Is Kabul 'Biden's Saigon'? Images of chaotic exit evoke comparisons to retreat from Vietnam

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WASHINGTON – The image is hauntingly familiar: an American helicopter above an abandoned building in a war-torn capital as terrified citizens beg to be flown to safety.

It was Kabul on Sunday as President Joe Biden ended the Afghanistan war – and Saigon in 1975 at the close of the Vietnam War.

As photographs and video from Kabul race across the globe, more than a few lawmakers and foreign policy analysts began talking about "Biden's Saigon" – images of defeat that will haunt the president as he pursues a foreign policy based on the notion that "America is Back."

"This is Joe Biden’s Saigon," said Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., chair of the House Republican Conference. "A disastrous failure on the international stage that will never be forgotten."

Republicans weren't the only people to see parallels: “It does feel like the fall of Saigon today," Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., told MSNBC. "I’m not going to lie.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected the comparison in a series of talk show appearances – "this is manifestly not Saigon," he said on ABC's "This Week" – and argued that the United States has done its duty over two decades in Afghanistan.

"Remaining in Afghanistan for another one, five, 10 years is not in the national interest," Blinken said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

More: After two decades and billions spent, Afghan government collapses as Taliban takes Kabul

More: Biden sends 5,000 troops to Afghanistan as the Taliban captures key northern city

More: Defense secretaries in their own words: US 'invented reasons' to stay in Afghanistan

Some analysts said that what's happening in Afghanistan is far worse than what happened in Vietnam.

“It’s an absolute unmitigated disaster for our counterterrorism efforts,” said Brett Bruen, who was director of global engagement in President Barack Obama's White House.

Bruen said the withdrawal is "setting us back over two decades, into a position where you will see in the coming months increasing threats and, I fear, increasing attacks by extremist groups who are emboldened from what has taken place in Afghanistan.”

Kabul in 2021, Saigon in 1975

It's one of the most famous photos of the Vietnam era: A snapshot on April 29, 1975, of people on a rooftop in Saigon, lining up to board a U.S. chopper as the North Vietnamese prepared to roll into the city. That image hung over Biden officials for days as they constantly updated plans this month to evacuate U.S. Embassy personnel and local allies from Kabul.

Biden himself made reference to Saigon on July 8, saying the final withdrawal in Afghanistan would be much smoother: "There's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the – of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable."

On Sunday, users flooded social media with photos of a U.S. chopper in Kabul.

Critics said the fall of Saigon ushered in an era of foreign policy isolation for the United States. Allies came to doubt U.S. resolve in the Cold War, although it would be the Soviet Union that fell apart by the end of 1991.

A "Vietnam syndrome" permeated angry American debates over the use of military force, even as the United States acted to expel Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991.

Of course, the U.S. also led an invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, and it invaded Iraq in 2003 to depose Hussein. Both operations produced long-term costs that now include the Saigon-like evacuation from Kabul.

"Our foreign adversaries are emboldened, that being Russia, China, Iran," said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Biden administration rejects Saigon comparisons

Biden's advisers said staying in Afghanistan would have kept the United States in the middle of a civil war and Biden made the "hard decision" to end America's role there, despite warnings of the Taliban's resurgence.

In rejecting the Saigon comparison, Blinken told CNN the United States long ago accomplished the mission it set out to do in Afghanistan: rout al-Qaida, the terrorist group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, from its haven in Afghanistan.

Biden and his advisers have repeatedly said the Afghan security forces – backed up by more than $80 billion in U.S.-funded training and equipment – were better positioned militarily than the Taliban.

On Sunday, however, Blinken said the Afghan military apparently lacked the will to take on the insurgents.

“Unfortunately, tragically, they have not been able to defend the country," Blinken said. "And I think that explains why this has moved as quickly as it's moved.”

A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. Helicopters are landing at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound amid the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital.
A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. Helicopters are landing at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound amid the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital.

Torek Farhadi, a former adviser to the Afghan government, said many of the estimated 300,000 soldiers were on paper only. He said the U.S. effort to train the Afghan security forces – like so many other American endeavors there – was rife with corruption and failure.

“America funded schools that never materialized and paid soldiers who turned out to be ghosts,” he said. “People felt more and more disenfranchised – to such a degree that now the Taliban walk into some provinces without a shot being fired.

"Afghans aren’t rising up against the Taliban because the U.S.-backed Afghan government has not improved their lives.”

Vietnam and Afghanistan

To be sure, there are major differences between the withdrawals in Afghanistan and Vietnam.

The evacuation from Saigon took place more than two years after the signing of peace accords that ended American combat operations in Vietnam and led to the withdrawal of U.S. military forces.

The removal of personnel from Kabul took place as the United States was preparing to leave the country ahead of an Aug. 31 timeline Biden had set.

