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Politics & Security

The Fall of Kabul: A Tragedy Worse Than Saigon, a Warning Japan Can’t Ignore

In Vietnam then and in Afghanistan now, the United States unilaterally ended its pledge to help defend the government. That’s bad news for Japan and other allies that rely on U.S. security commitments.

Yoshihisa Komori

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Hundreds of people run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moves down a runway of the international airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug.16. 2021. (Verified UGC via AP)

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Mobs trying to get into the airport in Kabul as the U.S. withdraws and the Afghanistan government collapses.

Witnessing the shock waves in Washington DC from the rapid collapse of the government of Afghanistan, I could not help but remember my own experience in Vietnam. Many American observers were pointing out the similarities between scenes of utter chaos as U.S. citizens and Afghans seeking to join the exodus from the Afghan capital of Kabul and the tragedy of the last days of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), then the capital of the Republic of Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese Army enters the presidential palace with soldiers and tanks. (Y. Komori)

I was there and saw it all when Saigon fell at the end of April 1975, and can attest to the fact that the tragedy unfolding in Kabul does resemble the confusion surrounding the mass evacuations that took place from the United States embassy and Saigon airport. However, in the case of South Vietnam, U.S. military forces had already totally withdrawn two years before. 

Mobs of Vietnamese people scale the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, trying to get to the helicopter pickup zone, just before the end of the Vietnam War on April 29, 1975. (AP Photo/Neal Ulevich)

After the U.S. withdrawal, the government of South Vietnam continued the fight against the regular North Vietnamese army. That the Afghan regime collapsed before the U.S. forces had even completed their withdrawal makes the Afghan situation even more tragic. 

What holds true in both cases is that the United States unilaterally ended its pledge to help the government defend itself. That is something that cannot be ignored by Japan and other allies which rely on U.S. security commitments.

North Vietnamese take to the streets a few days after the fall of Saigon in April 1975. (Y. Komori)
The Taliban patrols in Kabul as Afghanistan collapses, August 19, 2021 (Rahmat Gul/AP)

The decision by President Joe Biden to go through with a total abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan has provoked blistering bipartisan criticism. It has been rare for a foreign policy failure of any administration to provoke such a degree of widespread, severe censure.

South Vietnamese soldiers ordered to remove their uniforms by the North Vietnamese as Saigon fell on April 30, 1975 (Y. Komori)
Thousands in Afghanistan seeking to escape the Taliban crowd into the grounds of the Kabul airport.

The Trump administration set the stage for the U.S. to end its 20-year military involvement in Afghanistan. However, the withdrawal was supposed to be contingent upon actions by the Afghan government and the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban’s behavior.  

Biden abruptly announced the total withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of August, and declared that the Afghan government and its security forces were capable of maintaining control. However, that control collapsed in the face of a rapid nationwide Taliban offensive.

Aug.16. 2021. Thousands of Afghans have rushed onto the tarmac some so desperate to escape the Taliban capture of their country that they held onto the American military jet as it took off and plunged to death. (Verified UGC via AP)

The bipartisan criticism leveled at Biden is to be expected, with attacks from the opposition Republican Party especially fierce. For example, Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), who is a member of the Senate armed services committee, charged that Biden had, against the advice of the military, persisted with a hasty withdrawal that needlessly jeopardized the lives of U.S. citizens in Afghanistan.

There have even been calls for Biden’s impeachment. 

Notable was the fact that Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee, castigated Biden, saying: “I am disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal. We are now witnessing the horrifying results of many years of policy and intelligence failures.” Menendez promised his committee would hold public hearings and seek a “full accounting for these shortcomings.” 

Aug. 19, 2021. A baby being lifted across a wall at Kabul Airport in Afghanistan by US soldiers. (Omar Haidari via AP)
No time for seatbelts as thousands seek to board any flight to escape from the Taliban

Critics point to statements made by Biden at his August 20 press conference in particular, as well as on other occasions, that run counter to the facts. 

In responding to a question as to whether the U.S. handling of the situation in Afghanistan had damaged trust among North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies that fought alongside the United States in the military campaign there, Biden replied: “I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies…. As a matter of fact, the exact opposite.”

Actually, current or former leaders and influential parliamentarians in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have lambasted Biden’s handling of the situation as “tragic,” “imbecilic,” “unnecessary,” and “a fiasco.” 

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the Afghanistan pullout

Although Biden claimed that the terrorist organization al-Qaeda had been eliminated in Afghanistan, a U.S. defense department spokesman immediately acknowledged that al-Qaeda continued to maintain a presence within the country. 

Biden also declared that the Taliban had guaranteed the security of U.S. citizens traveling to the Kabul airport. Nonetheless, the U.S. embassy in Kabul has issued a security alert, advising U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the airport at this time due to security threats outside the gates.

Consequently, even The New York Times and other media that normally support the Democratic Party have criticized Biden’s statements as ignoring the facts. 

It has gotten to the point where Biden’s grasp of the facts and competency to govern have been called into question. 

(Read The Sankei Shimbun article in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Yoshihisa Komori, Associate Correspondent (Washington)

Find other reports by Yoshihisa Komori on JAPAN Forward in English at this link.

Yoshihisa Komori is the associate correspondent for the Sankei Shimbun in Washington, D.C.