The West must not desert Afghans, even as it deserts Afghanistan

Many risked their lives to help US-led forces achieve their strategic objectives

FILE - In this Friday, April 30, 2021, file photo former Afghan interpreters hold banners during a protest against the U.S. government and NATO in Kabul, Afghanistan. With American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan, pressure has been mounting for the Biden administration to plan a military evacuation of Afghans who supported U.S. military operations during two decades of war in their country. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib,File)
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In the final days of the Vietnam War in 1975, American helicopters were used to evacuate almost 7,000 people from the US embassy in Saigon. Now called Ho Chi Minh City, the capital of what was then western-backed South Vietnam came under siege from the North Vietnamese Army before its eventual fall and the subsequent reunification of the country under communist rule.

America’s 14-year intervention in the two-decade-long conflict not only cost it $141 billion and the lives of 58,000 service members – not to forget the lives of close to four million Vietnamese people – but also handed Washington its biggest Cold War defeat. The scenes of desperate people being evacuated scarred the US’s global reputation for an entire generation.

Now, 46 years on, something similar is unfolding in Afghanistan.

The Taliban continue to make rapid advances against government forces, having captured half of the country’s provincial capitals and all of its south within just days. The extremist group that ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 is closing in on the capital city of Kabul, with less than a month still left before Washington is due to officially complete the withdrawal of its forces to end the occupation it had led for 20 years. One leaked US intelligence report even estimates that the government could collapse within 90 days.

In such a bleak scenario, the evacuation and resettlement of tens of thousands of Afghans who helped and co-operated with the occupation forces for two decades – and who fear retribution from the Taliban – should become matters of utmost urgency.

Residents gather near North Vietnamese Army tanks in front of the presidential palace in Saigon in April 1975. AFP

A process of rehabilitation has been under way for more than a decade, with approximately 70,000 people – among them interpreters, cooks, cleaners, gardeners and so on – resettled in the US on Special Immigrant Visas since 2008. The process, however, remains slow and painstaking.

Last month, a senior US State Department official said that the total number of visa applicants now stands at a little more than 20,000, about half of whom have yet to complete the first steps of the process. Bureaucratic hurdles also blight a similar process in the UK. While the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy has brought nearly 1,500 Afghans to Britain, many more remain stranded.

Amid mounting public criticism, meanwhile, six EU member states have insisted that the forced deportation of migrants back to Afghanistan must continue, though some of them have suspended their own deportations temporarily.

They would do well to recall that the US’s rehabilitation of Vietnamese refugees was not popular either, with 49 per cent of Americans at the time opposed. And yet, a month after Saigon’s fall the US passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Act that made it possible for the country to admit 125,000 refugees within a year and about 700,000 more over the next two decades. Today, more than 2 million people of Vietnamese descent call America their home.

For many of them, it wasn’t the prospect of living the “American Dream” but the probability of dying a gruesome death at the hands of the communist forces that fuelled their exodus. It is the same motivation for countless Afghans.

It is important to remember that the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan took place not out of western concerns about the Taliban’s barbaric rule of the country at the time, but as an outcome of the September 11 terror attacks on American soil, carried out by Al Qaeda, to whom the Taliban had provided sanctuary.

For years, many Afghans risked their lives and those of their loves ones not just to rebuild their country but also to help the West achieve its strategic objectives. It is time for the West to return that favour to as many of them as possible, as swiftly as possible. Those who do not have the option to leave, or do not wish to leave their country, should not be condemned to living under Taliban rule.

Published: August 15, 2021, 1:00 AM