Can Hope Rise in Afghanistan? Lessons Learned From Vietnam Show It Can.

The Afghans feel betrayed, understandably, just as the South Vietnamese did in 1975. Although we Americans cannot do much about that now, we can create policy measures to ensure Afghans feel differently in the future. 
Vietnam in 1972. [Raymond Depardon / Flickr]

By Kien Pham

Watching the unfolding events in Kabul has been hard for this Vietnamese American.  I was a 17-year-old Saigon boy in April 1975 when the Americans hurriedly left and South Vietnam collapsed. At the time, half of my family was inside the gate at the Tan Son Nhat Airport when a bomb exploded, and I was with the rest of my family standing outside the fence guarded by U.S. Marines. Chaos erupted, and we ran home without hope for an orderly air evacuation.

For two subsequent, years my family suffered under the punishing communist regime and lost everything. Risking the lives of 23 children, my extended family escaped on a small boat and floated on the South China Sea for over 100 days to reach freedom. 

The Afghans feel betrayed, understandably, just as the South Vietnamese did in 1975. Although we Americans cannot do much about that now, we can create policy measures to ensure Afghans feel differently in the future. 

For now, U.S. policy should focus on removing the fuse of the powder keg that our American personnel are sitting on at the Kabul airport.  We’ve all seen the desperate mobs of Afghans trying to reach the airport. The situation is extremely risky.  One or two mortar shells can turn that tense airport scene into one reminiscent of the catastrophe that exploded at the Tan Son Nhat Airport in April 1975.  

One way to defuse the current situation is to convince some senior Taliban officials to join the Americans inside the airport to protect “their national airport.”  The Taliban’s presence would lessen the risk of an incoming attack and give them a stake in keeping things peaceful.

Now also is the time for us to negotiate swiftly with the Taliban to keep diplomatic relations and to provide international aid. The condition for that would be that the Taliban maintain peace and safety for our military exit.

As we learned in Vietnam after 1975, it took too long for the two countries to establish normal diplomacy. The triumphant Vietnamese got drunk on their victory. The country went broke for 20 years; the Vietnamese people suffered, and traditional American interests were not served.  Much has changed in the 25 years since Vietnam and the U.S. resumed diplomatic relations.  Bilateral trade is now at $100 billion per year. The fact Vice President Kamala Harris was in Hanoi this week with vaccine help demonstrates what could be possible between Afghanistan and the United States. 

I once thought it inconceivable to deal with the Vietnamese communists, much less become their friend, but the last 25 years have taught me that authentic, caring, and confident Americans can do just that.  We had Sens. John Kerry and John McCain to lead the way on Vietnam.  We need someone with the same caliber of leadership who can quickly build a working relationship with the new ruler in Kabul. 

It is time to look ahead and double our efforts to persuade the Taliban that it is in their best interest to work with Washington so they can remain in power with the support of the Afghan people.  Some assume the Taliban cannot change.  My experience with the once-hated Vietnamese communists leads me to believe the Taliban can change under the right condition and incentives. We will have to convince them that we no longer aim for regime change in Kabul just as we had to convince Hanoi. In the long run, our national interests will be better served.

Finally, let’s welcome refugees from Afghanistan to the United States. These Afghans are our friends and supporters. We want a community of Afghan Americans to help the U.S. build bridges with Afghanistan that will endure in the future.  Let’s ask American churches to welcome them just as the faith community welcomed my family and other Vietnamese refugees. The Afghan-American community will be an asset that neither the Chinese nor Russians will have.  

Kien Pham is president of the Vietnam Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit, that provides direct education and health care support to people in Vietnam. He is a senior advisor at TPG Capital, a leading U.S. private equity firm. Mr. Pham served in the Ronald Reagan White House and at the Pentagon under the George H.W. Bush administration.

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