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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.

7 comments

  1. Those in charge are so arrogant and stupid that they are incapable of learning.

  2. The level of hypocrisy, naivety and neoliberal claptrap in this post: “Can Hope Rise in Afghanistan?” is something I did not expect to encounter on a site like scheerpost. A great many of the so called “refugees from Afghanistan” are relatively privileged city dwellers deeply complicit in an astoundingly corrupt kleptocracy and widely despised puppet regime viewed as self-serving lackeys and profiteers of foreign, western non-muslim invaders and occupiers, and have either directly taken part in the endless gravy train of grift and endemic corruption or been mouthpieces and cheerleaders (TV reporters, male or female etc) for a regime so deeply rotten to the core that it just imploded almost overnight (this fact alone should let you guess as to its popularity with the vast majority of Afghans). These Afghans fleeing the country will be seen as western traitors, betrayers and corrupt sell-outs for a long time to come (“The Afghan-American community will be an asset”…, the only reasonable interpretation I see of this is as hires of the CIA for covert actions). To respond to: “U.S. build bridges with Afghanistan that will endure in the future. “,
    “the U.S. Treasury Department has already gone ahead and frozen the DAB assets and prevented its transfer into Taliban control.”, it is already clear that the US is intent on inflicting untold suffering on the Afghan people, punishing the poor and dispossessed the most ( “these tactics are plainly vindictive and will only backfire against the West.”) as it has done in so many other countries (starving millions of poor people is just collateral damage).
    “Half of Afghanistan lives in poverty, 14 million Afghans are food insecure, and 2 million Afghan children are severely hungry. The roaring sound of hunger was combined—during these past 20 years—with the roaring sound of bombers. This is what the occupation looked like from the ground.”
    By just about any metric the standard of well-being of the average Afghan has gone downhill in our 20 year occupation.
    Finally this post is extremely tone deaf to the hypocrisy of the US towards immigrants. Those on our southern border have been treated with an almost unimaginable brutality (ripping infants away from their mothers, caging children) that has continued almost unabated under the Biden presidency. These immigrants are fleeing the south and central american countries that we have turned into cruel, brutal, murdering, corrupt oppressive dictatorships (overthrowing the democratic Arbenz in Guatamala because he dared challenge the feudal exploitation of US United Fruit in his country, seems our biggest contribution was teaching death squads the art of torture), not to mention that the CIA has turned these countries into lawless narco-states, also suffering from climate change etc.

    1. Thank you, Henri. Right on target.

      This rubbish belongs at National Review or OAN. No idea why it’s posted here.

  3. Thank you for your account. I pray it reaches the attention of those in the American government who can best realize your vision.

  4. Please see recent article in The Medium by Umair Haque. He sees no negotiating with the Taliban and does not believe that they have changed.

  5. I wonder if Mr Pham has ever questioned his class background and indoctrination that led him as a child to hate ‘communists’.
    In my understanding, the South Vietnamese supporters of the American invaders were simply holdover compradors of French Colonialism. That they were Catholic simply was a condition of employment going back to the beginning of French colonialism. As far as communist ‘cruelty’, losing property acquired by expropriation and exploitation is a typical redress of a socialist re-balance of a capitalist/colonialist system. I understand that only the worst war criminals of the South were executed; the rest suffered re-education, necessary for integration in a socialist society.
    Mr Pham is entirely correct about Afghanistan, however. To continue to make the Taliban an American enemy will only lead to more suffering of the Afghan people and more diminution of American prestige, as the world is paying attention to these happenings.

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