Too Little, Too Late: Inaction Led to the Falls of Saigon and Kabul
Updated: Oct 4
On August 14, The Taliban declared control of Afghanistan as thousands scrambled to flee the country, leaving millions helpless to face a grim future. By the time the wheels of a military plane had left the ground carrying the American flag and United States acting ambassador, charge d’affaires Ross Wilson, insurgent forces had already raised the Taliban flag from the presidential palace.
In his remarks, President Biden reaffirmed his commitment to withdraw troops from the longest war in American history: “I stand squarely behind my decision,” he said. The 46th President of the United States accepted blame for the consequences of his own actions while also shifting culpability to his predecessors who allowed the situation to be where it currently stands.
Photos courtesy: Shireen Mazari Twitter
This was not the first time the American flag had been displaced during a hasty evacuation of a war-torn country. No more than 50 years ago, Americans fled Saigon in a strikingly similar manner. North Vietnamese troops re-captured the capital city quicker than expected, requiring Operation Frequent Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter-evac operation in history.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken maintained that the situation in Kabul was “manifestly not Saigon,” but comparisons between the two were inevitable. Although there are parallels in how decades of American government mismanagement led to the quick collapse of the two cities, the long-term implications of the most recent events in Kabul are markedly different than in Saigon.
The Fall of Saigon
By the time North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon on April 28, 1975, the unpopular Vietnam War was already in the rearview mirror for most Americans. President Gerald Ford himself was told about the siege while meeting with his energy team. The United States had begun the process of withdrawing troops while preparing the South Vietnamese forces to lead their own defense years before under President Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization.” Troop numbers had fallen drastically from their 536,100 peak in 1968, making America’s strategy clear: get everyone out, but not yet.
Ford was planning the complicated evacuation of American forces from Saigon for weeks. Legal and logistical hurdles slowed the plans despite Pentagon pressure for weeks to speed up the process at all costs, with sticking points including refugee visas for South Vietnamese allies and the War Powers Act of 1973. The overall stance of the government held that keeping low involvement in the war was good amidst hopes that our South Vietnamese allies could reclaim their own nation with American resources and guidance, not boots on the ground.
The rapid movement of the North Vietnamese forces into the capital city took everyone by surprise, including an ill-prepared United States government. Suddenly, they had to evacuate thousands of American military advisers, diplomats, and South Vietnamese allies.
Operation Frequent Wind was carried out on April 29 and April 30, 1975, as the final phase of the evacuation of Vietnam. Runways were deemed unfit for usage and hundreds of military helicopters were sent to airlift Americans and our allies out of the city. The constant clang of choppers created chaos, and rooftops were filled with Vietnamese citizens clamoring for safety. Unauthorized helicopters and planes landing aboard American navy vessels were pushed overboard to make room for more helicopters to land and bring passengers to safety.
7,000 Americans and Vietnamese were successfully rescued, and thousands more self evacuated with many becoming refugees. The majority of the city’s denizens watched from the ground as their chances of escape flew away. On April 30th, The Vietnam War concluded with the nation falling to the communist forces of the North Vietnamese military. It was a crippling blow during the Cold War which gave the Soviet Union more hope to spread communism across the globe. The next target: the Middle East, and Afghanistan specifically (more on that later).
The humiliation of the operation has been immortalized by photographers who captured the moments of American helicopters carrying some to freedom and leaving others behind.
The Fall of Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the communist Vietnamese leader ever since) marked not just the beginning of a new regime, but also America’s failure to fulfill their promises of restoring democracy to an entire nation. The moment has etched itself in historical memory and popular culture as an embarrassing exit emblematic of an unpopular and costly war.
The Fall of Kabul
The Afghanistan War began in 2001 following the attacks of September 11th. The United States entered Afghanistan with two main objectives: to find the groups responsible for the attacks which killed 2,997 people and to prevent another terror attack on American soil. Operation Enduring Freedom, a coalition of forces led by the United States, mostly defeated Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, highlighted by the assassination of 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011. The number of U.S. military personnel in the country has declined steadily from its 2011 peak of 110,000 troops.
On February 29, 2020, former President Donald Trump announced he had struck a peace deal with the Taliban that would lead to the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by May 31, 2021. By November 2020, the Pentagon announced plans to reduce troop levels to 2,500 in Afghanistan and Iraq during Trump’s final days in office. President Biden decided to push back the deadline for withdrawal to August 31 to iron out the details for an orderly exit. This included logistical planning for possible Turkish control of Kabul airport and the evacuation of thousands of Afghans who had assisted U.S. military efforts.
As soon as American troops began to withdraw, the Taliban quickly seized regional capitals. By June 23, 2021, the Taliban gained control of over half of the country’s 421 districts. Afghan forces, trained by the American military and making use of their weaponry and resources, often put up little or no resistance according to Biden and Department of Defense officials. In just 11 weeks, the Taliban steamrolled through the countryside until they reached Kabul’s four gates. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani--whose location remains unknown-- fled the capital, allowing Taliban to enter the presidential palace without needing to siege the city with violence. Their flag was raised for the second time since 1996, indicating another total collapse of the Afghan government.
