By Dan Southerland*
Watching chaotic scenes of civilians being evacuated in helicopters from Afghanistan takes me back to the last day of the Vietnam War.
It was April 29, 1975 and I was determined to see as much as I could from inside the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon before boarding a helicopter to leave Vietnam.
I had spent nine years on and off covering the war in Vietnam from early 1966 until the spring of 1975.
But I’m no expert on Afghanistan. I visited the country only once and that was only briefly and while the country was still at peace. What I remember best from that time as I wandered around Kabul was seeing women whose head scarves covered everything but their eyes.
In Vietnam I thought that my Vietnamese language teacher would remain safe once the North Vietnamese took control in Saigon. I advised her to stay behind and take care of her mother. She lived a simple life and had no wealth or property that could be seized.
I told my Vietnamese interpreter that I could help to get him out of the country. He said that his only property was a small apartment and that he had nothing to fear. But in the end he was beaten up badly by Viet Cong interrogators.
With help from a U.S. Embassy official I helped to get a former South Vietnamese official whom I knew out of the country. He was likely to have been badly treated by the Viet Cong had he stayed behind. He made it to the roof an apartment building minutes before a U.S. helicopter landed to take him and a few others out of the country.
A total of more than 1.6 million Vietnamese, including 700,000 boat people, were resettled between 1975 and 1997. After stays in refugee camps in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, 400,000, or more than half of the boat people, settled in the U.S., while France, Australia, and Canada each took in more than 100,000.
Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, argued in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) on August 17 that an ongoing American presence in Kabul is needed.
These remaining Americans, he said, are needed to help thousands of Afghans who’ve worked either for the U.S. or the United Nations who have been unable to leave the country up until now.
Galbraith also said that the U.S. should offer to help Afghan journalists who have worked for or with U.S. news organizations.
According to statistics gathered by Brown University, more than 3,500 coalition soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001, roughly 2,000 of them Americans. More than 20,000 U.S. soldiers have been injured.
The U.S. Defense Department announced on Nov. 17, 2020 that it would reduce the number of U.S. troops from 4,500 to 2,500 by the end of January, 2021.
In Washington, President Biden has defended his order, made in April, to begin a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Biden called the current scenes of chaos in Kabul as “gut-wrenching.”
But, in remarks on Aug. 16, Biden declared that after 20 years of combat in Afghanistan, “I’ve learned the hard way that there will never be a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
The result, he said, would have been much the same five or 15 years from now.
In Kabul, Taliban fighters have showed apparent restraint up until now, setting up checkpoints but vowing not to disrupt lives or businesses.
But according to Washington Post reporters, it was unclear to many residents whether that restraint was merely a tactical move to lull the international community or a longer-term policy.
The Taliban have a history of treating women brutally, so many observers are now watching for signs of how women are doing in areas under their control.
Under recent Afghan governments women have made significant strides in breaking with traditional repression.
According to Ambassador Mark Green of the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center, as of August 1 nearly 30 percent of the civil servants in Afghanistan were women.
When the Taliban last ruled, women weren’t permitted to work outside of their homes.
After the Taliban were ousted, a 2004 Afghan constitution explicitly prohibited gender discrimination.
Mark Green notes that U.S.-backed Afghan government made efforts to ensure that women were represented and participated in public life.
As of 2021, Afghan women were actively serving in the Afghan parliament and civil service. Child marriage declined, and many women entered the workforce for the first time.
Past practices persist
Unfortunately, according to a recent report from the Voice of America, in at least some parts of Afghanistan’s northern region under Taliban rule, some past practices still survive. Provincial Taliban rulers have required that women there wear headscarves. They also are not to leave home without a male relative.
The Washington Post reported on Aug. 17 that the Washington area’s Afghan community was gripped by fear as much of Afghanistan fell to the Taliban over the weekend.
The Washington region has become home to a flourishing Afghan community in the two decades since the United States invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York.
Many living in the region were former U.S. military interpreters or government aides who gained U.S. asylum.
In late July, 200 interpreters and their families arrived in Virginia, the first of some 2,500 being evacuated under a visa program, while the U.S. Senate approved $1 billion to evacuated and resettle them and voted to ease paperwork to grant 8,000 more visas for people who worked with the U.S. during the war.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were 156,000 people from Afghanistan in the United States in 2019, up from about 66,000 in 2006.
In the weeks before Saigon fell, writes former U.S. diplomat David Brown, “ultra-low profile improvisations of U.S. Embassy staff enabled the immigration of many thousands of Vietnamese who were employees of the U.S. Mission” in Vietnam.
There’s no doubt that members of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul have also engaged in much improvisation that we may not immediately hear about.
*Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding Executive Editor.