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Watching the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan after the departure of most U.S. and international troops is disheartening. It is especially so for veterans who see clear parallels between the U.S. departure from Vietnam in 1975 and the current chaos in Kabul as Americans and others are desperately seeking to flee Afghanistan.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday.
“The chop of U.S. military helicopters whisking American diplomats to Kabul’s airport punctuated a frantic rush by thousands of other foreigners and Afghans to flee to safety as well, as a stunningly swift Taliban takeover entered the heart of Afghanistan’s capital,” the Associated Press reported Monday morning.
America’s longest war — nearly 20 years — is coming to a rapid and horrific end, weeks before the Biden administration pledged to withdraw the last of the American troops there.
Many noted that images of the helicopters in Kabul were eerily reminiscent of the iconic photo of a helicopter that lifted American diplomats and some Vietnamese evacuees from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
Yet, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken insisted that comparisons to Vietnam were misplaced. “This is being done in a very deliberate way, it’s being done in an orderly way,” Blinken insisted on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
“This is manifestly not Saigon,” he said.
These comments infuriated retired Gen. Bill Libby, who served with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam and oversaw the Maine National Guard for nine years, including when Maine members were deployed to Afghanistan.
“I don’t mean to make light of the situation, but to quote Yogi Berra: ‘It is deja vu all over again,’” he told the Bangor Daily News editorial board.
The only difference, Libby said sardonically, is that this time they don’t have an ocean to dump the helicopters in before fleeing.
“It just feels like Vietnam all over again,” retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills of Manchester, told the AP. Mills had both arms and legs amputated after a roadside bomb explosion outside Kandahar in 2012. He now runs a foundation and retreat in the Belgrade Lakes area to support veterans.
Mills, who served three tours in Afghanistan with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, said he largely supports the troop withdrawal, although he’d keep bases there, and wished it started years ago. But, he added: “For the people of Afghanistan, your heart goes out to them. You don’t want to leave them stranded. I just hope that they can find a way to fight back.”
Libby said it took him 50 years, and the Ken Burns documentary about the war, for him to fully understand “how badly the Vietnam War was managed.” It will likely take as much time to fully understand how badly the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was managed, but it is clear that “we didn’t learn our lessons.” This failure to learn lessons didn’t begin with former Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump or current President Joe Biden. They go back to at least the 1980s when the Reagan administration backed the mujahadeen when Russia invaded Afghanistan.
Those lessons needed to be better learned by the U.S. military and its civilian leaders, American diplomats and intelligence agencies, and, especially Congress, which Libby said “abrogated its responsibility for declaring war, turning it over to the president, and continuing to fund it.”
The 2,448 U.S. service members who were killed in Afghanistan and the more than 20,000 who were wounded top the list of losses for the U.S. More than 47,000 Afghan civilians and 66,000 military and police were also lost. The U.S. spent more than $1 trillion on the conflict, which was initially successful at driving the Taliban and al-Qaida from Afghanistan and ending the country’s time as a haven for terrorists. Ten years after the conflict began, the U.S. killed Osama bin-Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in neighboring Pakistan. Building a central government and an Afghan military proved much more daunting, and it turns out, fleeting.
In addition to growing fears that the Taliban will reinstate its hardline rules, preventing girls from attending school, for example, it may allow Afghanistan to once again become a base for planning and launching international terrorist attacks.
The U.S. stands to lose its moral standing if the thousands of Afghans who helped our military and diplomats aren’t evacuated from the country. If they are left behind, many are likely to be killed by the Taliban.
“I’m embarrassed that we’re leaving those people behind and I fear what they will face,” Libby said.
We all do. And, that’s why evacuating as many Afghan allies as possible should remain a priority as U.S. personnel leave Afghanistan, just as the U.S. did (also belatedly amid chaos) in Saigon.