The Fall of Kabul

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Mobs at the Kabul airport. Some 640 refugees crammed into one Air Force cargo plane. A desperate refugee hides in the wheel well, and is crushed in the retraction of the landing gear.

In the next room I hear US news reporters asking Secretary of State Antony Blinken if the evacuation of Kabul was like Saigon. No way, Blinken said. Not the same! We’re not thinking about Saigon! But I am a decade older than Mr. Blinken. He was only 13 when Saigon fell and I remember it better than he does. And the fall of Kabul is like that. This is what happens when you lose a war.

One reporter asked Blinken if the disaster in Kabul was a failure of planning or of intelligence. The media do love their loaded questions. But calling the withdrawal from Kabul a failure depends on what level of success you expect of your government. Blinken told the reporter there was a plan. No doubt there was, somewhere or other. And the Air Force did have its planes in Kabul, all fueled up. They know how to do that. They are not so well trained in how to respond to a mob so desperate that men hide in the wheel wells.

I am tired of my country having to fight for 20 years to pacify a country it never should have invaded.

 

People are good at what they know. The last US evacuation from a losing war was from Saigon, 46 years ago. Vietnam is on the ocean, making it easier to evacuate than Afghanistan. Still, the evacuation of Saigon was a mess. The embassy was mobbed, and South Vietnamese Army men were crashing on US aircraft carriers with helicopters.

The classic account of the fall of Vietnam is Decent Interval, by CIA analyst Frank Snepp. He tells the story of American officials who believed that to prepare for evacuation was to admit defeat, and thereby to bring it about. American officials wanted to make everyone, especially their superiors in Washington, believe defeat was not at hand. And when it was, they were not ready; afterward, they didn’t want to talk about it. We don’t prepare our people for defeat, and when it happens, we are not good at it.

Should the US government have done a better job to evacuate the people it employed and relied upon in Afghanistan? Yes. We should do right by the individuals who did right by us. But I have learned not to expect too much of governments, especially my own. The people who worked for the Americans now curse us for abandoning them. If I were in their shoes, I’d curse, too. But I am in mine, and I am tired of my country having to fight for 20 years to pacify a country it never should have invaded.

Calling the withdrawal from Kabul a failure depends on what level of success you expect of your government.

 

On CNN I see a Republican congressman half my age going on like a barking dog, eager to keep the war going. I see Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (ret.), who warns that other countries will wonder how reliable the Americans are. And I think, “Fine. Let them wonder. Maybe they should do more to take care of themselves.”

I have no kind words for the winners. When South Vietnam fell, I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley. On May Day, 1975, a pro-communist parade came down Telegraph Avenue. One group carried a banner, “All Indochina Must Go Communist.” I wasn’t happy with that sign. I wasn’t for the communists then, and I’m not for the Islamists now. But in 1975, there was zero chance that America would go communist, and today there is zero chance of an American caliphate. Americans need to learn when to leave other people alone.

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