Why Kabul is not Saigon

The parallels drawn between Saigon in 1975 and Kabul in 2021 are misleading.

Hundreds of people gather around a US Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 16, 2021 [Shekib Rahmani/AP]

On April 23, 1975, United States President Gerald Ford proclaimed that the war in Vietnam was “finished as far as America is concerned”. A few days later, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese forces while the US rushed its military and diplomatic personnel out of the country. The president’s words landed like shells of cold indifference on the ears of the South Vietnamese who had been promised support by successive US administrations, including Ford’s.

Around half a century later, another US withdrawal agonises a country. A two-decade-long war has ended with the US hurrying its exit from Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken over Kabul and the people are running over each other to flee the country. President Joe Biden has said that he does not regret withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, and that the objectives of the war have been met. However, the goals of wiping out terrorism, nation building, political stability and peace stand like a ruin in the face of the empire.

Many analogies are being made between these two wars. Parallels are being drawn between similar images of helicopters airlifting US diplomatic staff. Such comparisons, however, on the one hand, overlook the international developments of the last 50 years, and on the other, risk humanising the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan. The only similarity in these two cases is that they were both brought about by US imperialism and its failure to live up to its claims.

In the Vietnam War, taking place at the height of the Cold War, each warring party was backed by a foreign power. The US’s enemy in that war was the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North) which was seen as a legitimate force by half the world. Even within Europe and the US itself there were coherent political youth formations with leftist tilts which vigorously protested against the American occupation of Vietnam. These formations were popularised as counterculture.

There have been some who opposed the US war in Afghanistan as well, but this opposition has largely been unable to form any type of international solidarity that could side with the Taliban. Within the US, such voices predominantly come from the people belonging to existing mainstream political formations, failing to create an impact as huge as the anti-Vietnam War protests. They express exhaustion at the never-ending war more than they highlight and condemn the imperialist intervention in a faraway country.

Additionally, there is no proportionate power backing the Taliban. This Afghanistan war was not a clash of the titans on an underdeveloped soil. This time, the empire was up against its own history. The US weaponised the Islamist forces to make Afghanistan the Vietnam of the Soviets. When it finally succeeded, it was caught in a quandary of being the sole hegemon, having a trillion-dollar war machine with nobody to fight. The Soviet Russia had lived its course.

This was the time when Islamic fundamentalism surfaced as a major threat to Pax Americana. The US started mobilising its international order to fight this new enemy to defend democracy and liberal internationalism. But this enemy was manufactured by the US itself in the first place. Unlike the communist party of Vietnam, the Taliban is a ghost from America’s own past.

Afghanistan also occupies a different place in the international humanitarian value system. The international civil society seems very clear about the fact that the Taliban is a bigger threat to human rights than the US occupation. Although the US is devising ways to recognise the new Taliban setup in Afghanistan for purposes pertaining to politics and commerce, there will remain hesitation in treating the regime like a normal one.

The politics of human rights in Afghanistan’s case is subject to greater perplexity. Picturing Mullah Baradar, the chief Taliban negotiator, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on account of the Doha Peace Deal does not serve the political commerce of the altruistic West. Whereas the same prize was conveniently conferred upon Lu Duc Tho of North Vietnam for negotiating peace through the Paris Accords (1973).

The US that left Vietnam was an empire yet to experience its peak moment. President Ford in the same speech said, “These events, tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership in the world”. Contrastingly Biden speaks from a position of delusion and exhaustion. Afghans “have got to fight for themselves”, said the president who previously added insult to injury by saying that the US did not go to Afghanistan to nation build. The Afghanistan adventure represents an America that is defeated by an enemy of its own making and the triumphs of its own past.

This predicament should not be used to humanise a force that is anti-people and anti-culture. The Taliban should not be given its anti-imperialism and post-colonial moment. If anything, Kabul is a far bigger embarrassment than Saigon, and the era succeeding this war will be deadlier than the post-US Vietnam. It will take ages for the whole region to recover from this conquest.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.