As another American-led "forever war" approaches an ending in Afghanistan, it is sobering to ponder what all the blood and treasure was for if, as seems likely, the Taliban returns to power. After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Americans had 58,000 reasons to ask why their sons had died fighting a losing war against communist North Vietnam (although with three million deaths, Vietnam as a whole suffered far more).
But it is striking to contrast how the US treated its former allies in South Vietnam with what the US and Nato are so far offering to do for those it will be leaving behind in Afghanistan.
In the year after Saigon, capital of the former state of South Vietnam, was captured, 125,000 refugees were admitted to the US. It wasn’t popular – 49 per cent of Americans were opposed to their coming, as opposed to 37 per cent who welcomed them. But by the end of May 1975, then president Gerald Ford had signed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Act, which allocated more than $400 million to help resettle the refugees from Vietnam, who were given special permission to come to America. This initial group was made up largely of South Vietnamese elite groups, those associated with the government, with American personnel, and the wealthy who knew their riches would be expropriated by the incoming communists.
A second wave started arriving later in the 70s and early 80s – the so-called "boat people" who risked everything to escape misery, persecution and "re-education camps". In 1979, then president Jimmy Carter doubled the quota of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia allowed to come to the US every month from 7,000 to 14,000. As Thu-Huong Ha, an American journalist whose parents were Vietnamese refugees, put it: "A poll from CBS and The New York Times showed that 62 per cent of Americans disapproved. He did it anyway."
Later agreements saw more people coming to the US, including “Amerasians”, children US citizens had had with Vietnamese women. By 1996, 700,000 refugees from Vietnam called the US home, and today there are more than two million people of Vietnamese descent in the country.
The US decision to back France in its attempts to regain control of its colonial possessions in Indochina – which terminated in the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu by Ho Chi Minh’s People’s Army in 1954 – was quixotic enough, given American opposition to the continuation of European imperial rule after the Second World War. Washington’s subsequent financial and military support of a corrupt and dictatorial regime in South Vietnam ended, as we know, disastrously; although it may have been a folly all along, as the degree to which Ho was first and foremost a nationalist and only secondly a communist was persistently ignored.
Either way, in its acceptance of so many people from Vietnam, a country into whose affairs the US had intruded for so long, America lived up to its highest ideals. Even in a population of 270 million – as the US was in 1996 – 700,000 refugees was a very considerable number.
Compare that with Afghanistan today, and plenty of the rhetoric is reassuring. "We recognise that there are a significant amount of Afghans that supported the United States and supported the coalition, and that they could be at risk," said General Mark Milley, chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, in a statement last Thursday. "A very important task is to ensure that we remain faithful to them, and that we do what is necessary to ensure their protection and, if necessary, get them out of the country if that is what they want to do." The UK government has also announced plans to accelerate applications from Afghans who wish to relocate to Britain because they might be "at risk of reprisals" from the Taliban, as Defence Secretary Ben Wallace put it.
Although other Afghans have emigrated to Europe and North America over the years, the numbers currently being talked about are of a different order from Vietnam entirely. The BBC reports that 18,000 Afghan nationals have applied for US visas under the scheme, but that some have been waiting for years. In the case of the UK, 3,000 more people are expected to be allowed to arrive, on top of 1,300 so far – and in both countries the emphasis has mainly been on interpreters. Even then, bureaucratic obstacles have unjustly denied individuals permission to relocate.
One Afghan interpreter who was praised for his “hard work and dedication” by his commanding officer was later refused because he had been dismissed for minor reasons including “smoking in your accommodation”. A father of three, this man told the BBC that he had received three letters with death threats from the Taliban. "I know that they know who I am," he said. "And it's making me sick."
This is disgraceful. Taliban rule was barbaric and medieval, and I certainly didn't mourn its departure when it was forced out in 2001 by the US-led coalition and the Northern Alliance. But the fact of the matter is that it was in power then, and it may soon be in power again. The difference is that in the years between, the western intervention has made thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Afghans "compromised" by their association with the US, Nato, foreign NGOs and a government the Taliban always viewed as an American puppet. This extends way, way beyond interpreters.
Intervening has consequences, no matter how good the intentions. And those consequences include a huge number of Afghans fearing shortly for their security, their freedoms, and in many cases their lives.
I believe that the western interventions in Vietnam and Afghanistan were both wrong. In the first instance, however, America did much to make good the obligations that came with its war. In the case of Afghanistan, the West’s preparations to help its erstwhile allies look so paltry that ordinary Afghans may justly curse the day their “friends” turned up to remake a country, only to leave after yet another failed exercise in nation-building.
Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National