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All aboard for a historical trip to Kabul’s possible future

All aboard for a historical trip to Kabul’s possible future

If I told you “I knew a man who knew some other men”, your first thought might be something out of “The Sopranos” or “The Godfather”. But I’d be speaking about the American officials in the last chaotic days of Saigon. It was there that Americans made their anguished departure – until that final iconic chopper lifting off from the roof of their embassy. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

By early April 1975, it was clear to everyone except the blind or delusional that the South Vietnamese government was in its death agonies and with it, the great anti-communist American military adventure in a nation that, in just the preceding half century had experienced World War II and a Japanese occupation, insurrection, guerrilla warfare against French and eventually building to building, door-to-door street fighting from Da Nang to Saigon. Regardless, putting the best possible face on things, the CIA and US Army Intelligence produced a report in March 1975 that continued to assert that South Vietnam could hold, at least, until 1976.

By 1975, after 30 years of support for the French and then South Vietnamese regimes as well as its own fighting across Indochina, the American military’s presence in Vietnam had fallen to a few thousand support and training troops, dropping from a peak of more than half-a-million men only a few years before. John Kennedy’s nation that would “pay any price, bear any burden” had come and gone. His successor, Lyndon Johnson was history. Richard Nixon and his “secret plan for peace” had crumbled to dust and Henry Kissinger, with his shared Nobel Peace Prize for an earlier Vietnam peace negotiation, was about to move on as well.

The massive anti-Vietnam War marches, rallies and protests had faded away – especially once the US military draft no longer terrified its young men, including this writer. The newest American president to confront the country’s Vietnam dream in its last moments was Gerald Ford, the country’s only appointed president, coming into office as a result of the debacle of the Nixon presidency.

By 1975, planning for the worst, the US embassy and the American military had completed a complex plan to evacuate the remaining military personnel, the embassy’s civilian staff, Americans working for dozens of media and NGO organisations, Vietnamese staffers at all these offices, and all those Vietnamese whose lives would certainly be at risk once the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) took over.  But ambassador Graham Martin insisted the evacuation planning must not panic the South Vietnamese military and civilians into turning on their erstwhile allies, the Americans.

Photo: As U.S. involvement in Vietnam comes to an end, President Ford meets with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Army Chief of Staff General Frederick Weyand, and Graham Martin, Ambassador to Vietnam in the Oval Office, March 25, 1975.

The advancing NVA and Viet Cong armies, encouraged by the South Vietnamese government’s frantic decision of a strategic withdrawal to husband its forces in an effort to hold the heavily populated zones while ceding control over the lightly inhabited mountains and central highlands to their opponents, quickly turned into a rout.

Soon enough, Saigon’s streets filled with frightened people, waiting for who knew what. The Vietnamese listed for evacuation began to queue for their transportation to waiting barges on the Mekong River and from there to an American naval flotilla off the Vietnam coast; or for the shuttles that would drive them to Tan San Nhut Air Force Base to board military cargo planes rigged for passengers, or chartered passenger jets, to safety. Readers may remember that horrific crash just after takeoff of a chartered plane packed with Vietnamese orphans, en route to families in America, eager to adopt them.

Some of the evacuation took place with, well, military efficiency. Many Americans, their Vietnamese dependents and staff flew out of the country in time. But for many others, the results were different. People missed buses, the buses were full, the buses didn’t arrive, and buses or the would-be passengers went to the wrong rendezvous coordinates. Others with quiet connections exercised at just the right moment, or through a well-placed, timely payment, squeezed ahead of those actually on the lists.

Soon enough, the crowd at the US embassy compound grew to thousands of panicked Vietnamese, desperate to get inside. Once word was out that the airport was virtually unusable as the enemy shelled it, the only way out seemed to be the helicopter evacuation from the embassy. By the time the evacuation ended, more than 110,000 people had been moved and, for most, on to the US itself. As recounted by Larry Thompson in “Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus – 1975-1982”, one embassy officer remarked to a military colleague that a crisis “brings out the best and worst” in people. The officer came right back with: “I’d put it differently. The pressure shows who the pricks are.” And another embassy officer, one of those men who knew some other men, also told Thompson “Only one episode marks me with embarrassment, rage, and shame and that is the final days of Vietnam.

“In the last couple days, I never woke up at my villa without a line of Vietnamese out front. I never went to my office without finding a line of people waiting to see me. Those scenes were some of the most wrenching of my life. Here were grown men falling on their knees begging me to get them and/or their families out. I kept saying that I couldn’t because we’d been instructed not to while other components of the embassy were using forged documents to do just that.

