Kabul: Memories of Saigon

The press, as expected, is comparing the capture of Kabul to the fall of Saigon forty-six years ago. Friends and colleagues have been contacting me with comforting words. And they’re right: the scenes of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan are terrifyingly similar to my memories of the North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam.

Most horrifying are the images of people killed at the airport as they try to attach themselves to aircraft taking off. People clung to airplanes only to fall to their death after the planes were in the air. Human remains have been found in compartments into which the landing gear retracted. How desperate must they have been to have taken such risks? How very like the way the South Vietnamese acted at Tan Son Nhat, the Saigon airport, as the North Vietnamese advanced.

It appears that President Biden was surprised by the speed of the Taliban seizure of Kabul. That makes me wonder if intelligence was ignored in Afghanistan as it was in Vietnam in 1975. I and other intelligence officers repeatedly warned that Saigon’s days were numbered as the North Vietnamese surrounded the city, but the U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, ignored us and assured Washington that the enemy had no intention of attacking Saigon. Washington accepted Martin’s version and made no effort to evacuate those of us still in Saigon as the North Vietnamese pressed forward until the pre-dawn hours of the day the city fell. That made the rout at the end all the more frantic.

The victorious North Vietnamese often killed members of the defeated armed forces and civilians rather than imprison them. More than two thousand men in an organization I had worked with were executed on the spot or sent to “re-education camps”—really concentration camps—where many more of them died. Are the Taliban equally vicious? Their history suggests that they are.

I spent thirty-five years in intelligence, and I developed great respect for the experts I knew in the field. They were rarely wrong but were often ignored by both military and civilian officials. It happened to me so often in Vietnam that I coined the term “Cassandra Effect”—being able to foretell the enemy’s next move but not being believed—to describe my dilemma.

More next time.

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