the rush in Saigon. And if Kabul were to fall, that would be even more damaging for the United States’ credibility.
South Vietnam’s capital fell more than two years after the Paris Peace Accords officially ended the conflict. Today, the remaining American soldiers have not even turned around and walked away, but their enemies are already threatening the last pockets of governmental control. If Islamic fundamentalist fighters do not need to wait for the United States to withdraw its forces in order to take action, it is because they know that Americans have been weary of war since the conflict in Vietnam. A power unvanquished until that point had discovered the taste of defeat. Since then, from Somalia to Iraq, that power has been unable to achieve peace.
While the withdrawal from Afghanistan was certainly inevitable, its terms and conditions pose many questions. The agreement from a year ago between Washington and the Taliban is no longer worth the paper it was signed on. But it was Biden’s responsibility to depart in an organized fashion. If we soon get images of public executions, or if terrorist groups once again use this country as a rear base for committing terrorist attacks in the West, what will these 20 years have accomplished? Blinded by the memory of their own strength, the United States and its allies have fought without finding a way out. The inhabitants of Kabul must now pay for this lack of strategy.
*Editor’s Note: The Taliban took control of Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021.