Photo: U.S. Navy personnel aboard the USS Blue Ridge push a helicopter into the sea off the coast of Vietnam in order to make room for more evacuation flights from Saigon. April 29, 1975 (AP Photo)

Eyewitnesses would later astonish their horrified audiences that as their helicopters rose over the city, through the rain squalls, they saw people fighting each other to force their way aboard the crowded boats in the river while military ammo storage dumps were blowing up and fires raged in the distance.”

By the time the evacuation finally shuddered to a halt on 29 April, there would be TV news footage of US Navy crews pushing the first-arriving helicopters over the sides of ships to make way for newer arrivals as refugees huddled in the shadow of the warships’ superstructures.

The last CIA message sent from the American Embassy read: “Let’s hope we do not repeat history. This is Saigon station signing off.” 

Years later, Henry Cabot Lodge, a former American ambassador to Saigon, one of the architects of America’s Vietnam War, a former Republican vice presidential candidate and a scion of the American establishment wrote his summary: “Was the United States engaged in an imperialist adventure far from our own shores? Or were we defending a small nation, pledged to democratic government from naked aggression? Did limitations placed on our use of military force keep us from a swift and decisive victory? Or were we engaged in a war that could not be won even with the most sophisticated and lethal weapons? Were the Vietcong freedom fighters seeking to liberate their country from centuries of foreign domination? Or were they simply terrorists, willing to use any means to gain power? Did the ultimate collapse of South Vietnam signify a loss of will on the part of the American people? Or were we fighting the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time?”

Photo: Afghan chiefs and a British Political Officer posed at Jamrud fort at the mouth of the Khyber Pass, taken by John Burke in 1878.

In the mountains of Afghanistan, 133 years earlier, an even more tragic military evacuation took place. Concerned about the threat of Russian encroachment on India from the north in the early days of “The Great Game”, a British Army entered Kabul for what they thought would be an easy regime change, replacing one emir with a more pliant, sympathetic one. Their 19th century version of “shock and awe” in 1839 included 9,500 soldiers of the Bengal Army, 9,000 Bombay or native troops and 38,000 followers who brought with them hordes of camels, horses and even a pack of hunting fox hounds. One brigadier general is noted to have used 60 camels to bring his personal belongings for this walk in the park.

Once they were ensconced in Kabul, the British formally declared “an end to the distractions by which, for so many years, the welfare and happiness of the Afghans have been impaired.” The British had entered Kabul to replace the then-Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammed, when he started to tilt towards the Russians, after first having been the UK’s man in Kabul. The British determined that warding off the Russians just north of the Pamir Mountains now required replacing Dost Mohammed with a still-earlier ruler, Shah Shuja, who had himself been forced from power before.

But Shah Shuja’s control of Kabul, let alone the surrounding countryside, was sufficiently dodgy that the British kept significant military forces in the country to bolster Shuja’s rule. But Shah Shuja didn’t want it to look like the British were in charge of his regime so the British were quartered in a 19th century version of the Green Zone, rather than the ancient but still-hard-to-attack fortress that overlooked the city. Not a good choice. And so, when the inevitable revolt broke out against Shuja’s rule, in January 1842, the British were forced into a retreat with 16,000 soldiers, camp followers, women and children struggling through the icy wasteland to reach the safety of Jalalabad.

Having survived Afghan snipers and the ice, just one man, assistant surgeon William Brydon, finally staggered into Jalalabad on a wounded horse, He had actually lost part of his skull to an encounter with an Afghan sword. The Afghans later claimed Brydon had been allowed to survive as a warning to the foreign invader: “Leave, and never return”. The British had tried to reach the more secure garrison at Jalalabad just 140km away. A few decades later, Rudyard Kipling would give future generations contemplating an entry to Kabul, or Kandahar, or Jalalabad, or Helmand, cautionary advice:

“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,

And the women come out to cut up what remains,

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,

And go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

By now, it is probably no longer necessary to describe the travails of every army that has tried to conquer – and hold – what is now Afghanistan, in a list that at  a minimum, includes Alexander the Great’s army, the Huns, the Persians, the Mongols, the Mughals, the British, the Russians and now, most recently, the Americans and their NATO colleagues.  But maybe no one learns from Afghanistan’s past anymore.

Photo: Taliban Islamic militia men celebrate the seizure of the Afghan capital inside the presidential palace September 27, 1996.

