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Stop Comparing Afghanistan’s Fall to South Vietnam’s

Americans are still using the lens of a half century-old conflict.

By , based in Hanoi as the Vietnam Bureau Chief for Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
North Vietnamese Army tanks take over the South Vietnamese presidential palace.
North Vietnamese Army tanks take over the South Vietnamese presidential palace in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on April 20, 1975. Phan Khan Duong/Phan Thank Gian/AFP via Getty Images

As Kabul fell, headlines waxing nostalgic over the fall of Saigon were impossible to avoid. Vietnamese Americans whose families fled southern Vietnam as refugees in the aftermath of the communist victory said the events unfolding in Afghanistan stir up heartbreaking memories. Yet while images showing desperate diplomat and refugee evacuations as well as Washington’s humiliating defeat resonate powerfully, reports comparing Afghanistan’s fall to South Vietnam’s are deeply inaccurate—and dangerously misleading.

Vietnam has long been wielded as a catch-all term for U.S. foreign-policy failures, yet the glib comparisons in this instance not only distort the past but also distract from the present suffering of Afghan civilians and the imminent danger they face. It also risks alienating the Vietnamese government.

There is no moral equivalence between North Vietnamese forces and the Taliban. During World War II, the Viet Minh actually supported the United States and its allies by serving as the only Vietnamese force resisting Japan’s invasion of Indochina. This preamble for conflict hardly compares to the Taliban militia, which massacred minority Hazara communities and forced Hindus to carry yellow badges to set them apart from Afghan Muslims—like Jews in Nazi Germany.

As Kabul fell, headlines waxing nostalgic over the fall of Saigon were impossible to avoid. Vietnamese Americans whose families fled southern Vietnam as refugees in the aftermath of the communist victory said the events unfolding in Afghanistan stir up heartbreaking memories. Yet while images showing desperate diplomat and refugee evacuations as well as Washington’s humiliating defeat resonate powerfully, reports comparing Afghanistan’s fall to South Vietnam’s are deeply inaccurate—and dangerously misleading.

Vietnam has long been wielded as a catch-all term for U.S. foreign-policy failures, yet the glib comparisons in this instance not only distort the past but also distract from the present suffering of Afghan civilians and the imminent danger they face. It also risks alienating the Vietnamese government.

There is no moral equivalence between North Vietnamese forces and the Taliban. During World War II, the Viet Minh actually supported the United States and its allies by serving as the only Vietnamese force resisting Japan’s invasion of Indochina. This preamble for conflict hardly compares to the Taliban militia, which massacred minority Hazara communities and forced Hindus to carry yellow badges to set them apart from Afghan Muslims—like Jews in Nazi Germany.

In September 1945, Vietnam’s founding leader, Ho Chi Minh, opened his speech by proclaiming his country’s independence, saying “all men are created equal,” lines repeated verbatim from the United States’ own Declaration of Independence. The following year, his admiration for the United States and its revolutionary war saw him write a letter to then-U.S. President Harry Truman asking for support in ending French colonial rule in Vietnam.

This is a long way from the sentiments of the Taliban’s founders or of the al Qaeda forces they sheltered. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s attacks on September 11, 2001 prompted the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. Vietnam never carried out an attack on U.S. soil, and even the clash in the Gulf of Tonkin on a U.S. patrol boat that served as an excuse for escalation was wildly distorted and lied about by U.S. leaders.

In May 2009, the Taliban carried out a targeted gas attack against a girls’ school in Kabul that saw hundreds of young female students suffer headaches, nausea, and vomiting—one of a plethora of assaults and bomb threats that closed girls’ schools across entire districts in Afghanistan.

During the Vietnam War, it was U.S. airplanes that rained hell across vast swathes of the southeast Asian country between 1961 and 1971, dropping 13 million gallons of the lethal toxin Agent Orange—an act of ecocide that left a legacy of horrifying physical deformities for generations of Vietnamese families.