More: A timeline of the US withdrawal and Taliban recapture of Afghanistan

More: US Embassy in Kabul instructs Americans to 'shelter in place' amid reports of gunfire at airport

In 1975, President Gerald Ford and his administration took heat for not authorizing the American evacuation from Saigon quickly enough as the North Vietnamese approached the capital they would rename Ho Chi Minh City.

Biden and his aides are being criticized for underestimating the Taliban. Intelligence estimates – which catastrophically were faulty – predicted it would take months for the militant group to reach Kabul. But the Taliban's rapid advance forced the administration to scramble to get people out.

Politically, Ford did not suffer much for the failures in Vietnam. After all, direct U.S. involvement in the war had ended in 1973.

Ford, who took office when Nixon resigned in August 1974 over the Watergate scandal, faced a poor economy and other challenges when he lost the 1976 presidential race to Democrat Jimmy Carter. (The Congress of those years included a first-term senator from Delaware named Joe Biden.)

The political repercussions for the current president of today's chaotic exit remain to be seen.

Human rights activists urged the administration to evacuate Afghan allies who served with U.S. forces.

“If President Biden hoped to avoid a reprise of the fall of Saigon, his administration’s approach to evacuation is failing miserably,” said Jennifer Quigley, senior director for government affairs at the nonpartisan international organization Human Rights First.

Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, drew parallels to the American defeat there. U.S. leaders in both countries failed to understand the historic and cultural context in which they operated, he said, and sought to remake the government and military in the American image.

"I was in one of those wars in Vietnam," Hagel said. "We stayed too long there. And we stayed too long in Afghanistan. We just took over everything. We took over their economic structure, certainly their security and military."

'Vietnam on steroids'

Bruen, the Obama administration's director of global engagement, said what’s happening in Afghanistan is far worse than what happened five decades ago.

“This is Vietnam on steroids,” he said. “Biden was fixated on the symbolism of pulling our people out. He lost sight of the fact that the Afghans weren't ready and that our people weren't ready to pull up the stakes.”

Bruen blames what he believes is a national security team that is “too insular,” saying it failed to heed warnings about the Taliban's plans to retake the country. “They are, unfortunately, far too arrogant and not adapting to conditions on the ground, including in Afghanistan,” he said.

Marine Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, top commander for U.S. operations in the Middle East, told a Senate committee in April that he was concerned “about the ability of the Afghan military to hold on after we leave.”

But Biden, in early July, was defensive when reporters pressed him on the likelihood that the Afghan government would collapse.

Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan inevitable? Biden was asked.

“No, it is not,” he said.

Hadn’t his own intelligence community made that conclusion?

“That is not true,” he said.

Did he see any parallels between the withdrawal and what happened in Vietnam?

“None whatsoever. Zero,” Biden said. “The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese Army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability."

Daniel Davis, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army who served two combat tours in Afghanistan, said he is perplexed by what he said was a refusal by the administration to concede reality.

“This is worse than Saigon,” said Davis, who believes the U.S. should have withdrawn its forces years ago. In Afghanistan, he said, “we didn't even get the military out,” and Taliban fighters have taken control of the capital.

"You just can't sugarcoat this, and you just can't cover it up. I mean, it's blatantly there for anyone to see,” he said.

Davis said the Biden administration’s failure to anticipate the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan – "they were completely taken off guard by this" – serves as an exclamation point on two decades of U.S. miscalculations in the war under four presidents.

“There's got to be a reckoning here, because this has just exposed 20 years of lying,” he said.

Failures stretch back decades

Rosa Brooks, a Defense Department official in the Obama administration, tweeted in a long thread on Sunday that the Kabul withdrawal "almost certainly" could have been handled better.

"But," she added, "Biden is not wrong to think that whatever we did was probably just postponing the inevitable, at continued cost to the US.”

Like Davis, she argued that the U.S. failures in Afghanistan stretch back two decades and are rooted in years of American “cynicism, stinginess and self-delusion.”

“For 20 years, US military leaders pretended the Afghan military they were supposed to be building was far more capable and cohesive than they knew it to be,” wrote Brooks, who now teaches national security and international law at Georgetown University.

She added: "And US civilian leaders pretended to believe them, because it would have been too embarrassing for everyone to admit that we were screwing it up.”

Harry J. Kazianis, senior director at the nonpartisan Center for the National Interest, said Biden does not bear the entire blame for Afghanistan’s rapid collapse.

But criticism is justified for “the haphazard way in which U.S. forces left Afghanistan with very little thought to what happens after to the population we spent nearly two decades defending.”

“The collapse of Afghanistan will always be a stain on the Joe Biden presidency,” Kazianis said, “one that he will find nearly impossible to wash away.”

Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Images from Kabul draw comparisons to US exit from Saigon in 1975