Afghanistan: Cut the Red Tape

A retired longtime US Diplomat who saw the Fall of Saigon looks at Afghanistan today

By: David Brown

In early April 46 years ago, North Vietnamese army divisions had overrun most of South Vietnam. They were closing in on Saigon. The US Congress had refused to vote further aid, not even air support. My wife and I knew what her father refused to believe: Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, would soon fall to the Communists.

Many thousands of Vietnamese were in particular danger. They had worked with American troops or had enabled American aid workers, reporters, teachers and trainers to do their jobs effectively. Now, strategically and tactically, the Saigon regime was toast. America's best Vietnamese friends, people who had trusted that with American help they could build a modern, liberal Republic of Vietnam, were trapped in a jumble of immigrant visa procedures.

History is repeating itself in Afghanistan. Correspondent Jane Ferguson wrote last week from Kabul that "The US system for vetting Afghan visa applicants remains exhausting and time-consuming. . . . There are currently just over 20,000 applicants, half of whom have not completed the initial stage of the process. . . . Biden’s withdrawal increasingly appears poorly planned, rushed, and chaotic".

On August 1 came a glimmer of hope: news media reported that the State Department has broadened visa eligibility criteria to include additional categories of Afghanis. But will the White House also cut the procedural red tape? Will it authorize embassy officers to issue emergency laissez passers? Will it instruct the Pentagon to airlift these refugees out of danger?

The lives of America's best Afghan friends can be saved if Washington acts boldly while there is still time – as it did once before.

In Saigon in April 1975, as doubtless in Kabul now, senior officers of the US Mission remained publicly optimistic. They feared that false steps would blight what scant hope remained that the South Vietnamese regime could negotiate an armistice.

Nearly all official Americans and their dependents had been evacuated. Just a few remained, all volunteers. With a wink and a nod from Washington, they had been allowed to cut through the red tape that burdens the American immigration system.

I don't know what orders were sent after consultations between the White House west wing and the State Department's seventh floor. From personal experience, I do know that during the last weeks before the city fell to North Vietnamese troops, the ultra-low profile improvisations of US Mission staff enabled the emigration of many thousands of Vietnamese who by virtue of their responsibilities as employees of the US Mission, were deemed to be in peril.

News of this reached me in Tokyo through the Foreign Service grapevine. On April 23, I bought a one-way ticket. Once I was in the air, a US embassy colleague reported to the ambassador that -- contrary to explicit instructions from Washington -- I was on my way to Saigon. He handed over my letter of apology.

The next morning, I found my way to a 'safe house' where an American Embassy people-smuggling operation was in high gear. The volunteers had been working long hours already for several weeks, referring to lists of Vietnamese deemed to be in peril. Either the Washington 'guidance' was remarkably elastic or the Saigon embassy officers had decided to err on the liberal side. The red tape had vanished.

I explained my errand. Someone found the names of my wife's parents and eight siblings on a list. Could I add more, I asked – the children and in-laws of my wife's older sister? In a few minutes, it was done. I was issued a stack of mimeographed and stamped emergency travel documents bearing the names and ID card numbers of my wife's relatives.

Toward sundown, an embassy van with darkened windows navigated several checkpoints to deliver my in-laws and me to a compound at the airport. There we waited; the then-Philippine president, Ferdinand Marcos, had forbidden further deliveries of Vietnamese refugees to the two big US bases there. The airlift was halted until other safe havens could be arranged.

Toward dinnertime the next day, April 25, the queue started moving again. By 10 pm, my in-laws and I and about 250 other refugees were seated cross-legged, holding tight to shock cords stretched across the cargo hold of a USAF C-141. No one spoke, no child cried as our plane taxied out onto the runway, revved its four jet engines and took off in the steepest possible climb. Six hours later we were safe on Guam.

Saigon fell on April 30. In the camp at Orote Point, there was a great sadness, each refugee wrapped in his or her own thoughts, but our story ended well. Resettled in California, my inlaws took menial jobs, studied English and in time made it into the American middle class. I wasn't fired by the State Department. In fact, I was welcomed back to my embassy job in Tokyo with a bit of applause.

Over 50,000 refugees escaped Saigon via the airlift I've described. In years to come, hundreds of thousands more would flee Vietnam by sea. Up to 1983, roughly 600,000 Vietnamese were admitted to the US as refugees. Many more were resettled in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere.

Very few of these Vietnamese wished to leave their homeland. They took great risks. Two generations later, they and their children are a distinct asset to the United States.

If the US enables America's Afghan friends to escape the Taliban, they too will be at most a transient burden, as were the refugees from our first 'forever war.' However, they are in grave danger of being left behind unless, as happened 46 years ago, permission's been granted to cut the red tape. If that's happened, the details don't matter. I just want to know that an airlift from Kabul is in full swing.

David Brown is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel

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