Once the Paris Peace Accords arrived in 1973, Vietnam sought to collaborate with the United Nations—efforts then-U.S. President Richard Nixon tried to sabotage. By contrast, Taliban suicide bombers disrupted Afghanistan’s presidential elections in 2009 by storming a guesthouse in Kabul, killing six U.N. staff members and six civilians in the process.

Although one must not ignore the atrocities committed in Afghanistan by U.S-led forces or those inflicted by North Vietnam both before and after the fall of Saigon—the Viet Minh’s brutal land reforms, tortuous reeducation camps for those affiliated with the former government of South Vietnam, and the Viet Cong’s mortaring of refugee camps—they are not comparable. Few would suggest Afghans face anything other than a profoundly grim future under Taliban rule.

It must be a strange and unpleasant experience for Vietnam’s leaders, who only last week hosted their country’s first-ever visit from a sitting U.S. vice president, to see themselves endlessly equated with the United States’ adversaries, especially a misogynistic and brutal force like the Taliban. Pham Quang Minh, a Hanoi-based foreign-policy expert who was 13 years old when the war ended, noted in an email that Vietnamese leaders do not see any similarities, and it is inaccurate to compare the Taliban with either South or North Vietnamese forces.

The comparisons come even though Hanoi and Washington enjoy flourishing diplomatic relations; six months ago, then-U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink released a rap video praising the two former foes’ “enduring friendship.”

Viewing almost every modern U.S. conflict through the lens of the half century-old Vietnam War results in the abandonment of critical context. Moreover, by aligning the two wars, one overlooks the utter senselessness of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War and, crucially, distracts focus from the civilians suffering as a consequence of a failed U.S. military enterprise.

Human Rights Watch concurred, saying the predictable rehashing of debates about the two wars or what could have led to U.S. victory “grievously [devalues] the devastating consequences of the war for Afghans—civilians and fighters alike.” A robust postmortem of what occurred in Kabul should and will take place, but for now, the focus must remain on the civilians struggling to escape persecution.

If we are making comparisons between 1975 and today, one might ask what it actually means for a superpower to lose a war—and who pays the price. The United States lost more than 2,400 lives in Afghanistan and around 58,000 lives in Vietnam. Alongside that were nearly a quarter of a million dead Afghans and somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 million Vietnamese. The United States left both wars still the richest and most powerful country in the world; the Vietnamese inherited a shattered state and even today earn a fraction of U.S. incomes.

In total, 117,000 people, mostly Afghans, have been evacuated from Kabul—but many more remain trapped inside a Taliban-run state. The evacuation came with its own bloody costs, from the desperate men who fell to their death from the fuselage of a C-17 transporter to the more than 100 Afghans and 13 U.S. soldiers killed in a suicide bomb attack last Friday or shot by U.S. soldiers in the chaotic aftermath that followed. The fate of evacuees remains unknown; although the United States has accepted thousands of people, it seeks to shuttle far more people to third-party states rather than take responsibility.

Meanwhile, in Ho Chi Minh City, military trucks are once again rolling into the southern metropolis as soldiers enforce a strict stay-at-home order imposed by the Vietnamese government to stem the city’s soaring COVID-19 death toll. Heartbreaking images are circulating on social media showing sick, elderly Vietnamese clinging to life beside oxygen cylinders on the concrete ground of dimly lit alleyways. Hospitals are totally overrun.

In Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta region, factory workers, many of whom make shoes or furniture for U.S. consumers, huddle together in dangerously cramped conditions, forced to live in factories to halt the spread of COVID-19 and prevent further loss of life.

As Afghanistan faces a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions and Ho Chi Minh City struggles with its worst crisis since the Vietnam War, the United States should step up efforts to assist its former battlegrounds.

If it wants to heal the wounds of the past, Washington must support a desperate Ho Chi Minh City and provide refuge to the Afghans left homeless by two decades of war.

Chris Humphrey is based in Hanoi as the Vietnam Bureau Chief for Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

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