Fast forward, then, a hundred and fifty years after the British disaster, and consider the end game of the Soviet Union’s fairly recent intervention in Afghanistan. After nine years and the death of at least 13,000 Soviet troops (plus thousands upon thousands of Afghans), the Russians left President Najibullah in charge when Gen. Boris Gromov, the last commander of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, walked across the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan on Feb. 16, 1989, after 9 years and 50 days after Soviet troops first intervened.

Gromov told reporters from the Soviet Union, “There is not a single Soviet soldier or officer left behind me. Our nine-year stay ends with this,” this after an intervention that had brought 115,000 Russian troops into Afghanistan.

Of course, the departure of the Russians didn’t bring the fighting to an end either. Despite a wealth of Russian military assistance and supplies to Dr Najibullah’s government, that regime proved unable to resist the western-supplied, insurgent Mujahedeen (insurgents who, curiously, look very much like today’s Taliban) in the next few years.

Najibullah’s regime ultimately collapsed in the winter of 1992 when Kabul’s food and fuel supplies started to run out and the Taliban were about to enter Kabul. To salvage a collapsing situation, Najibullah stepped down and took refuge in the UN compound in Kabul. Regardless, the victorious Taliban captured him in September 1996, took him away, killed him and then hung his body – Mussolini-like – from a traffic signal. For the then-victors, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Rabbani, said about Najibullah, “He killed so many Islamic people and was against Islam and his crimes were so obvious that it had to happen. He was a communist.” 

Photo: Afghanistan’s former president Najibullah (L) and his brother Shahpur Ahmadzai are hanged at the Ariana square in Kabul, September 27, 1996, after it fell to the Taliban Islamic militia. Afghanistan’s Taliban Islamic militia said on Friday it had taken control of the capital Kabul and declared it would enforce an Islamic system in the country.

This time around, another foreign mililtary force has been in Afghanistan for close on seven years, and perhaps yet another end game is on the distant horizon. The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti recently wrote what may be the first media salvo pointing towards the next retreat from Afghanistan:

“No one right now is talking about the imminent fall of Kabul to the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan, now being confronted by well over a hundred thousand US troops, plus significant contingents from other nations. The real challenge, however, comes as the foreign forces are drawn down as they will be in the following year, as the local army is – or isn’t – sufficiently well trained, supplied, led and motivated to hold control of the capital.

“Now, it seems that American goals are becoming narrower still, with time dwindling before a military withdrawal is to begin next year, and frustration mounting at the war’s costs and at rampant corruption in the Karzai government. At the center of debate in Washington is a simple question: At this point, what can the United States really hope to achieve in Afghanistan?”

I spoke with some people who have worked in Kabul and they told me that when they were there it didn’t – yet – feel like what they have heard or read about Saigon in April 1975. To them, there was still time. Kabul must be like what Saigon was in 1971 when there were 500,000 American troops within a short helicopter gunship ride from any real trouble. That means the US still has time to sort out that evacuation scenario, if they need one. But that, of course, is still in a Kabul with many well-supplied, well-trained sets of foreign boots on the ground. The withdrawal will come – per President Obama’s plans – soon enough.

I was amazed to learn not so long ago that the Americans have not left the defence of their embassy and its surrounding compound entirely to their own troops, let alone to the local Afghan military. They went out and hired themselves a small army of Ghurkhas – you know, the very men who were the shock troops of the British Empire in every nasty spot around the globe for a century.

And of course, Billy Fish, in Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” was also a Ghurkha and he did his duty as he died, covering the escape of those two British adventurer-rogues, Peachy Carnahan and Daniel Dravot, from Kafiristan, a place Kipling, himself, had modelled closely on – where else? –  Afghanistan.

Swing back for a moment to Saigon. President Gerald Ford, the man who authorised the evacuation later wrote in his own memoirs: “The passage of time has not dulled the ache of those days, the saddest of my public life. I pray that no future American president is ever faced with the grim options that confronted me as the military situation on the ground deteriorates … mediating between those who wanted an early exit and others who would go down with all flags flying …running a desperate race against the clock to rescue as many people as we could before enemy shelling destroyed airport runways…followed by the heartbreaking realization that, as refugees streamed out onto those runways, we were left with only one alternative – a final evacuation by helicopter from the roof the US Embassy. We did the best we could; history will judge whether we could have done better.”

Indeed it will, and again. DM

For more, read The New York Times, Frank Snepp’s memoirs, The Times, Wikipedia, and many others.

Main photo: a North Vietnamese tank rolls through the gate of the Presidential Palace in Saigon, signifying the fall of South Vietnam, April 30, 1975. (AP)


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