The Afghan War’s ‘Boat People’

With the war’s likely end, a flood of refugees will seek refuge in the West

By: David Brown

Forty-six years after the last helicopter lifted off the last roof in Saigon and the bloody US intervention in Vietnam ceased, America's war in Afghanistan drags toward its unsuccessful, ugly end. President Joe Biden has no good options, only choices that are more or less bad.

Understandably, most Americans, and particularly the progressive wing of Biden's party, have run out of patience with expensive, inconclusive engagement in a place that is arguably of no great consequence to the US or any of its NATO allies. With the singular difference that none of the American troops this time are draftees, history is repeating itself.

When the war in Vietnam ended at last, Americans in a spasm of guilt aided 160,000 of the Vietnamese who had been our allies until, sick and tired of an unwinnable war, we had abandoned them. The ones who made it to the US via the Philippines or Guam or Midway Island in a first wave were those who saw the end was imminent, further resistance futile without resupply of fuel and armaments, without American airpower to back up South Vietnam's disintegrating army.

Some had connections, strings to pull, got into Tan Son Nhut Airport in time and with their families and until it was no longer safe were evacuated scrunched into USAF cargo planes, C-130s and the smaller C-124s to Clark Field in the Philippines or Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, and in due course to California and then to resettlement sites scattered across the US. A second wave, those less prudent or well-connected but no less determined to leave, escaped with their families in boats of every size and condition, never sure they'd be picked up or not.

And for months and years after Saigon surrendered, people found ways to leave. Hundreds of thousands more left crammed into the holds of boats by which, for a hefty price and if the fresh water held out and they weren't plundered by Thai pirates or capsized by a storm, they could hope to reach Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines – and there apply for resettlement in the US, Australia, Canada or other Western democracies.

By and large, "our Vietnamese" were wise to flee. As soon as the Saigon troops had laid down their arms, the victors rounded up officers, non-coms, civil servants, politicians and people who'd worked for the Americans. All spent at least a few months, and some spent years in what were euphemistically called re-education camps. For at least a decade afterward, "bad elements" were blacklisted, denied decent jobs. Their childrens' education was stopped at junior high school.

"Our Afghans" are urbanized, largely secular, often cosmopolitan. According to an International Crisis Group survey, 90 percent of Afghan women fear the return of the Taliban. The Afghan National Army is said to be better than it was but still highly dependent on US electronic intelligence and NATO air power. Afghan government institutions are still frail, faction-ridden and corrupt. General Mark Milley's faint praise is revealing: "We believe that now after 20 years – two decades of consistent effort there – we’ve achieved a modicum of success.” Our Afghans are nice folks, but hardly as capable of retaining power as the Taliban seems to be of wresting it from them and restoring a medieval theocracy.

If you're the sort of person who believed long ago that if the US could just hang on in Vietnam, our southern protégés might prevail, it's quite possible to empathize with Milley, who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan before his present job, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, if you spent much time in Vietnam, you likely also believe that the US Government ought to have learned from its experience there that (the case of post-World War II Japan possibly excepted) it is impossible to graft American values onto a culture so radically different.

"You break it, you own it" -- Colin Powell

"Nation-building" was a nice-sounding idea that three presidents wielded to justify pouring blood and treasure into Indochina, America's first "forever war." Washington ought to have learned its lesson, but as soon as the last veterans of Vietnam were retired from the US government, the second George Bush fell for that idea again. A so-called "neo-conservative" faction was beating the gongs for nation-building in Afghanistan (after wiping out al-Qaeda, of course) and soon after, also in Iraq (after eliminating Saddam Hussain and his chimerical weapons of mass destruction).

Two decades later, Joe Biden has inherited in Afghanistan his own unpopular, unwinnable war. Biden's no fool, so it's likely that he'll pull the plug sometime soon. The Afghan War isn't the sort of burden any president would want to carry into a midterm election 20 months from now.

If America and its NATO allies don't stick around, their Afghan friends haven't got any kind of future and so they will come, as many as can. They'll come with their families. They'll come by air as the Taliban close in on Kabul and a dozen other Afghan cities, or they'll cross the border to Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Iran by whatever means they can, hoping to snag a visa somewhere, somehow.

They will come because they have no illusions about living under the Taliban. They'll imagine that the nations that offered refuge nearly half a century ago to the defeated South Vietnamese will welcome them as well.

The US is not nearly so immigrant-friendly these days. Neither are its NATO allies, worn down by a seemingly endless flow of migrants from Africa and Syria. However, the cost of ending this two-decade conflict with a shred of dignity ought to be clear to the Biden government: there are millions of Afghans who believed in American promises and stood with the US. If they manage to escape the implosion of the Kabul regime, America owes them refuge. So, proportionally, do its European allies.

Because Joe Biden's an uncommonly decent person, it's likely that while extracting the US from an endless, unwinnable war, he'll do the right thing for Afghan men and women who've acted personally on the strength of American promises. That would be a smart move, notwithstanding the ugly brand of populism that pushes back against folks with darker skins.

The hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who were resettled in the West after 1975 arrived with little but determination to rebuild their lives. They've done that very well indeed. Their children and grandchildren are remarkably high-achieving assets to the Western nations that granted their parents refuge.

The tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of upper middle-class Afghans who will reach the shores of the Western world in the next few years are likely to be no less desirable as citizens than any previous wave of immigrants. Americans especially should get ready to welcome them.

David Brown is a retired US diplomat with extensive experience in Vietnam, and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. On April 26, 1975, he and his wife's family were evacuated from Saigon by the US Air Force.