On August 15, the deafening sounds of helicopters and airplanes silenced some of the gunshots and screams that rang through Kabul on Sunday night. Hundreds of videos and eyewitness accounts circulated on social media capturing the frenzy and chaos at Kabul airport. Thousands jammed the runways with some even clinging to the fuselage of planes as they took off, desperately trying to book their ticket to freedom. Several videos appear to show people plummeting off airplanes hundreds of feet in the air.
A Tale of Two Cities
There are plenty of parallels and divergences between the Fall of Saigon and Fall of Kabul.
Although the responses of both presidents were similar, the public reacted differently to them. One week before North Vietnamese troops seized Saigon in April 1975, Gerald Ford delivered a speech at Tulane University celebrating the end of the Vietnam War, saying “Today, Americans can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by re-fighting a war.” The speech gave a short term boost to his popularity ratings, already low at 40 percent. He went on to lose the 1976 election to the peace-loving Jimmy Carter, mostly due to high inflation and his decision to pardon his predecessor, President Richard Nixon, following his resignation. He still stood by his decision to evacuate as many South Vietnamese allies as possible, and expressed no regret for not supplying the South Vietnamese army with the return of American troops that they requested.
A quick historical nugget-- In April 1975, a freshman senator from Delaware went to the White House for a top-secret briefing on Vietnam. The 32-year old Joe Biden voiced his firm belief that the war had long been lost and the United States should evacuate from Vietnam as soon as possible
As President Biden told the nation on August 16, 2021, that there was no better time to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, he said “It’s up to Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country.” He also proclaimed the United States had “achieved [its] objectives” of fighting terrorism and bringing justice to the perpetrators of 9/11. Although many Americans had wanted to end the longest war in the nation’s history, seeing the heartbreaking scenes in Kabul changed their minds. Biden’s approval rating dropped 7 points down to 46%, the lowest point of his presidency thus far.
Both presidents accepted the consequences of the untimely ends of their respective wars while still pinning larger culpability on the forces they trusted. Although their predecessors should take some of the blame for beginning or continuing an unwinnable war, Ford and Biden saw that the Resolute Desk often becomes the hot seat.
Many historical scholars could argue that both were unlucky men put in untenable positions. Yet, Ford and Biden suffered spectacularly in the court of public opinion, as Americans decided that the pictures and videos of chaos spoke louder than military semantics.
This raises two larger questions:
What do both events reveal about the necessity of American police presence abroad? Both the “Vietnamization” and “Afghanization” models of fighting our enemy backfired. The South Vietnamese and Afghan forces crumpled quickly after we withdrew or scaled back direct military support. Corruption and stories of Afghan soldiers selling weapons to the Taliban were reminiscent of the U.S. trained mujahideen fighting soldiers just twenty years after they defeated the Soviet Union in the Soviet-Afghanistan War from 1979-1989. The United States put its faith and trust in these forces, and the results were a decided failure.
These harsh lessons may indicate that American military presence, although unpopular and dangerous, could be the most effective way to combat state and non-state actors. The United States did not lose wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan because they were defeated outright; they were defeated because they packed up and left.
It is possible that assisting the South Vietnamese military with the replenishment of resources and troops they needed could have stopped the North Vietnamese from further advancements. Keeping a greater presence of American troops in Afghanistan might have also turned the tide against the Taliban and kept the group in check. Better exit planning would have prevented two disastrous exits and unceremonious endings to these wars. Regardless of these hypotheticals, the United States left Saigon and Kabul in a similarly embarrassing fashion.
Can we respect self-determination while promoting a stable democracy? Nation-building is certainly not on top of the American agenda, yet there is no clear answer whether a hands-on or hands-off approach is more effective after invading a foreign nation and changing its landscape, politically and physically. Just as it is difficult to train another army to fight for themselves, it is difficult to grow an entire generation of public servants dedicated to the democratic process who respect its sacrosanct institutions. The American public generally does not favor never-ending foreign wars, but when the United States does not fix problems that it starts, entire populaces deal with the consequences.
These consequences are severe. Vietnam fell to communist forces and dealt the United States a significant blow in the power struggle against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Many POWs were never heard from again, and those who collaborated with the United States were arrested and killed.
Now fully in control of the country, the Taliban will likely bar women from education and the workforce, make women stay home and wear burqas in public, create forced marriages, and worse. This reverses decades of progress for women’s rights and turns back the clock centuries.
The Taliban will also recruit thousands of young men and children who otherwise could have had a good life. These people will not be joining out of a reverence for radical ideology, but of a need to protect themselves and their families. Anyone who does not obey the group’s wishes risks their own deaths and the deaths of their family members as well.
Afghans who assisted the United States in a multitude of ways have already been targeted by the Taliban. When the final American helicopters and planes leave Kabul, these vulnerable people will not live long enough to see them return.
And so nations fall like Roman walls. Dreams of freedom come crumbling down and hollow promises vanish to dust. Regimes change and cards shuffle to a re-stacked deck, chips changing hands to new leaders. As the smoke settles over Afghanistan, a larger storm cloud looms over a people gripped with pain and hardships in a fight for basic survival. With echoes from the sounds of Saigon still lingering, the United States leaves a country in turmoil, and the world must now watch the harrowing scenes yet to come.